Tag Archives: Kenya

An Open Letter to the Inspector General of the Kenya Police Service, Brig. Boinet

Belated congratulations to your new appointment dear sir. With over thirty years experience in the force, you are as much a police insider as can be. You know all that ails the force first-hand: the solutions as well as the priorities.

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Inspector General of Police Boinet (right) with President Uhuru at State House Nairobi

However, Inspector, your kind of experience may be a blindfold. We humans tend to get numb to our problems over time. The only true consolation at the demise of a loved one, for instance, is the passage of time. Having worked in the force for three decades, you may no longer feel the force’s inadequacies as sharply as a new recruit or an outsider observer. Police welfare is amongst the worst of any public employees. Your charges lack proper housing, personal protective equipment and proper health insurance in a long list of other basics. New entrants into the force find these inadequacies difficult to adapt to. Many of those who turn their guns against themselves or colleagues are police officers newly confronted by these difficult inconveniences.

With the passage of time, those who stay in long enough (like you have) numb and learn to cope. Corruption in your force is mostly driven by the need to meet these most basic of necessities: decent housing, transportation to work, family investments should one die in the line of duty and above all, a living wage.

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Police housing in Moyale near the Somali border.

As a senior officer, you have already taken care of these pressing needs at a personal level. Inadvertently or intentionally, you probably consider the process of adapting to these inadequacies as some unofficial mark of pedigree or rite of passage. That is why it will be vital that you seek out and listen to voices from outside as much as those from within. You may wish to consider the following four suggestions from an outsider whose only qualification for advising you is curious informal observation of other countries’ forces and a burning love for Kenya. All the four are long-term proposals that will need inter-ministerial collaborations within government.

First, the process of joining the police force (and the other security forces) needs to change. It has been a long while since the colonial times when the White man lined us up to look at the completeness of our teeth or absence of scars as qualification to joining the forces. The society is more educated and crime is more sophisticated. We need not prevent our best students from joining the forces if they so choose. Why can we not advertise vacancies in the forces in the dailies and invite applications from all interested individuals who meet high physical and academic entry criteria? We can have a central admission committee that receives applications, prepares a shortlist and interviews applicants in an open fair process. Since competition is bound to be high, the interview can include oral presentations as well as written exams on contemporary general security issues, an aptitude test and targeted physical tests. Anyone who goes through this is not only passionate but also fit for service.

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Police recruits undergoing a casual physical examination.

This new crop of officers will be beholden to their country rather than godfathers in the force. Obviously, they will need to be paid well, housed properly and well equipped for the job once they graduate from the police college. Not all will make it to Kiganjo, but those who do not will provide a better recruitment pool for the private security companies; many of which employ people who cannot grasp any of the security challenges of today’s Kenya.

Second on the list are our police stations. Police stations across the country sit on some of the most prime real estate. Sadly though, these prime properties have been turned into junkyards. The police force loses threefold in the current setup:  a poor image, loss of revenue for the free secure storage of junk and the opportunity cost of putting the land to a more economically productive use. Inspector, you can achieve value from these prime city plots by first decluttering all them of junk. It is the insurance companies’ responsibility to store damaged vehicles as investigations continue. To preserve evidence, the police force can go digital. Employ the services and equipment of crime scene investigators who will archive the scene and relevant pieces of evidence on digital media and in forensic labs. The accident vehicles can then be towed to designated storage yards at the insurance companies’ cost. Such vehicles may be released to their owners or insurance companies as soon as the police are satisfied they are of no evidence value or the cases settled.

Police station
The front yard (occasionally backyard) of a typical police station.

After decluttering stations of junk, sir, you need to reconsider the citing of cells. To many Kenyans, the police station is an informal jail. This is because police temporary holding cells are an earshot away from the front service desk. Why not have cells off the police station, or at least in a separate isolated block away from the service desk?  Take hospitals for instance, they keep the mortuary out of site of patients and other clients. A force that seeks to improve its relationship with the public must not only act friendly but also appear so.  Most stations have enough land that can inventively be redesigned to make them places of refuge that they should be. Many are large enough to house high-rise police housing apartments, a school, a dispensary, a small playground for officers and their families and neat offices for serving the public. In many countries, a visit to the police station is similar to a visit to the bank or clinic on the next block down the street. No images of tonnes of rusting twisted junk, no sound of commotion from the cells next door, well-lit airy rooms, friendly officers and resting grounds. We need not fear ourselves, police or civilians as we both share a common spirit of a safe secure Kenya.

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Albany Police Department in Georgia, US.

The third proposal touches on police roadblocks. Inspector, you have manned a roadblock at one point. You know what happens at these mostly illegal barriers. As a first act, please publish a list of all the gazetted roadblocks across the country and denounce all others. By empowering citizens with this information, you will have pulled the rug from under the feet of errant officers who spring roadblocks at their convenience. However, beyond publishing the legal roadblocks, you will need to creatively make sure that non-compliance to the law pains the offender and rewards the enforcer. Currently, it makes little sense for a scrupulous police officer who enforces the law to the letter and collects millions of funds in fines for the state yet their pay remains a pittance and working conditions an abuse. It is possible to sanitize corruption by making sure that a percentage of the fine collected will be due to the officer enforcing the law. This will directly reward officers who work diligently and progressively discourage petty offenses like speeding and carrying excess passengers. Needless to add, the police must be equipped accordingly with gadgets that will collect irrefutable evidence of all alleged crimes. Body cameras and radar guns are some of such equipment already in use elsewhere.

President Uhuru launching 175cc traffic police motorbikes. These are short-life, low power and low maintenance bikes in the class range of boda bodas. Meanwhile, VIP escort police ride state of the art high powered bikes for the pompous service of small elite.

Finally, police welfare is sorely lacking in many areas. By virtue of their job, police officers put their lives on the line for the rest of us. Naturally, the government ought to take care of police officers and their families both during the officers’ lives and upon their death in the line of duty. The ongoing police housing project is welcome but it is moving at snail pace. Many officers still live in squalid conditions. Police need their own schools, transport to work, dispensaries and convenience stores within their housing estates. With proper planning, vetted citizens can share some of these amenities (like schools and clinics) at a fee. It is possible to have souvenir and gift stores and police museums at major police stations: selling branded merchandise like t-shirts, key rings, umbrellas, mugs, caps, etc and telling the heroic tales and history of our police through artifacts, mementos, documentaries and lectures. This serves a dual purpose; it raises revenue for police welfare while blending the public and police together.

A souvenir mug from the NYPD

It is said that when you are the bottom, the only way to go is up. Our police force has so much to do to improve itself for the benefit its workers and the country at large. It begins with an understanding that police are currently working in less than humane conditions. These conditions have made our otherwise gallant officers easy target for bribery and mental conditions like suicide and depression to the detriment of the society in general. Inspector General, make it enviable and rewarding to serve in the Kenya Police Service.

