Zimbabwe has a cable thief problem. Over the last couple of months and years, we have had numerous incidents of telephone cooper and ZESA electricity cables. These acts of vandalism have led to entire suburbs losing power and communication. TelOne in particular, which has the monopoly on ADSL copper connections has been the most affected but so has been ZESA which has also been a victim of other forms of vandalism. It is therefore understandable that there is widespread frustration in government as they try to look for a solution.

According to various sources, one such solution is to have cable thieves shot on site. In fact, according to these publications, President Mnangagwa recently revealed that the government was in the process of crafting legislation that would allow the police to shoot cable thieves on site. To be clear I cannot seem to find the original speech upon which the articles from Pindula and ZimEye are relying upon in their reporting. I can therefore not say with certainty that President Mnangagwa said such a thing because apart from a discussion on the evils of cable theft in both articles I cannot there are not other details as to what the president said, under what circumstances and when. All we have is this:

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said the government is crafting legislation to allow law officers to shoot to kill all who will be seen stealing copper cables.

He added that if the thieves are caught alive, they will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Article on Pindula covering the issue

Such a law would be ineffective and unlawful

Something that escapes a lot of people and Zimbabweans, in particular, is the fact that the government’s power is not limitless even when governments try to behave like it is. I am not a lawyer by profession but even I can tell you that there will be no such law. The government may introduce stiffer prison sentences for cable theft but that’s just about it. They cannot make a law that would allow the police to carry out what would be essentially extra-judicial killings.

As I said, I am not a lawyer and yet I know that. President Mnangagwa on the other hand is a lawyer who was actually in charge of Justice and Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Literary the dude in charge of crafting and pushing laws in Zimbabwe so he would certainly know that the Zimbabwean government cannot make such a law. The closest they could come would be maybe to make it some unofficial policy like the one the Philippines have against drug dealers under President Duterte. Even that has proven ineffective in stopping drug dealing as it doesn’t address underlying issues. Not only that, Zimbabwe’s president is so opposed to the death penalty he has a de facto moratorium on executions of actual murderers on death row, it is doubtful he would be OK with summary executions of cable thieves.

So where are these reports coming from? It’s probable the president was commenting on a recent incident where cable thieves were shot as they tried to evade the police. He might have made some off the cuff remarks on the issue and remarked on the need for stiffer sentences but again, a law allowing the police to shoot cable thieves would be bizarre, unprecedented and certainly unconstitutional. It would be hard to see that passing through even the Zimbabwean parliament.

How to reduce cable theft effectively without shooting people

There are better strategies to tackle cable theft:

  • TelOne should really stop using cooper cables. This is 2022 and not 1998. Coopper is slow, expensive, unwiedly and cannot serve a lot of customers. They should be investing more into fibre. The thing with fibre is that it has very little to no resale value outside the communications sector unlike coopper which has so many other uses. Unfortunately switching to fibre is not a foolproof process. There has been incidents where fibre cables are damaged by TelOne with thieves still thinking the fibre section has coopper which they can steal.
  • Use of drones and other monitoring technologies to patrol and combat cable theft. One reason why the ZRP and authorities are struggling in Zimbabwe is that they are so many stupid laws the police are bogged down enforcing these laws they have little time left to do actual useful police work. Case in point are exchange rate, kombi ban, vendor ban and pricing regulations. The police spent so much time chasing everyone they have little resources to spare to cable theft.
  • Engage the communities to help. Make sure you make the community understand how cable theft harms them and ask for their help.
  • Fix the economy. Most cable thieves are just poor people trying to make a living. Even though the Zimbabwean government through its Finance Minister likes to pretend like everything is on track the truth cannot be further from the truth. ZIMSTAT has published stats since 2017 which clearly show that more people are living in poverty than before the “second republic” became a thing.