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Apply the law fairly and equally

In the interests of openness and transparency, I would like to admit to my readers that I am now a convicted felon.

I’m not kidding. I was recently up before a magistrate at the High Court on a charge of dangerous driving. I pleaded guilty and was fined the sum of Sh. 11,000, with the option of three months’ incarceration.

Here’s what led to my unwanted encounter with the law. I was driving along Uhuru Highway and encountered an unexpected traffic jam at one of our unnecessary roundabouts. After being at a standstill for several minutes, I noticed many cars changing lanes and going from the left. I assumed there was an accident ahead that everyone was bypassing, and followed suit.

You can guess the rest. There was no accident, just a traffic policeman who had blocked the traffic for no discernible reason and was waiting to see who emerged to break the law. A dozen or so cars passed through by using the roundabout’s reserve lane; I was stopped. I had now committed the heinous crime of changing lanes on a roundabout and driving on a reserve lane. As I was indeed guilty, I went quietly to the station and did the paperwork for the rest of the afternoon, and spent the whole of the following morning in court answering the charge, along with more than a hundred other delinquents.

Please understand: I am happy to have been caught and charged; happy to have spent all those hours in the precincts of the law; happy to have paid the fine as stipulated. I believe fervently in road discipline and observance of rules and regulations. I believe that all who refuse to play by the rules should suffer the consequences. That is the only way we can have a just and disciplined society; that is the only way we can develop as a nation.

But here’s my problem. All day, every day, I observe road-users breaking every rule in the book. I watch matatus driving on the wrong side and forcing off the road cars legitimately on that side. I watch matatus mounting pedestrian paths, scattering petrified people in their path. Changing lanes on a roundabout? Ha! The matatu’s preferred route is to stop to pick up passengers on that very reserve lane, and then to rush across all three lanes in one sweeping movement, causing all other vehicles to halt to let them through. Are they every stopped and charged? Ha! Why not? I cannot say, but you may want to guess.

It is not the matatus alone. Every day, I observe ordinary drivers in respectable cars doing the same things. They drive while talking on their mobile phones and drinking a soda at the same time, veering left and right. They go out at night with no headlights at all, driving in pitch darkness and frightening the daylights out of other drivers – and they will get through every police roadblock in their path.

The ordinary law-abiding driver with vehicle in perfect working order, on the other hand, approaches roadblocks with trepidation. Why? Because she will be asked to explain why she doesn’t have two warning triangles of the ‘correct’ specification; why the pressure in one tyre is ‘dangerously’ low; or whatever else sounds like a legal requirement. Our meek and mild driver will then be put through the wringer and threatened with a night in the cells.

All day, every day, you observe people breaking the law and getting away with it. This happens on the roads, in politics, in business. What does that do to the mind of the ordinary person? For an answer to that question, observe the driving of many diplomats and expatriates who come to this country from more strict regulatory regimes in Europe and elsewhere. For a while, they will observe all the road regulations and courtesies they are used to back home: they will stick to the left lane and only overtake from the right; they will dip their headlights at night when a car approaches; they will give way to others in traffic.

Give them a few months, however, and they become raving lunatic drivers: overtaking at bends and showing the finger to whoever objects! Any society’s values eventually fall to the level of common practice. If stupid, irresponsible driving and routine corruption is the norm, sooner or later most people will be doing exactly that.

That is why the police have a lot to answer for. There is no point in applying the laws of the land selectively. That way the law-abiding and the well-intentioned are the only ones who end up paying the price. Impunity is a terrible thing: it starts with disobedience on the roads, graduates to grand larceny in government, and culminates in the massacre of innocents. We have watched that escalation come to a head in January this year. Apply every law to every person, or watch the country disintegrate.

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