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Ever Lost A Parent? Losing A Child Is Twice As Painful.

Just over two years ago, I lost my dad and saw the world crush in my eyes. I have a rather low threshold for tears, of joy or pain, but I had (and have) never cried as I did then. A heavyset seven- footer athlete, my dad had been battling hypertension quietly for preceding two years. He was on medication, watched his diet and had a regular fitness schedule at home and away. It was his problem and he had never made it an issue to the rest of the family except for the occasional mention that all was fine. In the month prior to his demise, he had visited his Physician more frequently. Dosages were adjusted, tests done and new instructions given.  All would be fine, the doctor hoped.

This optimism did not last. One fateful night, dad woke up in the middle of the night paralysed waist down. By morning, he had no function of all limbs. At the hospital that morning, he slipped in and out of total memory loss, then coma. In exactly 24 hours since he was last fine, dad was no more.

I had been away in Los Angeles for an exam. After my paper, I suddenly went off moods. I was sullen, withdrawn and disinterested in everything for no good reason. We had planned an after party with the rest of my colleagues but I opted out. I was just not in the mood. Little did I know dad was battling a war back home that he would soon lose. My phone had gone off after the battery drained during the daylong exam. I did not have a charger with me until over 600 km away in San Francisco where I was staying for the duration of this trip. However, when I turned on my phone, it came on briefly and I listened to a voice message from dad asking me to call him. I did and he sounded in his usual element for the first few seconds then went of a tangent in his speech. Someone from the rest of the family spoke to me and gave me an account of the events. Dad, in their assessment had made as remarkable an improvement as the deterioration had been. They hoped to leave the hospital in hours.

I was not convinced. My heart raced, tears welled and a drop fell to my phone. I was in a trance. The world seemed to spin slower by the minute and curtains were drawing! I had a strong feeling my dad was not going to come out of such a major stroke. I saw him on a wheelchair, sagging facial skin, drooling saliva and having all his activities of daily living tended to by others. An athletic man full of vigour and with an ever commanding presence reduced to a toddler all over again. I could not hold back my tears. I cried like a burst dam. I knew he faced certain disability or probable death.

We embarked on our road trip back to SF. All the beautiful stops that had made us opt for 6 hour road trip over a 2hour flight made no sense to me or the rest of the party. A few friends cried with me; the rest just slumped into their seats and drowned in their own thoughts. By the time we arrived, dad was in a coma. It was seven o’clock in the evening, about midnight in Kenya time. Nearly 6 hours later, he was no more.

To date, I have never known what words to tell anyone who has lost a loved one. I was told all manner of kind words but they made no meaning to me. The feeling of loss at that time was beyond any words or acts of consolation. Nothing made meaning if my dad would remain dead. I cried all night. My friends embarked on searching for a flight back to Kenya. They were crying between words as they spoke to the airline contact. She cried with them too on learning why I needed a flight in such a short notice. She put me on the next available flight that would connect to Nairobi quickest. I was grateful but my tears would not stop. I arrived at SFO in tears and after a couple of ‘dry’ quick connections in Chicago, JFK, Heathrow and JKIA, the reality dawned on landing at Kisumu.

I had flashbacks of moments when my dad would pray for us every night before he went to bed long after we had been in bed. The moments of quiet counsel. The moments of harsh punishment. The school visiting days. The gifts. His corner at the church and in the house. His mere presence in our minds even when we were not physically together. I have never really overcome his absence. It gets lighter with the passage of time but no one can condole me for this life changing loss. Perhaps quietly known to us as a family, we never tried to condole each other. I could not describe my loss and I knew my mum and siblings could not describe theirs either. We just mourned together undisturbed.

Looking back, I now think it was fair my dad died before any of his children; it is only fair that way. I cannot imagine what my dad would have felt to be the one mourning my death. The loss is much bigger. I have a nearly-two-year-old daughter with whom I have already made so much attachment. Her death in my life would devastate me. This is why even though I cannot pretend to comprehend Raila’s loss at Fidel Odinga’s sudden demise, I know the loss for him and his wife is beyond description.

The Bible captures the demise of King David’s seven-day old new-born in moving detail in 2 Samuel 12:18-23. King David fasted, wept and did not speak to his servants as he immersed himself in prayer for the life of his ailing new born. When it died on the seventh day, the servant could not muster the energy and courage to break the sad news to the King.

19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” – 2 Samuel 12:19

King David grieved solemnly. He had cried enough, fasted and sulked in prayer while the baby ailed. For Raila and spouse, there was no luxury of time. They just woke up to a dead son. The devastation is beyond any words of consolation. No condolences will make meaning. They will grieve in their own way and live with this loss for the rest of their lives. The loss of a child by a parent is an unnatural event. It deflates and nearly takes meaning out of all you worked for and hoped for your child and their future. It puts a sudden stop to what ought to be a lifetime journey. It kills a parent’s soul. I can only wish them and all other parents in their shoes the strength that God gave King David.

23 “But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” –2 Samuel 12:23

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RIP Fidel Odinga

Failure in Governance Fails Women, Not Lack of ‘Morals’.

For the eleven years I have known mukimo, I have never been able to gather enough interest to want to taste it. The sight, colour and presentation of all mukimo I have encountered have been such that none of my physical senses was appropriately excited into an inquisition. Pale green, mushy, steam-like aroma and served as an idle mound on a plate. My prejudiced contempt for mukimo has reinforced over the years so much that when I later saw its Mexican look-alike, guacamole, I was instantly repulsed. I would be reluctant to even try an improved edition of the meal. Nevertheless, I have numerous friends who get visibly excited at the mere mention of mukimo and relish the dish with admirable delight. It would be uncouth and uncivilized of me to revolt at their love for mukimo merely because I do not share in their choice. Similarly, they would be mistaken to show angst at my distaste for their choice meal.

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A version of mukimo decorated with three gains of maize to resemble the Mercedes-Benz star.

When we were hunters and gatherers, conformity was a matter of survival. A tribe member who could not eat gazelle meat brought in after an arduous group hunt had two options; hunt his own choice animal or starve! There was little choice: all men were destined to be hunters, eat what everyone else ate, walk like them, and use the same paths, same survival techniques and so on. Dissenters from tribal norms were summarily dealt with by a mob as they endangered the security and survival of the entire tribe. These norms were unwritten and learnt by induction or coercion.

Diorama of Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers
Early man going through the paces of life oblivious of clothing and the men quite in control of themselves.

The advent of civilization saw the emergence of among other features: governance, specialization, social stratification and the written language. The greatest of these is writing; it enables the accurate conveyance of ideas between individuals and across oceans and generations. With greater development, societies realized that not all men were destined to be great hunters. Some were better trackers, others butchers, roasters, farmers and so on. Specialization diversified labour and defined roles for everyone in the society. Obviously, some roles were perceived more important than others were thus the emergence of social classes. Cobblers and masons were not in the same social league as healers or priests. Neither were men and women. To cap it, an elite class of governors emerged. These were the leaders upon whom tribes vested authority to maintain social order. In the cave days if one stole your hunt, it was your sole responsibility to go after them, recover your hunt and mete out severe deterrent punishment. If a tribal member went against the norms, anybody sufficiently irked would mete out punishment. Society was not organised and life was a narrow shallow rut.

