Police in Zimbabwe: Helping Hand or Iron Fist?

In response to public protests against a drastic increase in fuel prices in January 2019, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) were joined by the army in a brutal crackdown that resulted in at least 15 deaths, 340 injured, and more than 1,000 arrests. Just months earlier, the police were found responsible, along with the military, for the deaths of six people in the aftermath of the 2018 election, according to a commission of inquiry. Given the ZRP’s history as a tool of ruling-party power under former President Robert Mugabe, how do the Zimbabwean people perceive their police? Previous Afrobarometer analysis has shown that playing a central role in Operation Murambatsvina, the state’s brutal 2005 clearing of selected urban areas in a bid to repress independent economic activity and dissent, cost the police dearly in terms of popular legitimacy. This dispatch, based on Afrobarometer survey data from 1999 through mid-2018, tracks improvements, after the damaging effects of Operation Murambatsvina, in citizens’ trust in the police, perceptions of police corruption and performance in reducing crime, and support for the right to enforce the law. The latest Afrobarometer surveys were conducted before the bloody suppression of post-electoral and fuel-hike protests, and we do not contend that attitudes toward the police that prevailed in mid-2018 continue to prevail today. Instead, we raise the question whether observed improvements in public perceptions of the police could be lost through ZRP participation in political repression.