Transport services in Addis Abeba have long been a headache. The authorities have not remained passive to this. But measures, such as putting more people in positions of authority to enforce the law, are only adding to the confusion, writes Ambessaw Assegued (email@example.com).
The weathered and frayed orange construction-vest hangs on one shoulder, while the rest of the tattered outfit dangles loosely about the chest and arms of a wiry man moving about furiously. The man, whose costume by day resembles a withered flower petal, but most likely shines and sparkles by night, is one of the “enforcers” present at almost every taxi stand in the city.
The man is scurrying around collecting money from every taxi that drives and stops at the stand. Almost every taxi has an assistant, and at every taxi stand, there is an “enforcer,” invariably clad in a ragged orange-vest. When a taxi approaches, the man hurries to it, stretches a hand and the assistant dutifully presses money into it.
“Why is he collecting money from you?” asks a passenger sitting in the cabin of a taxi turning to the driver. “Oh! He is the enforcer,” replies the driver.
“What does he enforce?” the passenger asks again.
“No one really knows. But they are organised with chairpersons, secretaries and controllers. They work in shifts and they are also independent. Whatever one makes on his shift is his own money, except what they contribute to their organisation,” answered the driver. “Like the Mafia,” persisted the passenger.
This time the driver kept his peace and they sat in silence while the taxi fills up. Outside, confusion and mayhem reigns while the “enforcer” continues to scamper from car to car collecting and filling his fist with money.
The “enforcer” is just a spoke in the confused and complicated world of the public transportation system that operates in the city. From all appearances, the taxis in the city are the mainstay by which the public gets around from place to place.
Never mind the elevated light-railway system. The new railway lacks enough ticket offices inside the stations and no functional escalators. But it has several police officers sitting on top enforcing a rule that forbids the taking of bottled water into the trains.
There are many rules and regulations in the transportation system that seem to make little sense to an ordinary observer.
What rules are these taxi stand “enforcers” enforcing if their main duty is collecting money from every cab that goes by?
The symbol of their authority appears to be the tatty orange-vests that they adorn, not much else. They rarely contribute, if at all, in managing the queues, giving directions, assisting passengers, or in keeping the taxi stands clean and orderly. In fact, they are one of the main causes of the chaotic milieu that is created by their constant barking, badgering, shoving and disorderliness that undermines the public interest.
There seems to be in the administration and enforcement of traffic laws of the country a parallel universe of defused authority. Aside from the “enforcers” at the taxi stands, there are uniformed traffic police and another distinct layer of a group of orange-vested officials.
In the latter case, the symbol of authority seems to be a combination of a leather pouch slung over the shoulder and a red ledger held tightly in one hand. It seems that these civilians are separately employed and sanctioned by the City Transport Authority.
It is a universally accepted norm for uniformed traffic police officers to stop drivers and to issue violation tickets.
But why are these groups meddling with traffic law enforcement? Are they enforcing the same rules and regulations as the traffic police on the same city streets and at the same time?
These officials seem to be operating in a grey area where those who are responsible for the administration of the traffic law have crossed over into the enforcement of the law. Enforcement of traffic laws is clearly delineated as the responsibility of traffic police, not the Transport Authority, whose task it is to supervise the law, according to a thesis paper prepared in fulfilment of a law degree by Negussie Kebret, ‘Road Traffic Law Enforcement in Addis Ababa: The Law and Practice’.
The problem with diffused and blurred traffic enforcement authority is that it confuses and frustrates all users of public and private transportation systems and those who are engaged in the industry. It creates unhealthy scenarios such as the city’s taxi stands where a man, obviously sanctioned by some authority, but with no apparent purpose or contributions to public safety or transportation, is openly collecting unearned money from every taxicab that drives by.
Characteristically, these men convey no public confidence in them, and our “enforcer” at this particular stand is no exception. With the effects of a lively night out still lingering on his face, he treats the driver, the assistant and the passengers with studied disdain and contempt.
He answers no inquiries. He pays no attention to the illegally whizzing and triple-deep parked cars. He does not notice the overloaded vehicles nearby, nor the bulging and dropping cargo that sits atop an unstable rack.
His every demeanour announces that he is above the mayhem of the taxi stand. His entire job consists of collecting unearned money, and that constitutes an undisputed and an uncontested entitlement. He boldly glares, bays, jolts and hurries everyone at whim. But he scuttles and ferrets from car to car to gleefully amass a little daily fortune.
The taxi fills up and moves away from the stand heading to the next stop where another sinewy man approaches with an extended hand to collect more money.
“If they contribute to nothing, why do they allow them here?” asks the passenger, again turning to the driver who was quietly fidgeting with the radio.
“Oh! No one really knows. It is a way to keep them employed and out of mischief, I guess,” answers the driver.
“But they have no expenses like you. You know, petrol, oil, tires, and maintenance. Do they even pay taxes?”
The driver ignores the question and drives away to another scene of waiting customers and the familiar stretched hand. This time, the new “enforcer” is wearing a spoiled blue and white nylon jacket embossed with the logo of a local spare parts supplier.
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