“Lax, ad hoc and ineffective governance tends to drive citizens back to cave tendencies.”

Civilization reversed this with written rules known to everyone, defined roles for police, leaders, citizens, judges and acceptable dispute resolutions mechanisms. Citizens had to give up their selfish primal instincts to government appointed law enforcers and judges. Needles to add, governments are only as effective as their citizens are willing to give up these base cave-survival instincts for common good. However, governments must in turn always act by the letter of the law and consistently punish defaulters to the written pact. Lax, ad hoc and ineffective governance tends to drive citizens back to cave tendencies while strong predictable and fair governance establishes a virtuous cycle of increasingly civil citizens. Compare the citizens of Switzerland and those of Somali vis-a-vis their governments.

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Women dressed as best for them.

Ripping a woman’s clothes in public by self-appointed non-existent-law enforcers shortly-turned jury and executioners is not a debate of morals or anything else but a crime due to a failure/weakening of governance. There was no written law against the woman’s dress at that place or time. Even if there were, the men who enforced this law clearly trespassed her personal space, illegally arrested her, tried her in an unfair hearing and meted out a punishment outside our penal code. This is simply criminal! It did not happen because she was a woman nor because they did not like her dress. It happened because those men’s civilization is still in the mail. They do not subscribe to a governance system in which the rest of us recognize a written constitution/penal code for rules, police for enforcement, and judges for arbitration. The irony of it all is that these cave-men are incensed by style of clothing yet in their era, clothing had not been invented and their fellows had much more self control as regards nude females. It is a failure of governance because in all likelihood, at least most of them will get away with their barbaric attack.

This failure in governance manifests daily. We have lost over 100 state appointed law enforcement officers at the hands of civilian bandits this year alone. Not a single arrest made! Ordinary citizens are robbed, raped and maimed daily by fellows who have confidence the state structure for law and order will remain off their backs. Grand corruption tales have numbed us into silence for the ease with which perpetrators walk off. These daily infractions on citizens’ lives embolden even lowly touts to take a bite at the sordid cake of impunity in disregard of due process. The losers are the civilized lot who have chosen to turn their backs on cave-survival modes in the increasingly false hope that government will bear upon the rest to uphold the respect for law and order.

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A woman in a miniskirt minding her business.

I will probably not eat mukimo soon but I recognize my taste as unique to myself. Many other citizens enjoy their real and figurative mukimos: miniskirts, tank tops, leggings, homosexuality, cigarettes, churches and mosques, and that must never offend, arouse, provoke or whatever me. As long as no written law bans mukimo, it not up to anyone to determine the ‘whats’ and’ hows’ of another’s mukimo. Your ill-defined taste (or lack of it) cannot be the gold standard for people who do not even want to know you! And if it hurts you so much, be civil, come with us into the 21st century and follow due process. That said, state organs for governance must reaffirm their monopoly on violence. State power to arrest offenders is a sum of our individual capacity for violence given up on the understanding that the state would exercise it in our defence at our time of need. Consistent failure to offer this protection only erodes our civilization as each seeks to protect themselves. No one should commit a crime and walk scot-free.

Globalist or Statist, Ebola is a Health Systems Issue

As the world holds its breath on how the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa might evolve, a clash of statist and globalist approaches has been evident all through; from media analysts, to International NGO’s to governments. Statist approaches have their reference point as the state/country and tend to view health risks as security concerns while globalist approaches have the individual as the reference point and tend to consider health risks as human rights issues that know no borders.

ebola map
A map of West Africa detailing the most affected areas by the EVD.

In classical statist responses, the government of Zambia has banned entry from or travel to any of the four most affected countries; Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Neighboring Ghana and Ivory Coast have suspended flights within the region while Guinea, itself the epicenter of the outbreak, has closed borders with her neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia and even declared a state of emergency! The latter three countries have deployed troops at their borders to help enforce movement restrictions. Similarly, many Americans, in the wake of Dr Kent Brantly’s airlifting, voiced reservations at their government’s decision to import the virus onto US soil. In fact, retired famous Neurosurgeon Dr Ben Carson is on record recommending that the two infected Americans should have been at best treated abroad. Back home, many Kenyans are apprehensive and concerned that the virus might make its way into the country aboard the national carrier Kenya Airways, a major carrier connecting West African countries to Kenya. A suspected case late last week (Aug 9th) threw panic across the city. Thankfully, he tested negative. These measures are reminiscent of the early days of HIV/AIDS when fear and panic rather than sound medical principles informed most reactions.

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An electron micrograph of the Ebola virus

The common theme through statist approaches is the definition of disease as a security threat to the nation akin to an invasion. As a result, nations tend to go onto the defense and shut borders, ban flights, expel victims, declare states of emergency and at the bottom of the list, even deploy propaganda. Granted, the socio-economic disruption across West Africa as a result of this outbreak is indeed a threat to the stability of the most affected nations. While in certain instances some or all of these interventions might be helpful, they are seldom successful of their own. Purely statist approaches, beyond securitizing the health threat and evoking a pervasive sense of fear, often overlook the actual necessary interventions.

“The bottom line with Ebola is we know how to stop it: traditional public health,” US CDC Director, Dr Tom Frieden.

In the case of Ebola, a viral infectious hemorrhagic fever of which there is fair medical knowledge, proper hygiene and isolation of symptomatic victims seem to help forestall further spread even as a cure remains elusive. At best, only about a third of infected patients may be nursed back to health. That said, Ebola outbreaks remain either an indictment or appraisal of a health system’s infection prevention and control mechanisms, sensu lato.  This outbreak has therefore merely put to the fore an underlying and long prevalent rot: health systems that are weak from the foundation up.

In as many Sub-Saharan hospitals as homes, clean running water remains a luxury rather than the basic commodity it ought to be. Further, basic and cheap protective gear like gloves and facemasks are frequently out of supply. It is no guess whether these institutions would have enough of costly supplies like intravenous fluids and colloids for the medical support of potential Ebola survivors or management of other conditions. The last nail on the coffin that such a health system represents is surprisingly not the prevalent biting shortage of qualified personnel nor the mismanagement of the few available skilled hands, it’s the population!

“Ignorance and poverty, as well as entrenched religious and cultural practices, continue to exacerbate the spread of the disease,” President Ellen Sirleaf, Liberia.

