Trucks queue to be weighed at the Busitema weighbridge in Uganda. PHOTO | BEATRICE OBWOCHA
By BEATRICE OBWOCHAMore by this Author
- Waiting for days for cargo, travelling day and night across the country, living in the truck, being harassed by corrupt officers, and never knowing where the next load might take you.
- Long distance journeys mean staying on the road for up to three weeks at a time, which means being away from home and family for long periods.
- In Uganda, drivers are rarely stopped unless they exceed the speed limit or in case of an accident.
- In case of the two offences, the officers issue the driver with a ticket indicating the offence and the recipient is supposed to deposit the fine in a bank account within 28 days.
Driving a loaded truck for up to eight hours a day is not an easy task. But this does not bother Yasin Mugisha, after all, he has been driving longhaul trucks for close to 20 years. What bothers him immensely is the amount of bribe he has to part with on every journey.
He says police officers can demand amounts as low as Sh50 or as high as Sh10,000, depending on the “fault” they identify.
Given that he encounters at least 15 police stops in Kenya before crossing into Uganda on his way to Burundi, many are the days he has to wait for nightfall before crossing certain roadblocks, lest he parts with large amounts of money that are sometimes calculated by the number of worn-out tyres.
On many nights, he sleeps on a bunk bed in the driver’s cabin to save on the cost of using a guesthouse.
“We try to save the mileage allowance we are given as we have responsibilities back home,” says Mugisha.
Sometimes he is forced to sleep on an empty stomach if he is held up in a traffic jam for so long that by the time he reaches the next town, the hotels have closed for the day.
There are also occasions when the vehicle breaks down and he has to spend days on the road waiting for mechanics to arrive.
“A round trip that is supposed to take eight days could take 15 or more in case the truck breaks down,” he says.
Such are the hardships that Mugisha has faced in the many years that he has been a truck driver.
Long distance journeys mean staying on the road for up to three weeks at a time, which means being away from home and family for long periods.
Pascal Rubimbura says that being far from his family is a big challenge. His wife, he says, has taken over the responsibilities of heading the family. They have 10 children.
Rubimbura, who ferries goods from Mombasa to Rwanda and Bujumbura in Burundi, relies on his mobile phone to keep in touch with his family.
“Mobile phones have made communication easier. I try to leave enough cash at home but should there be need for more, I send it via mobile money transfer or to her bank account,” he said.
“I am away for eight days and when I return, I spend two to three days before leaving for Mombasa. I make three trips a month.”
I travelled with driver Rubimbura from Mombasa to Kigali in a journey that lasted five days (about 1,750 kilometres). In Uganda, I spoke to two other drivers – Mugisha and Abdul Gakwaya, both Rwandan nationals. During the journey, I noticed that Kenya’s traffic police officers are the most notorious in demanding bribes.
In Uganda, drivers are rarely stopped unless they exceed the speed limit or in case of an accident. In case of the two offences, the officers issue the driver with a ticket indicating the offence and the recipient is supposed to deposit the fine in a bank account within 28 days.
A similar arrangement exists in Kenya but drivers rarely get tickets for breaking the law. I witnessed a truck driver giving a traffic officer some cash at roadblocks near Makindu, Kikuyu, Kisumu and in Busia.
At Makindu, an officer gave back a Sh150 change to a driver who had given him Sh200. “This is the standard amount we give them (police) at roadblocks. If you don’t have change, you give them whatever note you have and they will give you change,” said Gakwaya, who plies the Mombasa-Kigali route.
The drivers said they set aside between Sh1,500 and Sh2,000 — in denominations of Sh50 — to give as bribes in order to be allowed to pass through 15 to 20 roadblocks in Kenya.
This amount translates to hundreds of thousands daily, considering the big number of heavy commercial vehicles plying the Mombasa-Busia or Mombasa-Malaba route.
Data from the Northern Corridor Transit and Transport Coordination Authority (NCTTCA) shows that at least 12,143 heavy commercial vehicles are weighed daily at five weighbridges within Kenya.
The quarterly Port Community Charter Report from January-March 2016 shows that in March, 5,583 trucks were weighed at the Athi River (Mlolongo) weighbridge; 2,507 in Mariakani; 2,655 in Gilgil; 965 in Webuye and 432 in Busia.
This means that police officers manning one roadblock at Mlolongo and who receive a Sh50 bribe from every truck will collect Sh279,150 daily, Sh132,750 in Gilgil, Sh125,350 in Mariakani, Sh48,250 in Webuye and Sh21,600 in Busia.
The amount could be higher, considering the multiple roadblocks between weighbridges and also considering that some officers might demand a higher amount.
Driving over the speed limit attracts the largest bribe, which can go up to Sh5,000.
Gakwaya said there are fewer roadblocks at night than during the day.
“Some are there only at night while some are there day and night. The lowest number of roadblocks we pass through from Mombasa to the border with Uganda is seven,” he said.
“When they stop us, they do not check our travel documents or inspect the driver’s cabin. You give them the money and they signal you to proceed.”
He said this has been the norm for many years such that now their employers give them additional cash for the bribes as part of their mileage allowances.
