Anti-Panyaroad Operation: Why Makala’s 'find them in hospital' statement can lead to extrajudicial killings

Mbeya Regional Commissioner Amos Makalla

What you need to know:

  • Mr Makala also seems oblivious of the fact that there are thug-looking teenagers who are actually well-meaning and who have never engaged in crime

There has been a resurgence of crime in Dar es Salaam. It involves gangs of juvenile delinquents who call themselves panya road and who vandalize homes at night, robbing people of their cash and other valuables. In many instances they left behind a trail of death and injury.

female University of Dar es Salaam student, Maria basso (24), was one of their latest high profile victims. Her death in the early hours of September 14 prompted a strong reaction from various quarters including from Parliament where the Speaker, Dr Tulia Ackson, urged the government to do something about it.

The new wave of crime follows a brief hiatus of a few months of calm. Panya road terrorized the city in last months of 2021 and early in 2022.

Combined efforts of the Police and local government authorities seemed to have nipped the crime surge in the bud. The police made arbitrary arrests of suspects and local authorities re-established the mandatory Ulinzi Shirikishi’ (participatory community policing) initiatives.

But the current resurgence of crime shows that these efforts were inadequate and that the root cause of the problem was not dealt with adequately.

For one arbitrary arrest of suspects can end up being a waste of time as it can loop in even the innocent. Ulinzi Shirikishi entailed participation of at least one member from each family in night patrols or contributing monthly ‘security fees.’ Many families opted to pay the contribution.

But there was little or no accountability on these contributions. The payment of the fees was also not an insurance against crime as house break-ins continued. The whole exercise became unattainable and many stopped paying.

While most cities in the world are prone to crime the Dar es Salaam situation is unique.

The age and the modus operandi of panya road gangs points to a very strange phenomenon in the society. Some of these gang members are in their early teens. They randomly attack homes or business premises in a group of 20 or 30 wielding machetes, knives, metal bars and so forth.

They attack compounds, sometimes after having cordoned off poorly accessible streets. They then take their time breaking-in in one home after another. Their sheer number can make it difficult for the victims to call for help. They attack in large numbers indeed!

Now this resurgence of crime in Dar es Salaam and the seemingly lack of a coherent strategy to tackle it has, understandably, left regional authorities and city fathers freaking. The operational inadequacy of the Tanzania Police Force which has led to calls for its overhaul from as high up as the presidency hasn’t helped matters.

It is in this context that the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Amos Makala issued a statement that is dangerous and which he might come to regret one day.

Announcing the start of a special anti-panya road operation at public rally at Zingiziwa Chanika in Ilala District on September 15, 2022 Mr Makala warned parents of panya road gang members to check their children or else they should go to look for them in police stations or hospitals.

“Warning! Parents who find their teenagers missing should go look for them at police stations or in hospitals... I repeat. Any parent who finds his or her teenager missing today or is missing since yesterday [September 14] when the operation started should rush to a police station or in hospital. And a major hospital at that; Mwananyamala, Temeke, Amana or Muhimbili… I am serious... And I have already directed the Police. We have to fulfill our responsibilities,” Mr Makala said amidst applause from the public.

As he addressed the rally it was vivid that Mr Makala is under enormous pressure from the public and from his bosses to end the new wave of crime. Moreover it was also clear that he is more than determined to deal with the panya road issue in whichever means possible. It is commendable that he announced the deployment of additional 300 uniformed and plain clothes police officers in the city streets to help in the anti-panya road operation.

This, notwithstanding, his statement that ‘parents should go to look for their teenagers in hospitals’ shouldn’t pass unnoticed.

The statement is dangerous. What yardsticks would be used by the Police to send these young suspects to hospital? Torture? Shoot on sight? Acting in self-defiance? Mr Makala did not expound on that.

The statement might have unintended consequences as far as extra judicial killings is concerned. Rogue elements in the Police Force might construe it as a coded message that allows them to unleash their “thing.” Just like many other Police Forces in the world Tanzania has a problem with extra judicial killings by trigger happy police officers who are usually bad elements in the force. It was telling that Mr Makala repeatedly and generally referred to the juvenile suspects as ‘teenagers.’ It’s like he put all teenagers in one categorical basket. But the truth is that not all teenagers in the city engage in crime. Also, it’s not only the youngsters who engage in crime. Media reports indicate the presence of crime gangs of young adults and adults as well. Why only referring to “teenagers”? Should all parents with teenagers start worrying?

That way of framing societal categorizations can have negative impact in the way officers spontaneously react in the line of fire. And the term ‘teenagers’ could be the catch word in their minds.

Mr Makala also seems oblivious of the fact that there are thug-looking teenagers who are actually well-meaning and who have never engaged in crime. Some of them dress that way just to go along with current fashion. Those who come from poor backgrounds in less fortunate neighbourhoods look ‘guilty’ because they adorn in ragtag attires. They can’t afford to look ‘polished’ like teenagers from leafy suburbs. It will be very disheartening, and can even lead to a serious public uproar, if and when innocent teenagers become collateral damage and end up in the wards or mortuaries of “major hospitals” just for the sake of fighting crime.

It is interesting that in the same public rally Mr Makala noted that in the arrests made during the previous crime wave early this year not all 86 suspects were found guilty by courts of law. Some of them were found to be innocent and were released.

This shows that unless it is for self-defense, giving law enforcement agents too much leeway on the use of force can lead to unprecedented cases of police violence against suspects.

While there is a lot of pressure for Mr Makala to deliver there is also a need to appreciate the fact that dealing with crime involves walking a tight rope. That is why a great deal of intelligence gathering, investigation and strategic and tactical maneuvering is necessary. Was this properly done during the first panya road wave? No one seems to know the answer. There is also a fine line between cracking hard on crimes and protecting the basic human rights of criminals. Care should be given on statements that can easily sound, to bad elements in the Police Force, as ‘dog whistles.’

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Damas Kanyabwoya is a journalist and a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam. He’s available at [email protected] His Twitter handle is @DKanyabwoya