Many Africans are yet to adopt the germ theory of infectious disease. Developed in the mid 1800’s, this theory remains the most plausible explanation for infections: that tiny living matter (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc) must physically enter a susceptible host through a particular mode (air, food, blood, etc) in sufficient numbers to cause a disease. With this knowledge, people are forewarned and therefore forearmed on ways to avoid known infections. For Ebola, this means limiting if not avoiding all unprotected contact with infected individuals and bodies of victims and washing up adequately when such contact occurs. Sadly, many individuals still believe diseases like Ebola are curses that need exorcism or just prayers. The sick and bodies of the dead are handled casually every day; Ebola or other disease.

As more of Africa opens up to itself and the world, future outbreaks might be more complex and widespread in the absence of significant systemic changes on the public health platform. However, this threat also presents hope. The growth that is opening up and connecting Africa might come with more medical workers in the unreached areas, greater economic strength for adequate stocking of facilities with essential supplies and greater population knowledge and practise of basic hygiene and sanitation. Additionally, improved communication networks mean future outbreaks maybe detected earlier and aid to stricken populations availed sooner.

Globalist approaches to public health crises know no borders. They view health risks anywhere as a health risk everywhere in cognition of the inherent value of human life, right to a dignified pain-free existence and the interconnectedness of humans. These approaches therefore focus on open borders for collaborations, funds, skills and supplies to affected areas, advocacy for action and open reporting of events. An Africa seeking greater ties within itself and with the rest of the world will have to adopt more globalist approaches to our numerous public health perils.

“African states must do more to promote conditions for a dignified human existence within their borders.”

Finally, even though investment in proper health systems is one sure way to healthy populations, these efforts must not stop at the hospital level. The bulk of health dividends will be reaped from investment in other sectors. It is ignominious that 50 years post-independence, many African countries have yet to supply their people with adequate clean water, clean energy, safe public transport, adequate food and enough relevant knowledge. Globalists and other non-state actors will continue to play  a role in this respect but the long end of the buck lies in the hands of our respective states to do that they were set up to do: promote conditions for a dignified human existence within their borders.

Learn about Ebola

The Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board, What is It?

The Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board is a statutory body established by Chapter 253 of the Laws of Kenya in 1978. As the name suggests, the primary role of the Board is the determination, licensure and maintenance of an annual register of duly qualified doctors and dentists.

To achieve this, the Board regulates and supervises the general practice of medicine and dentistry, conduct of internship and the academic programs of medical school programs. Contrary to public opinion, the Board is neither a welfare society for doctors nor a tribunal for medico-legal cases. In fact, the Board’s mandate in medico-legal disputes is only indirectly implied in the Act that establishes it! However, its operations and decisions might make it appear as either: depending on one’s perspective.

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By composition, the Board is a ‘special-interests’ body drawing appointees from government, medical schools and doctors. The Cabinet Secretary for Health appoints the Chairman and nominates at least four other doctors. Additionally, the Director of Medical Services and his deputy are automatic nominees to the Board. In fact, the DMS is the Board’s registrar. After government, the next most represented interest group are the medical schools; each sending nominees to the Board.  Finally, duly registered doctors have seven slots to the Board filled through an election. Tenure for all members is a renewable term of five years.

The bare minimum qualification for Board membership is a due registration as a doctor/dentist. In principle and letter of the law, a newly qualified Medical Officer is as eligible to the Board as is a Paediatric Neurosurgeon of 20 years. Traditionally though, members to the Board have been highly qualified and extensively experienced senior doctors. To its credit or disdain, the Board has been an unofficial holding ground for appointment to senior government positions or conversely, a halfway house from top echelons in government.

For more details, follow these links to Chapter 253 of the Laws of Kenya (the primary reference source for this article) and the Board.

Life (online) After Death

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One of the fastest growing technology platforms today is the internet. Not only are more people getting connected through the now ubiquitous mobile device – cell phones, tablets and wearable gear – and innumerable social media outlets – Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, Instagram, etc -; devices themselves are connected more than ever. In Africa, internet access has grown nearly 500% in the last decade; largely driven by the mobile phone. This is twice the global average. Elsewhere, particularly in Western Europe and the US, the so-called ‘internet of everything’ is experiencing a near-similar growth. Fridges, TV’s, printers, cars, houses, streetlights, car parks and virtually anything we use in our daily lives are now online. With cloud computing taking root everywhere, the virtual world is getting only larger.

In this ever-complex web of connections are multiple media owned and shared between us human users. These digital assets range from bio data, photos, music and books to emails, blogs, posts, tweets, reminders, directories and addresses. Beyond the soft assets, our phones, tablets and laptops are now so personalized they are actual extensions of our living selves.

However, unlike our physical lives that certainly end at some point, our digital side presents a rather new and unusual phenomenon. A photo online, blog-post or tweet acquires a life of its own and could potentially outlive its owner. How then do we manage our online digital assets upon demise? What happens to a deceased’s Facebook profile, email account, phone or even laptop? Moreover, how should we handle digital connections and linkages like phone-book entries, Facebook friendships or emails from friends gone yonder? Is deleting these ‘dead entries’ more viable an option than letting them ‘lie in state’?

I recently lost a friend from my college days in a road accident. There had been no physical contact between us since college but we kept tabs on each other via Facebook. I, like many other friends of his, learnt of his sudden and tragic demise on Facebook. His wall froze in time; the only new postings being our messages of condolence. Days later, still shocked at his demise, I stumbled upon his contact details while scrolling through my phone’s contacts list. Suddenly, the loss was all fresh once again. Images of our college days flipped through my mind in that brief moment of trance. Then the big question popped: to delete or retain the contact?

Social-media

Many have been at this crossroads. I chose to keep my friend’s contact details on my phone for no good reason. And his joins many others whose owners I know are no more. Friends and relatives I once had close relationships with. Like mementos, these contacts act as – if fleeting – psychological links to people with whom a physical reach is no longer possible. A probably greater reason for keeping these contacts is the avoidance of the guilt-feeling of throwing away a once treasured contact.

Certainly, opinion is divided on this. Others feel a sure part of the healing process is cutting out unnecessary reminders like phone entries. Further, service providers will re-issue such numbers and the startling possibility of a shocking call from a long dead contact may be unwelcome. It may be easy to simply tap ‘delete’ and do away with the digital links with our departed fellows but the more complex part arises at our own demise. Our online footprints will linger indefinitely; on social media, game accounts, subscriptions and so on.

Just over half of today’s internet users are younger than 35, as such, death and its consequences on their online assets are the last thoughts in their minds. Our lives are increasingly moving online and the question of what happens to this digital other life continues to gain currency. Already multiple avenues are available just in case. Many are subscription services that offer to delete or memorialize one’s accounts and online resources upon demise.

Facebook, Twitter and Google offer free such services free upon request. Other third party providers (see a list at the digital beyond) have recently come in to fill the void. Even then, a different individual nominated by the subscriber must do the notification of one’s death to these providers. In other circumstances, an unreturned regular inquiry by the service provider is presumed for the subscriber’s death and initiates the after-life-management process. Legal challenges and gaps exist though as the transfer of login details or personal online digital assets to third party entities remains outside the scope of most End User Licence Agreements.

