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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Giving that Bribe Makes the World Go Round - Only in Africa

The eight-lane superhighway is taking shape! These are the words that swam in my brain as my matatu (minibus) rattled Nairobi-Thika Road, a road which has so far been known for its unenviable reputation of making commuters whine to no one in particular as they sit and yawn in heavy traffic for hours and hours.

I had no reason to whine, but I yawned in satisfaction at the sight of a road that once completed, will definitely increase the number of vehicles moving up and down the route currently estimated to host 70,000 vehicles a day. The figures will double. Perhaps.

But yes. The multi-billion shillings project to expand the route from a four to eight-lane is looking north. And the route has become sort of a tourist attraction site for most Kenyans. And why not. After all, this is gonna be the first superhighway of its kind in this part of the world. And may be Kenya's ministry of tourism should look into generating some income from the road under the tag of "domestic tourism."

Personally, am enthralled by the way the thing is coming out. The Chinese are definitely working. Everything looks super. The highway itself, the earth-moving machinery, the potential flyovers and underpasses, the ample road-space, and even the names of the construction companies (China Wuyi, Sino Hydro and China Shangli.)

So my journey from Nairobi to my friends home via Thika road was busy enough, at least for my eyes. I kept on swinging my head from left to right (and even back and forth to preview and review the construction), lest I miss a sight to behold. At some point, I even forgot that the music that was keeping my ear busy had stalled. I was in no hurry to fix this though. Again, lest I miss a super sight.

Now that everything must always come to an end - unfortunately on this one - my adventure did reach an end. There was no more construction towards the end of my tunnel. I was rather disappointed, but consoled myself saying, "there's always a journey back."

And what a journey back I had! Fast rewind to two months past, then forward to last weekend when I had gone to visit the same colleague, used the same matatu, plied the same route and kept everything routine, from looking sideways to munching biscuits, to salivating at the sight of my neighbour's yammy-looking cake. On both journeys from Thika back to Nairobi, I noticed something so terrible - may be not - about a group of people in Kenya known at times for sheer brutality, taking what they have not worked for nor deserve, accusing people of "crimes" like looking at a government building suspiciously, wearing patriotic fronts, or pot bellies, and of course, kukula mlungula. I'll explain.

If you still don't know who these guys are, it's the Kenya traffic police.

A cold chilly morning could not deter these gentlemen and ladies in blue from getting to work. "What an industrious police force we have in our sovereign nation," you might conclude. But alas! The early bird catches the worm(s). The early policeman/woman catches even better and more worms (matatu bribes) at close of "business."

In both journeys, everything was routine. I got on to the vehicle, looked for a seat near a beautiful lady or a savvy-looking gentleman (reason being that shaggy men from that side smell cigarettes - and perhaps the less beautiful women as well), plunged the headsets on my ears, put on my safety belts, and zoom...

A few minutes into the road, this policeman ushers my so-far moderately-speeding, traffic-rules observing driver to stop by the roadside. My driver obliges. A different hungry-looking guy in blue, whose turn has come or perhaps has not gotten his share of the morning matatu-cake, comes towards the conductor's seat, opens his palm tactfully, the conductor hands over 50 shillings (about 60 US cents) through a small opening in the window, and, problem solved. The vehicle had apparently flouted some traffic rules, and according to the traffic laws, the offender was supposed to part way with a bribe.

At this point, my face goes into an awe-struck moment, but I shrug off the incident. Zoom... the vehicle drives past. Having lost a quarter of the fare one passenger is supposed to pay for the drive to town, the conductor stares at me suggestively. It's time to return the favour. I hand over the fare in different notes of one 100 shilling and two 50s, the latter which my conductor rolls into a round shape and keeps separate from the other flock. I swear to keep my eye on my fifty.

Two kilometers into the ride, another policeman stops my Matatu. This time round, a female traffic police officer works her way toward my conductor, who already knows the charge for "flouting traffic rules" within such a short distance. But something happens here that leaves my conductor smiling and almost jumping out of the vehicle in celebration. After huffing and puffing here and there, she doesn't take her fair share! The relief that runs through the conductor's vein you can observe is as red and pure as his red gabs and can only be compared to when Caster Semenya would find out that he/she is a woman. The conductor ought to thank me at this point. But he doesn't "Had it not been for my watchful and sentinel-like eye, madam could have taken it," I whisper to myself and let go.

"Ameogopa, huyo ameogopa kuchukua" (she has shied from taking), shouts my conductor to the driver as we leave unscathed by the long arm of the Kenyan traffic police law. My fifty survives. At least for now.

The conductor's celebration is short-lived as five-minutes into the drive, two female police officers have also observed us, again, flouting the rules and we are stopped. Another 60 cents goes into the pocket of the police. My 60 cents. At this point, I have already participated in a corrupt deal having let the conductor give away part of my money to an undeserving officer.

