Along the Migori-Kisii highway in Migori county, a group of uniformed traffic police officers wait beside a private vehicle. One of them flags down a matatu and, in what may appear to the untrained eye as a half-hearted handshake, crumbled bank notes surreptitiously change hands. The officer then flags the matatu off, a signal it has been given a clean bill of health, its roadworthiness notwithstanding.
This modus operandi – flag down, brush hands, flag off– continues for the better part of the day on this and in many other bribery toll stations, disguised as police roadblocks. Not even the motorcycle taxi operators, commonly referred to as boda boda, are spared.
While matatus normally pay Sh100, boda bodas part with at least Sh50 for real and trumped-up traffic offences. Some matatu owners and crews accuse corrupt police officers of eating into their profits by forcing them to part with a lot of money everyday.
“You first have to oil the hands of the traffic police and a few kilometres later, pay roadblock officers who will use all manner of excuses to extract a bribe,” said matatu conductor George Owino. He adds: “They have become so daring that they even ask us to buy them newspapers, airtime or soft drinks in exchange of our freedom.”
But not every matatu or boda boda operator is unhappy about this state of affairs. To some, the Sh100 or Sh50 bribe is a small price to pay compared to ending up in court, and the attendant fines, jail terms or other penalties.
“The traffic police are our friends. Sometimes they bother us. But, generally a Sh50 or Sh100 notes clears things, instead of being taken to court where judges impose huge fines,” said a matatu driver. It also means that the matatu operators and owners don’t have to worry much about keeping their vehicles roadworthy, or sticking to the straight and narrow when it comes to traffic rules.
It is this you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours between the traffic police and matatu operators which is blamed for the ever-rising number of road accidents. “It isdisturbing when you watch officers take bribes and flag off a matatu which is then involved in an accident a few kilometres away killing passengers,” says Pastor John Ogada.
During a wave of road accidents in the country late last year and early this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), which together with the traffic police had the mandate of maintaining law order on the roads, off the highways. Ogada says to win the war against corruption, the government should rethink the management of roads altogether.
“The government should find a different category of Kenyans to help bring back sanity on our roads,” he told KNA in an interview in Rongo town. The traffic unit is believed to be the reason the National Police Service is ranked the most corrupt public institution.
But senior police officers in Migori played down graft accusations, saying the claims are “subjective” and are not backed by evidence on the ground. Migori County Police Commander Joseph Nthenge is, however, on record saying the police service is serious about stamping out corruption. —KNA