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Key findings
  • Almost half (46%) of Malawians say they felt unsafe at least once while walking in their neighbourhood during the previous year, while one-third (32%) say they feared crime in their home at least once. Frequent experiences of insecurity have increased since 2017.
  • Among citizens who requested help from the police during the previous year, 62% say it was difficult to get the assistance they needed, and 40% say they had to pay a bribe.
  • Fewer than three in 10 Malawians (28%) say the police “often” or “always” operate in a professional manner and respect citizens’ rights.
  • A majority of citizens say the police at least “sometimes” stop drivers without good reason (59%), use excessive force when managing protests (58%) and when dealing with suspected criminals (58%), and engage in criminal activities (58%).
  • More than four in 10 citizens (42%) say “most” or “all” police are corrupt, the worst rating among 11 institutions/officials the survey asked about. But perceived police corruption has decreased by 12 percentage points since 2017.

Demands for a professional and accountable police service in Malawi have led to a number of reforms since the country’s democratisation in 1994, reorienting the force from political control to community service (Nyirongo, 2021; Buliyani, 2022; Monjeza, 2021; Masiye, 2021). Mindful that the police played a central role in suppressing human freedoms during 31 years of authoritarian rule, Malawians expect a police service that is consistent with the modern democratic context.

Yet complaints of police brutality and corruption continue. Public protests against the conduct of the 2019 election revealed fractured relations between the police and the citizenry, including accusations of politicisation of the service and use of excessive force; it was left to the Malawian Defence Force to manage the protests (Kuwali, 2022; Kanyongolo, 2022). Charges of corruption have reached the service’s highest echelons, as the country’s police chief was relieved of his duties and arrested in June on suspicion of involvement in corrupt procurement practices (Chimjeka, 2022). In early December, the arrest and harassment of the director general of the Anti-Corruption Bureau led to allegations of police collaboration with corrupt government officials and drew the anger of many Malawians (Kayuni, 2022).

In April, after Afrobarometer released results of its 2022 survey showing that the police are more widely viewed as corrupt than other key state institutions, the Malawi Police Service (2022) issued a statement acknowledging corruption challenges and indicating that the service has been working to improve its professionalism and image.

This dispatch reports on findings of a special survey module included in the Afrobarometer Round 9 (2022) questionnaire to explore Malawians’ experiences and assessments of police professionalism.

Overall, citizens are quite critical of the police. Fewer than three in 10 think the police usually operate in a professional manner and respect human rights. A majority say the police stop drivers without good reason, use excessive force, and engage in criminal activities, at least “sometimes.” Popular trust in the police is fairly low amid perceptions that many officers are involved in corruption. Many citizens report having to pay bribes to get police assistance or avoid problems with the police.

Amid increasing feelings of insecurity, citizens continue to give the government poor marks on crime reduction.

Joseph Chunga

Joseph J. Chunga is the national investigator for Malawi.