Whichever way these new services and the socio-legal environment evolve, it is worth giving a thought to our posthumous online footprint. For those grappling with digital memories of long gone friends and relatives, there’s really no right way of handling these. The common call is for each of us to only go online with what we would not mind losing or surviving us. What’s your take?

Do These Lives Count for a Thing?

On the morning of September 11 2001, the United States of America woke up to what remains one of the most atrocious acts of terror on civilians. In a span of minutes, nearly 3000 people lay dead following the multiple airline hijackings and suicide crashing. That day is immortalized in history.

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Aftermath of 9/11 at the World Trade Centre

Even more enduring are the changes that occurred in the wake of the attacks. Not only has airline transportation practise changed worldwide, internal national US security, immigration, banking finance, foreign policy and military practise have all been affected in one way or another.

Two months after the attacks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was established with the core mandate of securing US transport systems; focussing on air transport. This mandate was later emboldened through the establishment of an entirely new Department of Homeland Security one year later. Twelve years on, airline and passenger safety in the US is a near-impregnable multi-layer behemoth system that spans the globe. There has been no repeat of the ignominious events of 9/11.

In achieving this feat, new laws were crafted and zealously implemented. New institutions were established with the mandate and wherewithal to achieve their specified objectives. Investment in new technology, training of personnel and public education have all been components of an all-out commitment to prevent, pre-empt and manage the next 9/11.

The raison d’être for these sweeping changes would be the sanctity and value of human life. There is no greater wealth to any nation than the lives of her people. Indeed, people are to a nation what good health is to an individual. The loss of a single life anywhere invariably shatters many other lives. Children are orphaned, spouses are widowed, parents bereaved and friendships cut short. The direct loss of productivity of the deceased and their grieving social circle cannot be quantified. Attendant expenses in emergency response, treatment, rehabilitation and funerals only make the pain and cost of avoidable death unbearable.

In Kenya, we live through a 9/11 on our roads every year! I have never lost a close relation in a road accident but lost my own dad to a fatal stroke. The sudden emptiness that engulfed the entire household remains palpable one year on. Each time the now regular road crashes grab the headlines; I cannot help but feel the pain, agony and anguish the families of the victims bear. It baffles me how the authorities charged with road safety live with their conscience through crash after crash to an annual tally of well over 3000 Kenyans! Thomas Jefferson’s words that, “The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness” ring hollow in these circumstances.

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An accident scene in Kenya

Unlike in the US where the loss of 3000 lives marked a turning point of global significance, our departed kin die in vain year in, year out.  Are we just numb to the sheer pain of fellow citizens? Or are our own goals in life too grand for us to care about them? Alternatively, is it lost on us that this untamed beast will come calling on us or kin sooner rather than later? Still, are our lives of lesser value even before our own eyes?

We still grapple with (and lose invaluable lives in the process) the same old failures that make our roads unsafe. The number one determinant of all road fatalities remains speed yet the enforcement of the law on this single factor remains in limbo. Driver aptitude is roundly recognised as equally significant but we have not made even baby steps in reforming training, empowering and educating current drivers or even consistently punishing errant behaviour. Whenever we flex some muscle, it is usually an uncoordinated, limited and short-lived reflexive jolt in response to the latest tragedy. A common spectacle in those moments is the inspection of public service vehicles by the roadside. One wonders how such inspections appraise components like brakes, lights, wipers, emissions and so on. Pointedly, the focus is usually on licences, body paintwork, extra passengers, tyres and other such easily apparent failings. The irony is that in a spectacular misapplication of technology, drivers whose vehicles are found at fault are instantly fined, pay their fees on the spot and proceed in their death shells!

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An impromptu roadside vehicle inspection in Kenya

The ‘hero’ medal in today’s airline safety goes to the passenger (especially in the US). Even before one’s flight, one could already be on a ‘flight watch-list’.  Then there is the ever growing list of prohibited items to check. Even those items allowed must be in certain quantities and packaging. A one hundred per cent baggage inspection means baggage must bear special or no locks lest they be broken into for one’s own safety. At the airport, traditional terminal car parks are now replaced by drop-off zones. Armed and uniformed military personnel are at hand and cameras record entire termini. Then there is the full-body scan by x-ray machines and so-called pat downs by TSA officers. Meanwhile, shoes get a dedicated x-ray session as one tugs on barefoot. As if that were not enough, the person on the seat next to you could be a trained security officer planted there for your safety.

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A typical full-body airport x-ray scan image.

Such is the seriousness with which life is guarded. Many passengers do not exactly love the ritual that air travel has become in the wake of 9/11 but they neither do they loathe it. Instead, most see it as necessary inconvenience whose dividends are too valuable to wish away. This understanding has partly been achieved not only by complete and constant communication with passengers, but also by co-opting passengers as stakeholders in the safety/security war. Even more important, a legal framework ensures everyone in the process plays their bit professionally and efficiently.

Back on our Kenyan roads, while passengers generally understand the basic safety regulations like seat-belts, non-speeding and safe loading, there has not been a demonstration of a compelling commitment on their part to these requirements. Too often, passengers board full buses for the selfish (nay foolish) expediency of saving time. In hospital beds, passengers recount tales of speeding or otherwise reckless drivers whom they did nothing about.  Our losses on the roads have continued to be directly borne only by those immediately affected. As a result, a pervasive tolerance to this carnage has made sure the rest of us do not do our part in transportation vigilance until it is our turn to bear the loss.

The authorities need to empower passengers to report safety abuses by acting decisively on all reports. While the police have a particularly heavy legal responsibility to instill discipline on errant road users, we citizens bear the ultimate responsibility. If the police will not do their part, we should be selfish enough to demand better. Our safety is for the most part for our own individual good. It is now obvious not one of the numerous public officers whose job is to enforce road safety looses sleep over a road crash. At least you should give your safety a second thought and ultimately some action. It’s your life!

Michael Bane writes in his book Trail Safe: Averting Threatening Human Behavior in the Outdoors, “Risk is the increased consequence of failure.” We have made our roads risky by that which we fail to do. As a pedestrian, maintain your wits about you while by the roadside or crossing the road. As a passenger, ask the speeding driver to slow down and do it over until you feel safe. Other passengers may find you a nuisance but make no apologies for being safe. Wear your seat belt if provided. Do not board when there is no seat for you. Be selfish and jealously take guard of your life. Should you be the driver, common sense, traffic rules and courtesy should be your mantra behind the wheel. Even if you believe in an after-life, your family and loved ones cherish your presence more in this life. Should you fail to honor your duty to safety, like the over 3000 lives lost on the road in Kenya this year, your life will be lost in vain.