Kenya Police 2 Matatu Tout 0. And we are not even halfway into our journey!!

So far, we are talking about 100 shillings in total that the men and women in blue have unjustifiably taken from the two men in red. What an unbalanced game this is turning out to be. One-hundred shillings may seem little, but in a country where most people earn as little as 150 shillings for a whole day's work, the Kenyan police is already living large, minus his/her salary.

Did I mention that the score is just between my Matatu and the police and not the other matatus? Well, if I haven't, note that at every stop, three other matatus, or more, had to pay the tax for using the road. All this time, this passenger (me), apparently sitting next to a pungent smelling sweat oozing out of a man he had mistakenly considered savvy, just shook his head in disbelief, feeling like he should do something. But What? Report to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission? Evidence? Big Fish!

Just like I was helpless with the body odour of my neighbour, so was I helpless with the favour my conductor and the police were doing for each other. So, I shut my mouth, opened my eyes, and the journey continued. Six more stops before we reached Kasarani roundabout, a 30-minute drive from Nairobi central business district, my conductor had parted way with a total of Ksh400 (am not a currency converter, but that's about $6).

Insignificant amount? May be, depending on which social class you belong to in Kenya. Let me just say that amount is enough to support that struggling single mother in food expenses at Kibera slums for six days or so.

                                                            Round two
My second journey to Nairobi was almost identical. Almost, because this time round, it was not the conductor, but my driver who was giving the policemen along Thika road what they had woken up for. Now that every one has known that the conductor is the pointman for the bribe, why not delegate the duties to the driver who can hardly drive for half-an-hour without breaking traffic rules?

Dynamism is the word. Everything in this world is underlined by the word dynamism, giving bribes notwithstanding. So how did my driver do it? Simpler than reading the word, Wuod Nyasembo.

Just tuck the money under the car door lock, let the officer match towards you swaggering his swagger stick, he partially opens the door and yets! you got it big guy. That's what you call, vintage collection.  It's as simple and yet effective as the 'pass and move' tactic of football that Liverpool, under Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were famed for back in the days.

Repeat this scenario six times and even if your automobile is a pure amalgam of speed along the route or have no safety belts fixed, you will have no problem with the officer. The amount solves everything. You can even drive off when they stop you, just make sure you drop some notes at a point they can see.

So while the multi-million eight-lane superhighway venture would go a long way into offloading heavy traffic from the city center and reducing millions of shillings lost in delays and traffic snarl-ups, millions of shillings are being lost in bribes to lazy, ineffective, selfish and uncouth police officers serving themselves, and not citizens along different routes in the country.

But in a country where the word accountability still remains a new vocabulary known but not practiced by anyone, millions of shillings will continue to go on a safari to hang out with other billions stolen in government ministries and trillions that have traveled and are stacked in foreign accounts.

And all this money belongs to a group of Kenyans called, the elite. And the elite belong to a group of goons called the politicians and deceitful financial crooks, a group which also owes its beginning to post-colonial land grabbers and grabbers of everything, who took advantage of the much that the colonialists left for Kenyans to share, but they saw no need of doing so since we live in a world where you eat and let only your close relatives and friends eat, and no more.

Giving a bribe is no lesser crime as receiving it. But the matatu tout and his driver have no option but to bulge into the act. After all, it costs less to bribe a police officer than start the protracted process of being arraigned and charged in court, a place where the offence can always be exacerbated from a mere mistake of playing loud music, to reckless driving, disregarding highway obstruction or even vehicular homicide.

The Kenyan police is a dirty linen. Literally. Whether it's traffic police or that guy who patrols late in the evening holding an AK47 riffle, the difference is the same. While the traffic police will threaten to sue you of traffic demeanuor you hardly committed, the evening patrol officer can charge you with anything and everything. Obstruction of justice, smoking with violence, loitering with the intention to committing first degree murder, looking at a government building suspiciously, soliciting sexual favours from an unwilling female, looking at a rich-man's dog with the intention to kill, running with the intention to cause public disorder and et cetera.

My colleague, Sean (a South African in Kenya for three months), recently lost a game on his first encounter with the Kenya police. He had alighted at the crossroads, an offence, depending on how much the officer has collected since he woke up. Handled with utmost politeness and not knowing what charges the "offence" could attract in an imaginative court, Sean parted way with 700 shillings (about $10).

When he narrated the whole story to me, I just laughed it off and said, "it happens." 

Yes it does.

And it is happening more often than not. So next time you meet that officer and you are running late for work, just get into your pocket, shove some fifteen dollars or so and bang! Problem solved. 

Only in Africa though.

And that's theSteifmastertake!!