The toll from road accidents in December has been horrific, with news reports chronicling the numbers of those killed, the horrendous injuries and the resultant traffic snarl-ups. Each dead person is a parent, a child, or a sibling of someone, and the impact of the hundreds killed is massive. Kenya already has one of the worst records in road safety, and December only served to confirm our ranking.
We have wringed our hands in despair, and offered prayers for comfort for those killed and injured. And we have sought reasons for this wanton loss of life.
Yet the answers are simple. It has everything to do with corruption, bribery and extortion by the police, and worse, the culture of impunity that has engulfed Kenya.
We all know that traffic stops are not about “un-roadworthy” vehicles, or overloaded trucks or speeding buses as it is about the police or the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) staff getting “something.”
Yes sometimes, genuine summons and tickets are issued, but often only after the driver refuses to part with a suitable bribe.
We have been there when vehicles are stopped by the police and every effort is made to find fault, even creating non-existent standards for fire extinguishers.
Or when drivers’ licenses are said to be defective because they look old and frayed as they do after a year in a pocket!
We have seen the easy handover of cash from matatu and bus drivers to stern looking policemen or policewomen.
We have seen drivers overlapping when there is a traffic jam, presuming that those on the line are either stupid, or have no urgency. Some may indeed have genuine urgent emergencies that warrant overlapping, but it can’t be all those other cars that follow the lead of one driver.
Because of the culture of corruption and impunity, the overlapping drivers know the most that can happen if they get stopped by the police is to part with that spare Sh100 or Sh200.
It would be way too simplistic and ineffective to think that focusing on the police officers and NTSA staff on the roads will solve the problem. For again, we know that there is a chain of command thing going on here with the foot soldiers on roads giving upwards till it gets to the top.
And the problem is not just with the police and NTSA. For as long as corruption thrives and it is impossible to tell how someone can build a house for Sh1.2 billion, corruption will thrive.
As long as hotels are “sold” cheap to powerful people, the police will take bribes. As long as ranches are somehow privatised and then fenced and guarded by police with no clarity about how the ownership came about, our police will act with impunity.
As long as it is clear that the SGR cost three times what it cost Ethiopia and there is no accountability, then the NTSA will seek “kitu kidogo.” As long as the NYS scandal goes unresolved, and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission gives clearances to those favoured and builds pathetic cases against powerful people, while ignoring major scandals like the Eurobond, then deaths on the roads will continue.
It is not enough to cry crocodile tears and appeal to the Gods when our people are being slaughtered on the roads. And it is not enough to make illogical directives about travel at night for Public Service Vehicles when the rich and powerful corrupt get away scot free.
We have a crisis and little regard for the lives of those who have to use public transport. We could start by eliminating all the permanent traffic roadblocks — such as the Nyali Bridge one in Mombasa — which are simply cash cows rather than safety mechanisms, the way Georgia did.
We could also get Parliament to stop instituting the huge fines and jail sentences for every infraction pretending that this will deter offenses, when they know that it only increases the size of the bribe.
And we could start by showing serious political will to end grand corruption beyond the rhetoric. But this may be impossible for a regime built on the foundations of corruption and impunity.