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An accident victim in a Kenyan hospital

How Weak Systems Abet Corruption

Corruption at its base description is a deliberate complacency against good. It is an inability to stand on the moral high ground for right and good. Given, the perpetration of corruption is not based merely on the weak morals of individuals. In fact, one may posit that humans are inherently weak of moral good. Our base instincts are fiercely competitive and selfish at best. We have developed laws and regulations simply to keep these self-interest instincts in check and out of others’ harm.

It thus follows that banking on impeccable morals alone will never succeed as a tool for fighting corruption. Rather, the policy and physical environment in which people operate must be changed to not only discourage corruption but also enable the apprehension of all cases of the same.

Using a real life illustration, I will demonstrate how a weak and disjointed policy environment abets corruption. Flying into Kenya from abroad, every passenger is entitled a free luggage capacity of 46 kg on most airlines in economy class. This is the case with our national carrier, KQ. However, should the passenger’s final destination be Kisumu or Mombasa, the domestic free luggage allowance is capped at 20 kg. Again, this is standard practice in many other countries. Conveniently, KQ will allow international passengers to proceed with the entire 46 kg to either Mombasa or Kisumu free within 24 hours of the incoming international flight. This provision applies at the discretion of the check in staff at the counter. The staff (as proof to warrant the waiver) retain no documentation. Sadly though, therein lays the loophole exploited by KQ’s own errant employees to deny her much needed revenue.

A passenger with excess baggage presents at the check-in counter and is rightly told he will have to pay KSh 250.00 per kilogram above 20 kg. That is KSh 2,500.00 for 10 extra kilos. If the passenger hesitates to pay up, the check-in staff then gives an offer: pay half the amount, get no receipt and proceed with your flight. At this point, the passenger is in a moral dilemma: pay up the entire right amount or play along and save some cash. Our base instincts, honed for self-reward and advantage seeking will go for the later. The morally well-tuned passenger may insist on due process and bear the ‘loss’ gracefully.

But what is KQ’s contribution to this sad scenario? One may safely assume that KQ has not made her staff and passengers know why there is a limit on luggage. Both staff and passengers may simply think KQ’s baggage limits are solely for revenue generation; oblivious to the more important reason, which is safety. Due to this gap in knowledge, the errant staff and willing passenger accomplices unknowingly endanger lives by falsifying baggage weights for the gain of a few shillings. Using posters, leaflets and other targeted media at the airport lounges and in mainstream media, the airline can sensitize passengers on the real reasons the luggage weights need to be accurately declared and recorded. That way, passengers are less likely to take up offers to collude with staff in falsifying weights.

Second, it may be possible KQ is charging too steeply for their customers’ willingness-to-pay. As a result, this creates an incentive to avoid payment on the passenger’s side and an opportunity to activate this incentive on the check-in staff’s side. Of course, the loser is KQ: which still has to carry the extra baggage for no pay at all. It would be wiser to charge less and collect it all than charge heftily yet collect nothing.

Third and probably more important is the operational environment. The KQ staff that receives, weighs and records luggage is neither accountable nor traceable. This gives errant employees enough leeway for corrupt behaviour. Advanced technology today can link the check-in weighing scales to a central database that matches the counter to the attendant and the passenger automatically. This way, every piece of luggage traces to who checked it in, at what time and how heavy it was. This alone is enough deterrent since the check-in staff cannot manipulate the automatic recordings which are reviewed and audited by an independent third party. In more secure environments, the third eye captures all goings on. CCTV cameras are probably the best passive deterrents against petty crime and this kind of corruption fits the bill. Their other advantage is the evidence when crimes occur.

This weakness of policy is also evident at the customs counter. One enabler of corruption is the paucity of information. KRA does not display what items are tax-exempt or otherwise: or how much tax is due on what items. True, this information is available on their website but it would not hurt to boldly display it at their service counters. To add to the opacity, KRA has no way of knowing which of their staff inspected which luggage, at what time and what was brought in. On more than one occasion,  I have witnessed customs staff ask for tax from passengers for one item or another only to drop the demand in exchange for a few thousand shillings into their pockets. Often times, a single attendant or two are unable to inspect all the baggage coming in. Since most of the items on passenger luggage are small consumer items, I wonder whether KRA collects even enough to pay their errant staff in the current set up. One would rather KRA ignored this bit of revenue to stem their losses or if they have to collect it, then go all out: employ enough attendants, display the right information to passengers and even record the inspection on camera and log every baggage inspected to the officer responsible.

Technology alone however, is no panacea to corruptible individuals. At the same JKIA, I have witnessed severally parking attendants collude with errant taxi drivers to avoid paying for parking. This happens despite the presence of automatic chip card operated entry barriers into the airport’s parking lots. To begin with, the presence of an attendant at an automatic barrier is in itself defeatist. It is akin to having an attendant at an ATM or automatic door. The most apparent reason for this duplication is that even though entry and exit is automated; some payments are still made in cash and are handled by the attendant. Again, that offers a loophole. Errant attendants collude with some drivers to beat the entire system on the manually operated gates. The net effect is not just loss of revenue to the airport and parking company, but the attendant’s employer is also paying him/or her for work not done. This is yet another demonstration of a weak policy decision; create an automated entry side by side with a manual one. It does not take crooks long to find the gaps.

With a little more investment, the parking company could automate the entire process including cash handling. Without an attendant, such a system is designed to be fail-safe: i.e. when it fails, the barriers open and allow free entry or exit. The knowledge that a failed system will automatically lead to lost revenue means the company will be obliged to keep the system well maintained lest they drop out of business.

Fail-safe systems can be costly nevertheless. A rather queer fail-safe system at JKIA is the police road check. The roadblocks have failed; they allow anything in or out. The modus operandi in the aviation world is to treat every airport, particularly international, as facing significant security risks. JKIA is no exception. It always disturbs me that the police manning the roadblock will only inspect certain cars. As you may guess, these are taxis and other ordinary-citizen passenger car models. High-end swanky limos and SUV’s have an unwritten security pass. Curiously, PSV’s too do not go the scrutiny.

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If this profiling were based on any security intelligence, it would not be a source of worry. The sad fact is that this profiling is meant to raise illegal revenue to the police officers in the shortest, safest and most hassle free manner; it has nothing to do with security intelligence. The taxi driver therefore knows beforehand that they must pay KSh 100.00 at the roadblock. They dare not challenge this illegality because often than not, their car has one fault or another that would attract a much heftier penalty. The police on the other hand either does not realise the risk of collecting bribes at the expense of security checks or is simply not bothered. In the end, anyone and anything can drive into and out of the JKIA. Moreover, one does not even have to pay a bribe, just get an imposing car and the police will actually salute as you drive past.

