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It’s not the superhighway that counts – it’s what you do with it

Kenya has spent more on infrastructure projects in the past decade than at any other time in its history. And there is more to come.

That is a great and necessary thing. Projects like undersea cables, superhighways and bypasses, link roads, rural power connections, bridges and port expansions will all have significant impact on our national income and growth. As Kenyans, we are proud to be coming of age in infrastructure terms.

But here’s the thing: it’s not the infrastructure that aids development; it’s what you do with it.

I read with dismay a police report that there have already been seventy-plus deaths on the new Thika Superhighway since January this year. That figure seemed to pass without comment. Did any leader look at it and shout: “This is unacceptable?” Because it is indeed unacceptable.

Why have so many deaths occurred? For two reasons: first, that highway has been opened to the public in the most slipshod manner possible. It has had neither signage nor road markings; lanes are opened and closed without warning or indication; and there is hardly ever any traffic-police presence on it to guide motorists.

Second, we know Kenyans have become some of the world’s most reckless, ill-disciplined, ill-mannered and self-centred drivers. The story is repeated every day on every road; but when that crazy behaviour is taken to a major highway, only mayhem can ensue.

Without controls or regulation of drivers, the death rate on the superhighway can only climb. Drivers enter and leave the highway at random; they engage in very dangerous cross-lane stunts; they drive against the traffic; they stop suddenly to pick up passengers. Add to that the number of pedestrians who jaywalk on a highway meant only for vehicles, and you have created all the conditions for a deathtrap.

Why do we do it like this? These deaths are not a necessary cost of development; they are the cost of bad implementation. Why can we not hold contractors to account when it comes to proper signage, drainage and lighting? Why can we not police and regulate that road to impose good behaviour and penalize the worst offenders? Do we have no feeling for all these needless deaths? What will it take for our leaders to be concerned – do they need to be personally affected in order to take any meaningful action?

There is a wider point to be made here. Just because we are in Africa, we need not settle for second- and third-best every time. We must not be grateful for just getting new roads – we must demand roads that are well-made, well-commissioned, well-maintained and well-run. And that demand must be made across every bit of infrastructure that is introduced.

We are on the cusp of a great moment in our history. All of these infrastructure developments, combined with changes in governance and in spiralling economic demand, will indeed bestow great dividends. But that does not mean things don’t have to be done properly. Let us not undo all the good work we are doing because we can’t be bothered to do it right.

Infrastructure is the ‘hardware’ of development. What people do with it is the ‘software.’ So far, our software is shoddy. To work on this software, we must engage some fundamentals. Great delivery doesn’t just happen – it has to be led and managed. People don’t just behave themselves for the common good – they have to be made to. Drivers used to potholed, unregulated chaos don’t just automatically become accustomed to the protocols of a new, complicated highway – they have to be shown the way.

So let those whose job it is to manage these things wake up and do this infrastructure thing properly. We must demand no less.

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