Inside a Kibera Jail cell is not christmas

The French have a wonderful saying that goes something like “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” You may have figured it out by now if your high school French has been dusted off the long forgotten brain shelves. On May 27th last year, I published, in this very column, a 1000 word soliloquy addressed to Inspector General Kimaiyo and Chief Justice Mutunga. Knowing full well that not a day passes without someone bestowing a curse or a blessing on either of the gentlemen, I did not expect a response from them. Keeping in true form, they didn’t disappoint. I started off by narrating a less than exemplary experience that I endured as a guest of the state at Makadara law court cells. I then finished off by making a suggestion, as a good citizen should, that perhaps the court’s time could be far better used attending to drunk and disorderly louts, witchcraft cases and matters more grave such as robbery and murder rather than wasting time over minor traffic offences where the victim is simply a Kenyan who doesn’t want to pay a bribe. That was before the 50 kilometre per hour speed enforcement Christmas-comes-early gift that was awarded to Kenyan traffic police. The more things change, the more they stay the same as the French have aptly taught us.

On Friday, September 26th 2014, a very close relative of mine was driving down Waiyaki Way struggling with a numbed right foot that was engorged with sluggish blood from trying to maintain a 50 km/h speed on a sloping highway with trucks whizzing past at breakneck speeds. She was pulled over just before Brookside Drive and accused of doing the Lewis Hamilton Formula One record-breaking speed of 62 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. There were several drivers who had also been pulled over for speeding and who formed a forlorn line on the side awaiting to be told of their fate at the ad hoc “Huduma Centre” that had been installed by the Kenya Traffic Police. She was quite surprised to find that a car that had overtaken her about a kilometer before, doing at least 100 km/h was not amongst the cars pulled over, and promptly asked the policemen why that was the case. “Ah, dada pole sana, hiyo ni bahati yako mbaya.” So law enforcement clearly operates on the basis of good and bad luck rather than uniform application, right? The policemen, to their credit, were polite and professional and even pointed out an mpesa agent who could give traffic offenders the cash bail (Kshs 10,000) that was required to get a temporary freedom to the following Monday, where the cases would be heard at Kibera law courts.

A quiet word on the side was however whispered to the effect that the problem could vanish faster than sugar dissolves in tea if the right kind of impetus was provided. Well, Close Relative was having none of that and appeared for her court case promptly at 8 a.m. last Monday. And there, the illusion that is Mutunga’s “I have a dream” vision promptly dissolved. Being from good breeding, Close Relative arrived at 7:45 a.m. The court doors did not open until 9:05 a.m. and the magistrate promptly began his business at 10:20 a.m. As he was gliding on efficiency roller skates that morning, he opted to start with the day’s cases first, to rid the court of the lawyers and witnesses who had by this time filled the court causing it to almost burst at its cement seams. Following this were the mentions for the “mahabusus” who didn’t have the benefit of being out on bail. The traffic cases were dealt with at around 1 p.m. and Close Relative was literally swaying on her feet to stay alert for her name to be called out. Only two people were called out with traffic offenses from Waiyaki Way that day, which led Close Relative to safely assume that the other long line of traffic offenders that she found at the “Brookside Drive Huduma Centre” on the Friday of the offense, had miraculously had their cases vanish…like the sugar in the tea thing I spoke about. Long story short, she was charged Kshs 20,000 and thrown promptly inside the Kibera law courts cells as her friend on the outside worked out the system to pay her fine for her release. (Kenyans please note: NEVER go alone for a traffic court date. You need someone to pay your fine for you as you stew in sheer terror behind bars with the general prison population back there)

My conclusions: 1. Once the system chews you up and spits a terrified you out, it is geared to ensure that the next time you are caught you will do everything in your power (including having a big fight with your conscience) to ensure you never go back there again. Read into that what you will. 2. Every single time a government functionary wakes up and declares a deeply buried law will now be enforced, the Kenyan police dance a jig and break out the champagne. Exhumed laws make trawling the Kenyan streets looking for victims all that more interesting and only widens the scope for “shaking down” new prey.
The solution is simple: Allow someone to pay their fine on the spot once they are caught with a traffic offense that has the option of a fine. It would reduce the workload of the hard working magistrates, increase revenue collection at the roadside Huduma Centres and release Kenyans to go and undertake economic activities that will maintain our status as a middle-income country. Oh, but I forget, that would be too efficient wouldn’t it? Dear Kimaiyo and Mutunga, as you ignore me a second time my prayer for you is that you NEVER have to be a guest of the state, albeit temporarily. It would make your chocolate colored skin yearn to crawl back to its lofty perch.

Postscript: If you would like to join the petition to the Chief Justice to allow for on the spot payment of fines please like the Facebook page “Petition For Direct Payment of Traffic Fines.”
Twitter: @carolmusyoka

  • David

    Thank you for aptly putting in clear words what many of us feel. Sadly due to the lack of proper and impactful consumer organizations public entities such as the Police & NTSA as well as many private ones will continue to have their way with Kenyans. The media has also failed since the lazy journalists will only report that “tens of Kenyans were arrested for xyz offence….” and not go through the entire process to see if what the cops are doing is legal or not. Without speed limit signs at the start and end of the designated zones, these crackdowns are illegal. Motorists have a right to demand proof that the figures the cop states are actually correct and applicable to their vehicle. We must not sit and let cops and the Govt make money (in that order) from Kenyans for lopsided enforcement of laws. I support the petition.

  • Liza

    Thanks a lot, Carol – written brilliantly as usual.

    I’ve got an update on the page which is an extract from the Traffic Act, that clearly stipulates that one DOES NOT have to appear before a Magistrate as long as they plead guilty and pay the fine. So this whole exercise is really just a punishment, and lack of application of existing laws. Kenyans need to know their rights and stand by them.

  • vic

    Well captured. ..but do they read?