The drivers identified officers at Naivasha, Salgaa and Burnt Forest roadblocks as the most notorious. At such roadblocks, he said, officers do not take bribes of less than Sh1,000.
HIDE AND SEEK
“They look out for all defects on the truck such as worn-out tyres, for which they demand between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 per tyre,” said Gakwaya.
Mugisha said other officers prefer to carry out random checks on Fridays, and threaten to lock up uncooperative drivers through the weekend, if they do not part with bribes.
“A vehicle transporting heavy loads for such a long distance is bound to develop mechanical problems which we repair while in Mombasa or after reaching the country of destination,” said Mugisha.
And so to avoid delays on the way and to ensure the safety of their goods, they choose to part with cash.
“If you don’t pay the bribe, you are handcuffed and locked up in a police cell. This compromises the safety of the goods as the truck is parked outside the police station because of its size,” said Mugisha.
Truck drivers have devised ways to avoid paying the bribe, including stopping to wait for the officers to go for lunch, or waiting for nightfall when there are fewer roadblocks.
For example, drivers stop at Longonot to avoid officers at the Naivasha roadblock and at Kikopey to avoid those at the Salgaa roadblock.
“This means we travel at night and we are forced to drive long distances to cover lost time,” Mugisha added.
Road safety experts say fatigue is the leading cause of accidents involving heavy commercial vehicles.
Data from the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) shows that between January and April 26 this year, 90 people were killed by heavy commercial vehicles on the Northern Corridor that cuts across 11 counties.
In 2015, 541 people were killed in crashes along the corridor, accounting for 18 per cent of total road accidents in Kenya.
Dr Duncan Kibongong, the NTSA Deputy Director for Safety Strategies, said that lack of rest after driving non-stop for long distances leads to accidents as drivers may doze off or lose concentration.
Surprisingly, we did not find roadblocks after crossing the border in Busia into Uganda all the way to Gatuna border. But there were police officers along the way to look out for motorists driving beyond the speed limit.
The tickets issued to traffic offenders in Uganda show the offence committed and the amount of penalty.
“You have a right to stand trial in case you do not want to pay the fine,” a section of the ticket issued by the traffic police states.
In Rwanda, traffic offenders are issued with tickets and are supposed to pay fine within three days.
Traffic police in Kigali were stationed at intersections to monitor those flouting rules such as failing to wear seatbelts and exceeding the speed limit — which is 40 kph in the city centre and 60 kph in the outskirts.
The Kenyan drivers all agreed that getting a ticket and paying a fine later would save them time and money.
“We would spend less time on the road and also not have to drive when tired to recover lost time,” they said.
The report by NCTTCA says that multiple non-productive stops for trucks in transit whether for security checks, verification of transit documents or vehicle gross weight “add to vehicle transit time and provide for an opportunity for a request for unofficial payments (bribes) without having a noticeable positive impact on security, document validity or overloading”.
But police spokesman Charles Owino said truck drivers who give police bribes are to blame for abetting corruption.
“Such drivers have something to hide as they cannot give police money just like that,” he said. “We can’t just stop erecting roadblocks.”
Mr Owino said the roadblocks are crucial in combating threats like terrorism, illegal immigration and trafficking of narcotics and ivory.
But the truck drivers say that in most instances, police don’t have security on their minds when they stop the trucks since they hardly inspect the cabin and the containers are usually sealed by customs officials at the Port of Mombasa.
Roman Gichinga, the regional coordinator of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said traffic police take advantage of foreign drivers who do not know Kenyan laws.
LOVE AND TRUST
“The police are supposed to give cash bail to those found to have broken traffic laws and give them a date to appear in court and release them to proceed with their journey. But they instead handcuff them and intimidate them to part with bribes,” he said.
He also blamed some employers who he claimed hire drivers without driving licences. The drivers end up bribing police to avoid arrest.
He said that transporters from other East African countries have threatened to start transporting their goods through the Central Corridor connected to Tanzania.
“The harassment of their drivers and safety of goods is really an issue. Some drivers have started shipping in their goods via Dar es Salaam in Tanzania,” said Mr Gichinga.
So, how do the families of the drivers cope when the men are away for weeks on end?
Rachel Mbabazi, Rubimbura’s wife, said she is used to running the home and taking care of their children.
“He tries to spend as much time as he can with the children when he is at home. He also calls and talks to them when they get home from school in the evening,” she said.
However, Rachel denied claims that long distance truck drivers are promiscuous, saying she fully trusts her husband.
“Love and trust are crucial in a marriage. My husband is usually away for many days every month, I can only trust him and be faithful. If I start thinking about him seeing other women, then I will break my marriage,” she says.
Her husband said it is not uncommon for long distance drivers to “keep” women in countries they pass through.
He said there are those who have women and children in other towns but “this depends on an individual”.
He, however, said it is not an easy life and temptations arise since there are times a driver can wait for even up to two months at the Port of Mombasa for cargo to arrive. Some, he says, are tempted to pick other women.
“On the main stops along the way, there are also women who pretend to hike lifts at night but they turn out to be commercial sex workers,” he said.
- Beatrice Obwocha is an online sub editor and a grantee of the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting