In Zambia, Unnamed Roads Leave Residents of Unplanned Settlements Vulnerable to Crime

A new initiative in Zambia aims to connect the police with the public by providing direct phone lines to local police stations. But the phone numbers do little good when callers from unplanned settlements report crimes in progress – and police can’t find their homes.

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In Zambia, Unnamed Roads Leave Residents of Unplanned Settlements Vulnerable to Crime

Illustration by Maria Nguyen

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — When Astridah Bulala went to a police station to report a theft from her home, she saw a telephone number written on the notice board and copied it for future use.

It was a unique number for the station, so residents could call immediately instead of visiting in person.

Two years later, another theft occurred at Bulala’s house, in N’gombe township. She called the police using the number she’d written down, but they were unable to locate her home in time – her house is on an unnamed street.

“By the time the police located my place, the thieves had succeeded in stealing the television, and other electrical accessories in the living room were gone,” Bulala says.

To help reach citizens more effectively, Zambian police had previously established a toll-free phone number. People could call in an emergency for immediate local police intervention at their homes, but the system was abused by prank callers, says Esther Katongo, public relations officer for the Zambia Police Service.

This led some police stations to introduce phone lines that cost money – callers must have phone credit to reach the stations’ phone lines.

While these phone lines have provided the ability to reach police during an emergency, accessibility remains a problem: the majority of Lusaka residents live in unplanned settlements, on tracts of land not allocated or recognized by the city council. These settlements typically have no formal roads, or unnamed roads, so police can’t easily reach callers. Local police and city planners, though, say they’re working on legalizing the settlements, naming roads and further increasing service to citizens.

Connecting police and residents poses a major challenge: Zambia’s police service suffers from a lack of staff.

Police stations in Zambia have enabled station-specific phone numbers, so citizens can report crimes and get immediate assistance, which has helped curb crime. But many residents live in areas inaccessible to police.

Stephen Kampyongo, the Minister of Home Affairs of Zambia, says the country’s statistics show one officer for every 900 citizens, a figure that far surpasses the United Nations standard of one officer for every 450 citizens.

Katongo says the telephone line helps police access members of the public despite the staff deficit.

She says that although the earlier initiative to have a toll-free line was abused by people not in need of police services, the new telephone numbers are effective.

Last year in Zambia, Katongo says, reported cases of aggravated robbery decreased from 1,148 in 2016 to 984. Thefts stood at 15,015 in 2016 and fell to 14,615 last year.

There was an increase in murder cases, she points out, which grew from 787 in 2016 to 862 last year.

The phone numbers play a part in the reduction of some crimes, Katongo says, because police in some instances have been able to reach the scene of crime and make arrests while a crime was in progress.

While the police phone numbers may help reduce the instances of some crimes, residents whose homes are inaccessible to police find themselves particularly vulnerable.

Three months ago, Justina Mulenga, of Mtendere East township, had her vehicle’s tires, battery and side mirrors stolen because police could not locate her home.

“It is difficult to even give proper directions because the streets are not named. The police could not locate me, and the thieves managed to steal,” Mulenga says.

Katongo says residents try to give police directions using landmarks, and she acknowledges that police have a hard time getting to residents’ homes.

“We would like to curb crime, even up to zero rate. But sometimes we fail to locate people that are in need, because most of the places where crime is rife are inaccessible. There are no streets, and if there is a street, it is unnamed,” says Katongo.

That could change in coming years, says Chiyenge Sampa, assistant director of the Lusaka City Council City Planning Department.

Sampa says the council has begun work to legalize unplanned settlements, then upgrade them with formal roads and road names.

“We legalize these unplanned settlements first by name. The local city council recognizes the area, and we start the upgrade later,” Sampa says.

This is done in phases. He says Lusaka has 39 settlements that have been legalized but are yet to be upgraded.

During the upgrading, roads are the most important aspect to consider, he says.

“Crime is rife in such places because police cannot not easily access the crime scenes,” Sampa says.

He says that so far about 30 structures in Kanyama, a settlement in Lusaka, have been demolished to pave the way for road construction.

Katongo says upgrading the settlements will improve police service to communities.