Monday, March 14, 2022

Things will not change

This is the much that I found out about the events of that Friday. A foreign diplomat driving an SUV hit and seriously injured a commercial motorcycle rider. She left, maybe fled, the scene of the accident. She was stopped by a mob of other motorcyclists, who may or may not have included commercial motorcycle riders. A policeman attempted to ascertain the nature of the accident, the extent of injury and damage, and who may or may not have been culpable. The policeman failed to control the now-unruly mob. The foreign diplomat was sexually assaulted. Kenyan social media found out, freaked out and the internal security ministry got involved. The president ordered a crackdown and for five or so days, police arrested motorcycle riders on any pretext, detained their motorcycles, demanded tens of thousands of shillings in unspecified fines, and prosecuted a few for the assault on the foreign diplomat and others for traffic related offenses. It was all so familiar.

I have little love for commercial motorcycle riders, even the ones who provide me with efficient services. My experiences with them have been mixed at best. I have only ridden pillion once and it is not an experience I will repeat so long as they operate the same way they do today. My experiences, though, are not unique.

If you have had occasion to drive, be driven or walk into and out of the Nairobi Central Business District, you will have encountered commercial motorcycle riders. If they are not ferrying goods or passengers to and from various addresses, you will find them parked in strategic places, often on pavements, or roundabouts, bus stops, double-parked in car parks, and in the middle of busy intersections and roundabouts. They occupy spaces that are reserved for other road users without apology or care.

When they are in motion, they ignore all traffic rules, including traffic lights, lanes, or direction of travel. They will overtake on blind corners, on the wrong side, in the wrong lane. They will speed through red lights. They will speed through pavements. The majority of commercial motorcycle riders swill ride without any form of safety equipment, neither for themselves nor their pillion riders. On a few occasions, they are used to ferry violent criminal offenders and petty purse snatchers. In one hilarious video doing the rounds, a policeman loses his mobile to a motorcycle-borne thief, and they make their way off by driving into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road at high speed.

When they are involved in accidents, their compatriots will swarm the scene of the accident in solidarity with one of their own. As the unfortunate foreign diplomat discovered, if the accident is with a woman motorist, the outcome can sometimes be tragic. On other occasions they have set motor vehicles on fire, and violently assaulted other motorists such that they required medical care or hospitalization. It is not too far a stretch to state that if a motorist and a commercial motorcycle rider had an accident, the situation is more likely than not to turn violent.

As with the rest of the traffic system we have, motorcycle riders have become a law unto themselves. In my opinion, this is because of the remarkable accommodations we have made for other kinds of road users: the president, members of his cabinet, senior members of the public service, parliamentarians, well-connected businessmen, ministers of faith, and the like, are allowed to flout all kinds of traffic rules. The CBD is a canvas of the traffic offences that the police allow to be perpetrated on a daily basis. Therefore, it was wholly shortsighted to target only commercial motorcycle riders when the rest of the motoring public was allowed to carry on as before. This kind of discrimination is why there are those conspiracy theorists who think that the crackdown was meant to create a crisis that politicians could solve rather than take the first steps to addressing the deteriorated traffic system we have at present.

I have no faith that things will improve or change. I know that for a few days, commercial motorcycle riders and pillion riders will wear helmets, reflector jackets and other safety gear. I know that they will obey some, if not most, of the traffic rules. They will be respectful at accident scenes. They will restrain themselves from resorting to violence and base instincts at accident scenes. But this will not last long. In time, the police and their commanders and the worthies responsible for policy will move on to more important things - like the 2022 general election - and the traffic “sector” will revert to default settings. Only the naive think that things will change.

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