Monday, February 29, saw the streets of Addis partly deserted. There was an unofficial strike by drivers of minibuses and medium-sized (midi) buses opposing implementation of a law passed five years ago. Under the new implementation framework, a database of offenders will be established and a rating system of offences will be streamlined. In line with the rating, repeat offenders will be forced to take reformist training and face temporary suspension. Serious offenders, on the other hand, will be taken off the road.
Although the law was issued in 2011, only lately a standard measuring of road offences and a detailed response system was put in place. But the new system seems to have disenchanted the over 6,000 drivers serving the transport system of the city of three million people. Hence, they refused to comply with the process by putting themselves off duty.
With much of the population dependent on these transport service providers, even if the introduction of the Light Rail Transport (LRT) system has eased the burden, daily commuters were stranded. The stalemate continued until transport authorities postponed the implementation of the new rating by three months.
If anything, the postponement shows the sensitivities of the ruling Revolutionary Democrats. Learning from the passivity in Oromia, which backfired with considerable casualties, they backed down from putting the full force of the law enacted by the Addis Abeba City Council into action. Rather, as if to show the fuzzy lines of responsibility in the state structure, the Addis Abeba Transport Bureau (AATB), a unit of the city’s executive government, publicly announced suspension of the implementation. The decision was echoed by the Federal Transport Authority (FTA). Neither unit seemed to understand that they lack the legal mandate to give a grace period for implementing a law issued by the legislature and, even worse, postpone its implementation.
At the point of issuing the traffic law, the Addis Abeba City Council intended to put an end to the deadly damage of traffic accidents on the roads of the city. Underpinning the objective was the horrible reality of traffic nightmares experienced on the streets of the metropolis.
According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) survey, traffic accidents cause 2.7pc of the total annual deaths in Ethiopia. On average, 3,000 Ethiopians lose their lives to the culprit. This means that for every 10,000 cars, 60 people die. A little over 20pc of the total deaths by traffic accidents involve individuals younger than 18. This, of course, is not to mention the numbers that sustain injury and the huge loss of and damage to property. In 2014/15, for instance, a total of 17,249 traffic accidents causing material damage occurred in Addis.
These are not just numbers. They represent the valuable lives of human beings. They are parents, children, wives, husbands, friends, brothers and sisters of somebody. They mean a lot to their loved ones. They represent Ethiopians who could have contributed to themselves, their communities and their country. About a quarter of them represent the young, energetic and hopeful section of the population on which the future of the nation rests.
Even by the admission of the transport authorities themselves, most of the casualties relate to driver reluctance, carelessness and low qualification. Poor infrastructure base and undeveloped regulation capacity play their own part. In plain language then, the major cause of the tragic realities of roads in Addis, is non-compliance with the established traffic laws. And minibuses constitute the largest section of offenders.
Having roads filled with raging drivers who take non-compliance as the norm, Addis is one of the risky cities in the world. It is as if living by the law is considered regressive. Drivers seems to take the law in their own hand. They fail to exercise the essential patience driving in cities takes and hence the types of accidents that take place in the city remain appalling.
Certainly, order ought to be restored on the roads of Addis, which are turning into open cemeteries. The authorities need a mechanism to put the carnage being caused by careless and the discourteous drivers to an end. Herein lies the importance of the traffic law of 2011.
True, some parts of the law may not be in line with the reality in ground. And this has to do with the customization of the law. Yet, a large part of the law is good. Enforced properly, it could bring order into the rather chaotic roads of the capital.
In light of what is happening, neither the failure of the city’s administration to implement the law up until now nor the postponement of the implementation by the transport bureau makes any sense. Not only is it unlawful, but it is insensitive. The decision shows that administrators of the city have no compassion for citizens at risk of losing their lives to reckless driving.
For starters, the mandate of the city’s administration units is to implement whatever law is issued by the Council, a body entrusted to do just this. As units accountable to the Council, the traffic and transport bureaus of the city are required to implement the law as directed.
It is puzzling to see a city or federal transport official speaking, albeit with authority, about the postponement of the implementation of the law. There seems to be no basic understanding within the ranks that the mandate of defining the law lies in the hands of the Council, not in the executive organs of the city. What is even more confusing is the fact that the Council does not call the executives to account for failing to bring the law into full force within the right time frame.
The Council should have put the City Administration in a grilling pan of accountability for failing to implement the law. It should have purged those officials who sit on a law that can save the lives of children, productive adults, hopeful parents and graceful seniors, or spare them from various atrocities caused by the widespread vulgarity on the roads.
The drivers who took part in the strike are demanding leniency from the law. Essentially, they are demanding room to the break the law. Regardless of the various reasons they could mention, including the probability that the law puts more discretion in the hands of traffic officers, there is no reason to surrender the law to presumable offenders. No politics would justify this.
Certainly, putting more discretion in the hands of an already corrupt traffic management bureaucracy may be risky. But it is the bureaucracy that ought to be cleared from its long overdue opportunism and corruption. Experiences in other countries show that this trend of corruption can be avoided by using technology, such as radio and CCTV cameras. In the US, for instance, a traffic police officer is required to put his radio on while on duty. Everything he says is recorded. Thus, officers can be monitored and called into account.
And even more, corruption exists when there is a person that tries to pay her way out of the law. If all drivers are courageous enough to operate under the law and challenge corrupt officers, then, under due process of the law, there would be no corruption. Hence, this risk of disproportional discretion is also avoidable.
Now that the city’s administrative units have unlawfully postponed the enforcement of law, the chaos will continue. And the rescheduling emboldens offenders. There is no way that the striking drivers would be acting any differently after three months.
What then? Is the city’s administration going to forget the law because potential offenders say so?
A city that is losing its productive population as an outcome of rampant road rage should not have the luxury to delay implementation of the law which is meant to address that problem. Its only option is to go for it, regardless. No one, be it minibus drivers or officials, should be left to take the law in their hands. The law should be left to serve its purpose.
If the enforcement of the law is to save even one life, then, it should be given all possible opportunity. Enforcement of this law should not be characterised by leniency.
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