Empowered by the examples, words and encouragement of the Hapa Kazi Tu (work only) administration of President John Magufuli, our traffic police recently became very diligent about catching and fining drivers who didn’t respect pedestrian crossings.
I can get behind that, as a pedestrian. Let me just gripe for a second here: There still isn’t enough sidewalk in Dar es Salaam — could we prioritise that over fancy-schmancy fly-overs? You know, for the children?
Then traffic police started to suffer from mission creep. Empowerment made them excited, especially the augmented security force that seems to comprise anyone in a uniform these days, except for soldiers.
The old rules of the game were that a traffic officer could be counted on to stop you for speeding if you are travelling across country roads.
Surprisingly effective at catching private cars, especially expensive-looking ones that were trying to make good time between cities. These encounters could always be turned...transactional, if you know what I mean. That’s tradition, all over the world it seems.
The sad consequence of said tradition is the unconscionable amount of accidents involving public buses that occur on our highways. We are very good at being outraged at the “reckless bus driver” but not great at demanding that we enforce safety, via speed regulators, or vehicle trackers or anything that works.
In the cities, traffic policing is a bit more diverse in its activities. There is traffic, so they conduct it. Dar es Salaam is putting a lot of effort into developing an impressive and thoroughly modern congestion problem.
When traffic police took over the management of rush hour a few years ago some pouty Dar residents who didn’t think queueing should apply to them actually blamed the congestion on the police. The police in turn decided to teach us all a lesson by suspending that service for a couple of days. It worked. We’re pretty obedient these days.
But things seem to have escalated. Say, Sundays, traffic police will be lurking along the roads that lead to major churches, under a shade tree of course.
A Wednesday afternoon might see them spring up at high-traffic residential roads that people use as shortcuts. Under the shade tree of course, the one near the garden centre rest spot slash refreshment stand. If you live in a neighbourhood long enough it is only polite to start waving at your regular police along your commutes.
It used to be that if you get caught you show your proper documentation. And then if you had committed an offence, you would be presented with an opportunity to have a discussion about what to do about that. Anything from a warning to a transaction to a ride to the police station.
Over time this progressed to inspections of various kinds: Do you have this or that bit of safety equipment? Lately, though, anecdotes from harassed drivers of Dar es Salaam were getting more bizarre.
Checks began to encompass all kinds of elements such as, are your lights working? Windshield wipers (on a bone dry day)? Could you open your bonnet? The line between a policeman and a car mechanic was blurring. The range of suddenly fineable “offences” was expanding, and what used to be a symbiotic relationship between drivers and traffic cops started to feel predatory.
Which did not escape the notice of Dar’s Police Commander Lazaro Mambosasa. Who then with a rather weary expression admonished police to stop harassing the general populace and go back to doing what they’re supposed to do: Police, deal with actual traffic infractions, in a professional manner, please. He said all of this in public. Where it has been recorded for posterity by the media. Nice touch, sir.
It has long been tradition for our security forces to close ranks: Calm civilians on the front side and claim its “just a few bad seeds” while sidestepping the problem. By acknowledging a systemic problem the commander has given us non-uniforms a place to complain if we get bullied, which will hopefully roll back the practice in the force because we could get them into trouble.
It might seem like such a small thing to be happy about, but it isn’t. Every bit of soft-skills helps.
As we venture uncomfortably into “hard” authoritarianism, public servants who remember to respect we regular folk and bring some of that Tanzanian ease back into the relationship with government are doing us all a favour.
Now, if only the commander would turn his attention to the boda boda situation. It is political, I know, but in between election years, we have to be reasonable about our young men.