Jerry Okungu: How Big Fish Abet Traffic Snarl-Ups - The Star

A few years ago, as a Mozambican government driver drove me across the streets of Maputo, a local "matatu" driver suddenly stopped in front of us causing a near accident. Had it not been for the fact my driver knew his type's behaviour, we would definitely have hit the van.

But what has remained ingrained in my memory is what my driver said to me thereafter. He asked me if such drivers existed in my country and if they behaved as badly as their Maputo counterparts.

When I confirmed his suspicion, he quipped that he sometimes wondered if all "matatu" drivers were born by the same mother! For how else could anyone explain why they behave the same way in Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Kampala, Maputo or Nairobi.

I recalled this incident as the matatu madness ushered Kenyans in to the New Year with a strike. As usual they planned it to coincide with the first day of work and opening of schools for maximum impact on helpless commuters.

The message of the strike was clear and simple. Whenever industry feels aggrieved by the traffic police, its members will always resort to punishing their soft targets; commuter and schoolchildren.

They never take on their real adversaries, the police, because such people hardly feel their frustrations. The matatu menace is an evil that has come about due to the failures of our governors. The mess and mayhem punitively meted out by matatu operators on a daily basis on our roads is a culmination of years of lawlessness and impunity that has taken root in our entire social fabric.

Here in Kenya, I have always felt embarrassed to see a government driver ferrying a senior official, mostly a minister or a PS, committing multiple acts of traffic offences and getting away with it in the pretext that the government official is late for a meeting!

If government drivers carrying police officers can flout traffic rules with abandon; overtake on the wrong side, drive over pavements and road shoulders and even block oncoming traffic , what message are they sending to matatu touts and drivers that never went to school?

As I spent two hours a few weeks ago one evening driving to my house just two kilometres from Nairobi city centre, I watched in amazement how a police vehicle carrying a number of officers decided that it was no longer necessary to be patient like all the other motorists caught up in the 7 pm snarl-up on Nyerere Avenue.

The police driver chose to overtake all vehicles ahead and in the process blocked oncoming vehicles causing a gridlock.

But even before the driver indulged in this act of stupidity, the police officers sitting at the back were happily puffing away their cigarettes as they obliviously threw away cigarette bats onto motorists behind them; never mind that smoking in public vehicles was outlawed in Kenya several years ago.

The failure of our systems has allowed the police to be a law unto themselves. You give the force the traffic rules to enforce but instead, with the full knowledge of their bosses, they make the law a tool to exploit an equally lawless citizenry.

This jungle life has taught the matatu driver and his tout one thing; that they don't need to obey any traffic rule. They will overload their vehicles in the knowledge that the traffic police will turn a blind eye as long as their hands are greased. They will speed and even kill in the knowledge that nobody will charge them with reckless driving or murder.

In Nairobi, a city with less than 4 million people, we have failed to provide a fast, safe and efficient public transport system as we have seen elsewhere in other cities around the world. We have instead surrendered to the uncultured and ill-mannered matatu operators.

These are the drivers who can change lanes five times in a minute irrespective. Yet as they do this, the traffic police are there right in front, of them either chatting away or busy talking on their mobile phones. This is the scene on Kenyan roads all over the country.

Yes, let us name, shame and even arrest and punish the policemen and women who cause traffic jams and take bribes on our roads.

But in the same vein, let us also name, shame and even punish public service vehicle criminals that annoy, bully and even murder us daily on our roads! Let's banish lawlessness from our roads.

The writer is a media consultant.

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One Response to Jerry Okungu: How Big Fish Abet Traffic Snarl-Ups - The Star

Joseph said...

Your article is spot on.

Traffic management in Kenya is just a mess. I do not even think traffic officers on the road are trained.

Government and parastatal vehicle drivers feel they have a right of way; and it is not only on the roads, even at KRA you will find officers, especially uniformed, feel they should get priority first.

Our country needs massive change to inculcate a culture of respect for others.