On Friday the 30th of October, in the morning, I was driving through the traffic from Syokimau headed towards Mukuru via Mombasa road and turning to join Enterprise Road. On a normal day, it would have taken 15-20 minutes. On this day, however, it took me 45 minutes to arrive at the Enterprise Road junction and even longer to reach Mukuru, where I was to host one of my mentors and a very important guest to my organization. As I approached the General Motors stage, I could see an unusually high number of policemen at the junction (normally, it is one cop on a motorbike) checking cars, insurance stickers and pulling trucks aside. I thought it was a normal operation; certain that all my documents, tires and car were in mint condition, I had no reason to worry.
In the process of stopping cars at a junction at rush hour, traffic was bound to be slow and as a result, the lane joining Enterprise Road was jam packed. Exiting Mombasa Road onto Enterprise Road required changing lanes towards the left until one got space to pass. Little did I know that the operation by the police was a decoy to cause traffic jam and ultimately arrest motorists for “changing lanes and causing obstruction.”
If this sounds weird, it’s because it is; that’s what I was charged with and it messed up my whole day. Had I done the usual (allowed the cop into the car, driven off a few meters, negotiated a bribe and then dropped him off so that he could arrest another motorist and return to base) this would not have been the case.
Instead, I questioned the rationale for my arrest, offered to drive back and re-enact the scenario to be corrected lest I was the one who didn’t go to a proper driving school, asked for a summons to appear in court, and then asked for the option of bail. All were denied. Instead, the cop insisted and opened the door without permission and rode in my car.
On my ride with the sergeant, I tried to reason with him. The more I showed him that there were better ways of being a good cop who maintained a good relationship with the community, the more he got annoyed. He said “Unajifanya mjuaji? You will not even get the cash bail, it is not your right. I can decide whether to give it or not give it.” That’s how my fate was sealed. Two other cars that had been instructed to go to Industrial Area police station along with mine never reached the station. I wonder what happened to them.
I arrived at the booking desk and was made aware that there was still the option of “kuongea na ofisa mzuri”, meaning that I could pay a bribe before my name was written in the Occurrence Book (OB). I was not in the mood for this; my day had already been ruined and I wanted to test the system and see what happens when one goes all the way to the court. While locked in a holding cell, I reflected and came to the conclusion that our justice system is so complicated that it propagates corruption, and that even the strong (who would normally say no to corruption) are tempted to bribe multiple times.
While in the holding cell, I overheard several conversations with the boss. Some policemen would come to argue on someone’s behalf, the boss would receive strange phone calls, and one by one, people were released and I was left with only three other offenders.
I was arrested at 8.04 am and was in a holding cell until after 10.00 am waiting for the pick-up’s capacity to be reached before we could be taken to court. I was the first person to be locked up, and 10 other people joined me in the cell, but by the time we were reaching the Milimani Law courts, we were only three. One person (a Ugandan truck driver) was released enroute to the court. It was so comical that even the police who were guarding us found it amusing. “How can they release him here? What if someone has a camera and takes a photo or video? Can’t they find even somewhere hidden? It’s even better for them if they reach the court and come back with him if they have been “sorted”, let them not involve us in this and it is them who know what they have received.” The “they” referred to here are the driver and the senior officer who were sitting at the front.
While at the basement of the Milimani Law Courts, I got to experience the court holding cells. Before entering the cells, numbered 1-10, you have to go and relieve yourself, because there is no other opportunity. The toilets are filthy, and the stench hits you immediately you enter the basement.
At the reception area, the policemen there approach different people with the offer to make their charges disappear, or make them not have to stand trial. I was approached by a lady who told me “Your case is simple. Depending on the mood of the magistrate, you could be fined KES 10,000 – 20,000. So why go all the way to the court? You might be held here for up to three hours, then once you get to court, you will waste two more hours. Basically, your day will be gone. I can talk to the lady who brought you in and your file can be withdrawn.”
The two others we were arrested with found their freedom this way, and were escorted from the basement to the outside of the courts without standing trial. What does this tell us? For every Kenyan appearing in court for a traffic offence, it is possible that nine others were arrested but bribed their way out or used people in higher authority to free themselves. On that Friday I was that one.
I hope there are a thousand others who are willing to stand by their principles and say no to corruption. Sadly, I am made to understand that what I suffered is a ritual.
Every day, there are targets for the number of people to be taken to the court no matter what happens. There are those who must bribe for the weekly target to be reached, and there are those who are released without paying a cent because the cop has been called by a friend, a relative or someone from above. The targets for weekends, end month, or when the schools are about to open are much higher than those for normal days, I have learned.
Who do we blame for this? Is this how we want to run our justice system? Is this how we want to run our country? No wonder a government official can openly admit that all three arms of the government are corrupt with almost no consequence. We need to go back the basics. Let us unlearn this culture of corruption. Let us teach our children about corruption and the ills it brings into our society. Let us have courageous people who can say no to corruption.
Dennis Ochieng is a development worker and an Acumen East Africa Fellow, 2015. Follow him on Twitter @OchiengKOpiyo