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If we don’t respect rules, we are finished

After spending decades observing myself and my fellow human beings, I am forced to come to a somewhat cynical conclusion: most of us only behave well when we are compelled to do so. When left to his own devices and untrammeled by the demands of morality and legality, the average person will do all the wrong things.

I was forced to think about this recently when I found myself in Nairobi’s perennial traffic behind a KBS bus. The driver of this vehicle had clearly stopped being a bus driver, and had descended into matatu mania. The idea of a bus stop had been thrown out of the window; this man would stop anywhere and everywhere to pick up passengers, including on roundabouts and on the highway.

He was not alone in this; drivers of the rival Citi Hoppa firm were doing exactly the same thing all around us. I estimated that my journey took 33 per cent longer as a result of the drivers doing this. I stopped short of computing the average daily cost to the economy of society allowing this simple rule to be broken – my mental temperature was too high.

Are the drivers of our buses and matatus debased, dissolute reprobates? Quite possibly. Certainly, their willingness to drive on footpaths and force pedestrians to scatter, to force their way across lanes and into queues, and to cause brainless accidents taking dozens of lives suggests a certain depravity. But they are part of a bigger phenomenon, which might be termed moral entropy.

Simply put: if you don’t force people to do the right thing, over time they will descend into doing all the wrong things. You cannot depend on people’s good nature to improve society; you have to impose rules.

And so, if nobody forces drivers to behave on the roads, soon those roads will resemble jungles where anything goes. If no one compels people to dispose of litter properly, they will toss maize cobs, banana skins, plastic bottles and used condoms out of their cars and onto the street. If lanes are just lines on the road, people will soon drive in all directions at will.

If society did not condemn promiscuity, most men would sleep with every available woman and no family structures would be possible. If we did not have auditors, accountants would ransack all company bank accounts. If assault was not a crime, we would be attacking each other the minute we became angry.

If we did not enforce building standards, every contractor in the land would cut corners and buildings would be falling around our ears every day of the year. If the police force was not kept under strict control, its officers would impose a personal fine of 50 bob per day on every matatu. If teachers were not able to make their young charges behave, they would burn their schools down. If our leaders were not accountable for their actions, they would turn into hate mongers who would plan the massacre of innocents for their own political gain.

But ask yourself: are we so far away from all that? It seems no one is able to control behaviour on our roads, in government offices, in personal interactions, in public rallies, in the handling of taxpayers’ money. We are observing a general disdain for rules and regulations, a breakdown in personal ethics, a lack of respect for the rights of others.

Without those rules, we are truly finished. Without a system that regulates the behaviour of a society, that society will soon return to the bush from which it sprang. That is not a reflection on the African condition: it is a worldwide phenomenon. Those suit-clad rule enforcers from Western embassies come from societies whose ancestors were attacking each other with clubs not that long ago. India’s supposedly peaceful citizens massacred half a million of their number when the rules broke down during the partition of the country.

But those societies have since learned the importance of rules. Rules are a critical part of development; without them, every country would be a Somalia. It is no coincidence that Singapore, which has probably the world’s most advanced rules system governing all aspects of behaviour, has transformed itself from a bunch of fishing islands into one of the world’s most advanced and respected nations. And our failure to have a healthy respect for rules is taking us more in the direction of a Somalia than a Singapore.

Am I being too cynical? I don’t think so. We cannot rely on Kenyans’ love of God or humanity: we know that is deficient and defective. We can’t depend on the individual moral compass; that’s been pointing south for a generation. After all, we burn people alive in churches here; we burn down our own schools here; we steal from the poor here. We are not going anywhere until we enforce rules and respect them. How are we going to do it? We need SHOCK THERAPY. On that, more next week.

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