While corruption may be blamed for the officers collecting bribes form errant drivers, a more salient factor is to blame for the large number of vehicles that go uninspected. We have perfected a culture of double standards into policy. This culture serves citizens based on their actual or perceived social class. As a result, ordinary people get security checks while the supposed ‘big men’ take the free pass. The average citizen follows a stricter version of the same laws but the high society has multiple unsolicited concessions at every turn. This not only exposes all of us to deadly security breaches but also takes away the collective ownership of our systems and structures from us. For we do not feel equally served by these system, in fact, some citizens feel unfairly targeted by overzealous rent-seeking officers. It is not surprising therefore how arms and grenades find their way all over the country despite numerous police roadblocks.

Without reiterating the extreme shortage of police officers in the country (in itself an unacceptable infraction on our sovereignty), it makes a compelling case to review the value of most roadblocks as they currently are. It may be better to have fewer real roadblocks than 1001 toll stations in the name of roadblocks. To make the roadblocks more effective for their security objectives, the current rulebook must be shredded. We must employ new innovative measures that hold officers and drivers accountable for their actions and responsibilities. Errant officers must be apprehended and punished in no different way from errant motorists. While at it, any profiling must be based on sound intelligence in the absence of which every vehicle must be equally screened.

As an illustration of radical off-the-box thinking in beating crime, stretches of the US-Mexico border are fitted with surveillance CCTV cameras that upload images to a web portal. Any US citizen can log into the site and virtually patrol the border. When they spot suspicious activity, often drug traffickers and illegal migrants, they alert the uniformed security personnel who review the data and swing into action. We may not copy-paste such solutions but they demonstrate that in a rapidly changing world, we cannot keep fighting crime (corruption, terrorism, etc.) using the same old means.

Finally, even as we change the policy and physical environment in which people operate to deter corruption, it must not be lost on us that someone must want a change for the better. It is easier for those in positions of leadership to lead the war on corruption as they have the resources and legislative framework to do so. The ordinary citizen, an even more important warrior in the fight against corruption, will always be the loser if the system is not aligned for non-tolerance. Short-term gains from corruption are a tempting bait to poorly paid officers and employees who know they will not be apprehended. Even as we need to doubt the moral probity of every individual in order to fight corruption, we need to trust a few leaders to set the ball rolling. It is these leaders that we lack.

Social Inequ(al)ities will Drown Us All: Rich or Poor.

In Kenya today as in just about every other part of the world, we face a multitude of threats to human development and co-existence. Every country bears unique difficulties whose solutions are without saying, equally unique. However, on a general assessment, a number of challenges have been surmounted by solutions that appear quite similar overall if for a tweak here and there. Specifically, we face significant challenges in internal security, road safety and public sector services and utilities (health, education, housing, electricity and water). Given, a few Kenyans enjoy first-rate quality of these services but majority of the nation still live in low quality dwellings lacking the most basic utilities.

A dichotomy exists in which state-run services targeted at the masses are invariably inferior to their privately run counterparts targeted at those able to pay market prices. This is most evident in the health and education sectors. In other key public sectors like transport and the utilities, state divestiture is now mature with only regulatory functions and minimal shareholding left over. Even then, the entirely private road transport sector is one of the most chaotic and inefficient sectors. It is therefore apparent that ownership – state or private – is no panacea to inefficiency, rather policy and management.

According to the UNDP, the Human Development Index (a composite of three factors: education, income and life expectancy) is a fair measure of the quality of life and potential in a nation. Western European countries have consistently topped the world HDI rankings with Norway coming first 8 times in the last decade. Save for a few, nearly all the highly developed countries have programs that attempt to guarantee every citizen access to quality health care, education and decent employment. The hand of the state is heavy on these sectors in terms of both investment and regulation. In addition, these countries have social safety nets that encourage nearly all citizens to achieve their individual potential. Public transport for instance runs as the economic engine that it is: delivering workers to their jobs across the country efficiently – in comfort, safety and on schedule. Regulation and enforcement of fair employment practices on the other hand guards against poor pay, unfair working conditions and the vagaries of unemployment. The goal of these programs is to transform individual needs and aspirations into national goals to which everyone contributes according to their ability and enjoys according to their need.

In contrast, our undoing in Kenya is entire systems, institutions and sectors whose singular goal is to achieve the best interests of a select few at the expense of the public. Like the colonialists, many of our leaders see their positions as an elevation above the masses and therefore an entitlement to special benefits and treatment. It is the reason we spend more on chase cars, outriders and elite police for a few persons and leave the rest of the public at the mercy of police officers lacking the most basic crime deterrence and quick response tools! For the same lack of a public focus, we have set the minimum wage at a sorry $100/month when a few public officials draw $1000/sitting as allowances for meetings that are part of their regular work. Even though we know most road deaths occur among pedestrians and cyclists (70%) partly because they have to share the highways with high-speed motor traffic, we still build the same types of roads with no considerations (special lanes, crossings and footbridges) for this most-vulnerable majority. Food remains the major budgetary expenditure for most households due to the lack of concerted efforts at helping farmers produce cheaper and better food. Until recently, major highways would be shut down for hours for the president who would not show up after all!

Whatever the justification, these scenarios reinforce inequalities and limit the number of Kenyans actively participating in national development. These lopsided choices further hinder the achievement of individual aspirations of the majority and therefore keep the whole country in a perennial state of insecurity, increasing poverty and dwindling quality of life. It is high time focus shifted from ‘big man’ first to ‘common man’ (read everyone) first.

When we make our public schools the best schools, our public hospitals the best and develop a public transport that actually works, we shall be firmly on the path to real economic growth. Assuring every citizen a chance at proper education, health and an enabling environment to earn an income are probably the reasons for the existence of government. As of the moment, an unacceptably large swathe of the population is labeled as informal. Their children attend low quality public and shadowy private schools, they go to backstreet private clinics or the constrained public ones, they earn inhuman wages, they can barely afford good food and they are a security risk to everyone else including themselves. On the flip side, a much smaller number of citizens under the guise of state officers are feted and pampered at every turn. They do not care of a public transport system because in addition to their state-issue limousines they can choose which of the other two or three cars to use, they have their health insured, their children attend exclusive private schools and the walls around their homes are too high for any peeping Toms. Unfortunately, this class of Kenyans – the policy makers, political leaders and social elite – is like the dog running away from its own ugly tail. Their penchant at eating the state is a risk unto themselves and everyone else.

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To improve the quality of life in our country, we will have to focus on public good. The letter and spirit our policies will have to seek to impress the public rather than a select few. A focus on common good will achieve benefits for everyone while a focus on individuals will leave those same individuals exposed to the very ills they attempt to escape. The elite and middle-class have their place in every society but that place is really small and uncertain if the rest of society has no place.

Rather than each build walls round our homes and grab 5 or so officers to keep guard, it would be safer for us all to have the police equipped with the skills and tools to not just deter crime, but also apprehend nearly all criminals every time. We may have the option to take our kids to the best private schools but at the end of it all, those who miss a good education in the public schools will still be our collective problem to face. And however healthy one may be … complete with a private health insurance, doctor and all … the health problems of the rest of the public are as much your own as they are theirs. The minister who can halt all traffic and have his way to the office in time achieves nothing if the rest of the workers remain held in a gridlock.

