The official response by the Zambia Police (ZP) to the recent incident involving Constable Spider Ngoma brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle at Mazabuka Member of Parliament Mr Garry Nkombo and his wife leaves much to be desired. ZP spokesperson Esther Mwaata Katongo in an official press release says the police command was “… impressed by the level of discipline and restraint the attacked officer displayed under extreme provocation”. Really?

Furthermore, she asserted that the officer was within the law to insist on searching Mr Nkombo’s vehicle because of recent “… heinous crimes committed in Chilanga District”. And in a thickening plot, Mr Nkombo is likely to be charged with assaulting Constable Ngoma who has reported that he was beaten. A few questions to ponder:

1. If indeed Constable Ngoma was assaulted, roughed up or threatened, why didn’t he simply arrest the perpetrator (Mr Nkombo) on the spot and take him into custody? Is it believable that an officer with an AK-47 rifle can be assaulted and he just walks away, gun in hand, and goes to sleep? And did he report the alleged assault the same night or the following morning?

2. Why did the police quickly conclude that Constable Ngoma was the one in the right even before investigations were completed? What is the point of such an investigation if its outcome is already pre-determined and big press statements already issued?

3. Is it proper for the police to issue strong warnings against beating officers on duty when that very issue is still in contention in Constable Ngoma’s case?

4. Why should any rational person believe Constable Ngoma’s report when he was clearly drunk and his recollection of events is therefore suspect?

5. Was he capable of making sound judgments on anything while intoxicated?

The assertion that the police have the right to search a car just because there has been an increase in murders in Chilanga is totally nonsensical, to put it mildly. As a lawyer friend of mine explained to me, laws and judicial precedent on searches are fairly objective in that the officer, after taking into account the circumstances and relevant facts known to him at the time, must have a reasonable basis to search a particular vehicle and that basis must be based on something concrete and not some vague appeal to increased criminal activity.

For example, if there is an exponential increase in thefts of TVs in Emmasdale, should the police stop and search any car anyhow in the area (or nearby) for stolen TVs? What would stop officers simply invoking any other general thing based on some kind of increased crimes to search and harass citizens?

I am told by the legal brains that courts have consistently ruled that searches must be backed by something concrete. For example, if Constable Ngoma had earlier on received a radio communication telling him to look out for a vehicle matching Mr Nkombo’s description, he would have been correct and reasonable in his search. Or if he heard banging noises or screaming coming from inside Mr Nkombo’s vehicle, it would make perfect sense to conduct a search. Another example is blood dripping from the vehicle.

The police themselves have said that they are empowered to search a vehicle according to Section 23 of the Criminal Procedure Code, Chapter 88 which says that “…Police officers are at liberty to stop, search and detain any vessel, aircraft or vehicle in or upon which there is reason to suspect that anything stolen or unlawfully obtained maybe found”. So what reason did the officer have to suspect that something was stolen or unlawfully obtained? And from what I can tell, there were no other concrete or compelling factors in the case at hand.

It has been argued that it is impossible to tell that Constable Ngoma was drunk since he was not tested for alcohol. However, this argument fails because he said he wanted to search the vehicle because it looked “heavy loaded”, when in fact it was empty at the back, as the video recorded by Mrs Nkombo revealed. Any sober police officer can surely tell the difference between a “heavy loaded” vehicle and an empty one.

It seems to me that the police will defend their officers to the hilt, regardless of any wrong-doing, as long as they can get away with it. It seems they will continue to be unprofessional and give lame excuses to justify the indefensible. It appears that they could possibly go as far as publicly lying to save face.

Recent events such as careless wanton teargassing of people, torturing murder suspects in the Ruth Mbandu court case to force a fake confession out of them, the unresolved death of Mapenzi Chibulo or the very suspicious death of a Zambia Air Force officer in police custody suggest that the police are becoming trigger happy. It seems they know they will be backed up whenever things go wrong.

In a more civilized nation, there would have been an apology from the police to Mr Nkombo and Constable Ngoma would be on suspension pending completion of investigations. In a more civilized nation, the police officers who tortured the two suspects in the Ruth Mbandu case would have been immediately fired and charged with assault after the courts threw out the forced confessions and acquitted the suspects.

Much as the behaviour of Constable Ngoma was reprehensible, there was no need for Mr Nkombo to have a confrontation with a drunk man carrying a dangerous weapon. There was also no need to tell the officer that he would lose his job the following day. One hopes that it was just in the heat of the moment that the agitated Honourable said what he said.

The better course of action was to disarm the drunk Constable Ngoma with the help of others, effect a citizen’s arrest and immediately take him to the nearest police station to have a Breathalyzer test done on him and report him to relevant authorities for gross misconduct.

I really fear for this nation when people in uniform become a law unto themselves with little to no consequences for their misconduct. Will it have to take someone being shot dead by a drunk officer for things to change?

NOTE: Originally published in The Voice newspaper on 31st March 2017.

Nkombo assaulted Constable Ngoma – Police