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January 21, 2019

It will take a miracle to change the police force

FORWARD EVER: Kenya Police graduation at Kiganjo Police College
FORWARD EVER: Kenya Police graduation at Kiganjo Police College

This is from the Standard (as a direct quote because I do appreciate the use of ‘henceforth’): ‘President Uhuru Kenyatta on Thursday said that Public Service Vehicle owners will henceforth be held responsible for the conduct of their drivers. ‘

Colour me cynical, but I don’t quite see that happen. I had a hit and run with a matatu a few weeks ago. The matatu not only took my right of way and bashed the left side of my car (pole, ancient Merc), but the matatu crew climbed off and asked me for money (‘You must be smoking crack’ – me). Then they put a cloth over their number plate and drove off. I managed to pull off the cloth and chased them up Wayaki Way and took pictures of the bus and the number plate. Then I reported the incident to the police.

It took about three weeks of regular pestering to get the police report. The police man who took my report said that they would have the matatu the next day, but no such thing happened. In fact, I regularly saw it driving up and down Wayaki Way. I had to resort to some elaborate spy work by people who knew people who worked somewhere who knew people until we managed to track down the chairman of the matatu sacco (one of the bigger ones, too, with a whole bunch of big yellow buses on the road). Mr Chairman eventually put us in touch with the actual matatu owner, who was also, let’s say, recalcitrant. Eventually owner filed a report with the police himself which, I understand, technically avoided him being liable for a hit and run. Miraculously, this was also when I was eventually given the police report. Now, finally, the matter is with the insurance companies.

This is, of course, nothing special – happens every day, all the time, to lots of people. And as much as I am attached to the ancient Merc, it was just material damage. No injuries, no loss of life. Nothing remotely on the scale of the deadly accidents that occur so regularly. In fact, Mr Kenyatta’s ‘henceforth’ statement was made after the horrific accident in which 41 people died.

Maybe I had been lucky and found a reasonably helpful police officer, at least to report the incident. I’ve certainly read very different tales of people who tried to report incidences (and they usually reported them not because they anticipated that the police would help, but because they needed the police report for insurance purposes) and had been harassed and/or hit on for ‘tea’ during the process. Or maybe it helped that I had taken one of the guys from my very wonderful breakdown cover company along.

But the police didn’t set off to find the matatu. Nor was there any easy way of tracking them down. I felt nostalgic for my over-regulated motherland where a number plate will have you tracked down pretty much instantly if you do something wrong. PEV-suspect-style shoulder shrugging plus ‘wasn’t me’ will get you exactly nothing but a raised eye brow and an order to then cough up the details of the actual driver if you don’t want to be held liable. It’s astonishing if you think about it: The vast, vast majority of Nairobi’s (Kenya’s?) public transport system drive like murderous hooligans, and there’s no simple, easily accessible register to track them down if you need to hold them accountable.

But of course there are underlying economics at work. The Nation recently shone a spotlight on it in an article that described how a senior police officers deposited an average of KES300,000 a day (a day! That beats even MPs rapacious-beyond-belief salaries) into his bank account. The article states: ‘The syndicate involves leaders of various matatu saccos who collect the money from their members and pass it on to the policemen. As a result, unserviceable and unroadworthy vehicles as well as those carrying excess passengers and goods are allowed to operate freely while those speeding are ushered through police roadblocks, often with disastrous consequences.’

And this is a web of corruption that runs through the entire police service, bottom to top, starting with junior officers at roadblocks, junctions and roundabouts: ‘The money moves up the chain of command rapidly and officers who prove uncooperative are transferred’. And of course there are other elements to this, including the Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit simply being paid off to ignore that a matatu doesn’t meet standards.

So henceforth? Henceforth nothing. Nothing will change unless you transform those institutions. But even if, and that’s a very big if, you manage to find people who are truly dedicated to reforming those institutions, it will take years. And such a person might simply not survive the task – figuratively or literally. You can expect people depositing KES300,000 a day to not just let go and say ‘yeah sorry, won’t do it again. Unfortunate lapse of judgment’. The reason why many people will keep dying in traffic accidents is because it’s big business. Very big business.

PS: The Nation article also mentions a ‘slash fund’, which reminds me to remind you that the StoryMoja Hay Literature Festival is happening at the Museum this weekend. Bring your children so that they can pick up some books, read, learn more words and, henceforth, avoid writing things like ‘slash fund’. This is more achievable than traffic police reform. Do your bit!



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