While true leaders would naturally focus on satisfying the aspirations of their people rather than themselves, it is also a civic duty of citizens to demand of better from their leaders. In a situation where both leaders and citizens have sat on their laurels, the consequences are dire: continued depravation and disempowerment of the masses as leaders plunder and amass ever more wealth. In the long term something gives: a revolt by the masses due to difficult and poor living conditions may force a reformation of leadership. The leadership on the other hand may be forced to transform itself for better when the effects of their actions (and inaction) begin to bite them.

We can have a voluntary leadership reformation and put everyone (and the nation) on the path to sustainable economic success. Kenya is in the company of only a handful of nations in which public service is the most lucrative economic activity. For most developed countries, public service is a dedication and commitment to serve – the benefits of which are nowhere close to those of for-profit operations. Remuneration in the Kenyan public sector today does not reflect expertise, experience or value. If it did, doctors, teachers, police and nurses would not be the lowest paid in spite of the fact they offer key professional social services. It cannot be lost to policy makers that the services of medics, teachers and the police are so key to a sustainable economy and that there can be no meaningful development in the absence of security, good health and proper education.

As the name suggests, public goods achieve good for everyone; those who pay for them and those who do not as well as those who use them and those who do not. The outlay costs for most are prohibitive but in the long run, the efficiency and multiplier effect on individuals, economies and nations are worth every penny spent. When everyone has the opportunity to participate in nation building, the task of nation building becomes lighter, faster and better. Every one of us should focus on the greater good at whatever activity we engage in.

Safe Driving Drives Safety

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An old surgical adage goes, ‘A good surgeon knows how to operate, a better one when to operate and the best one when not to operate.’  On the road, the best drivers know when to give way and when to stop. Put simply, knowledge comes hand in glove with responsibility and judgment. Of the 1.2 million annual road deaths worldwide, 70% occur in developing countries, which host only one third of the world’s vehicles.  It is an unsettling normal that, like a sad annual target, over 3,000 lives will have been lost by year-close in Kenya. In the process, another 15,000 are maimed to various extents. Majority are productive young citizens in their prime and the so-called vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Occasionally (which is frequent), a bus swallows 40 citizens in one gulp and triggers knee jerks all over for a while before ‘normalcy’ returns. These losses transcend just the deaths; families are left destitute, children orphaned, and many other lives turned topsy-turvy. The overall toll on the economy and society is far-reaching and ought to be a call for not just concern but systematic targeted action.

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In the coming years, the WHO predicts road fatalities to account for the third leading cause of death in developing countries by 2020. Growing populations and economies, urbanization, increasing vehicular traffic and inadequate infrastructure, systems and policies will all contribute to the carnage.  This knowledge, rather than be reason for despair and prayers to God for protection, needs to be a tool for preparation. Like anything else that works well, road safety is a system of deliberate actions by definite actors in concert to a common goal. Within this system, the fellow behind the wheel takes the lead when it comes to making a difference. Over 90% of all accidents on the road are a result of poor/lack of driver judgment and therein lays the problem in road safety. Punitive laws and fines may deter poor road ethics but laws unto themselves do not make a people. Rather than emphasize fines, bans and arrests, it is better to lay focus on policies that would make drivers more knowledgeable, courteous and skillful. Needless to add, drivers operate machinery on roads. These two other components (vehicle and road conditions) must also be addressed. For this discourse however, we focus on the driver as the primary determinant.

There are three critical ingredients of the safe driver: cognitive skills, social skills and physical ability. None is more valuable than the other is but the first determines how much of the rest a driver would muster and how well they would deploy all the skills. These skills develop from raw knowledge, past experience and a baseline cognitive ability. Driving schools only teach the basics of safe driving; the raw knowledge of law and common courtesy required on the road. However, the skill of safe driving is acquired by experience through the deliberate application of all the three ingredients mentioned above.

A driver’s cognitive skills inform their understanding of their ability, the condition and performance of their vehicle, the applicable road regulations and the prevailing road conditions. By merely getting a vehicle on to the road, the driver ought to be certain already of the vehicle’s service condition for its purpose and their ability to operate it safely. Whether the road is unfamiliar, unmarked, dark, narrow, potholed or otherwise, common sense dictates the driver must judge what speed is safe for their ability, vehicle and laws. Perhaps the most important cognitive skill in driving is the perception of an accurate temporal-spatial awareness and acting on it appropriately. Safe drivers are aware of what is around them at all times. They look out for other road users on the sides, from the rear and from afront in relation to their position and speed. They also keep an eye their own vehicle’s instrument panel for their current performance and aberrations from the normal. They constantly attempt to predict the actions of other roads users and prepare for them. Even though 90% of all driving stimuli are visual, hearing, smell and vibratory senses all contribute to the safe driver’s awareness. To do all these requires utmost concentration and alertness behind the wheel and a measure of intelligence.

Alcohol consumption before/during driving is outlawed primarily because it numbs all these senses and therefore impairs our judgment and reaction time. Physical fatigue and sleep deprivation have an almost similar effect. However, other numbing factors are less apparent. Benign activities like chatting with your passenger, changing the CD, tuning the radio, using your cell phone, adjusting the air-con and fixating on scenes outside can distract from the task of driving and lead to fatal consequences. Research shows that if drivers involved in accidents had an extra second to act, 80% of accidents would be averted. It is in the split second of inattention that accidents occur.

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The second ingredient in the bag of safe drivers is social skills. As a matter of courtesy and safety, drivers are taught to give way whenever it is safe to do so. In some instances, courtesy is actually a law unto itself. The green traffic light for instance does not symbolize a right to proceed at all costs, but rather an indication to proceed if safe to do so. The zebra crossing demands that one lowers their speed even when they do not spot any pedestrians while the stop sign/red light demands a stop even in the absence of other traffic. Courtesy means a driver should not tailgate, accelerate when being overtaken or misuse their lights or horn to intimidate other road users. Safe courteous drivers do not surprise other road users by their actions, they appropriately indicate their intentions to turn, stop or overtake. They pull over from the road when they anticipate a fault or need to stop and alert other road users of the same. They make sure they are visible on the road at all times: fog, rain, dust, dusk, dawn or night by using the right lights. They do not blind oncoming drivers neither do they hog the road to themselves on a two-way.

The last component, physical ability, is rather obvious. One must be able to physical reach the vehicles controls and manipulate them appropriately. A comfortable well-positioned seat, well-padded pedals, the gear lever, instrument panel and location and operation of other controls contribute to the safety of any driver. Further, proper eyesight, hearing, smell and touch are all valuable to operate a vehicle safely. Children are barred from driving partly because of their physical handicap. Equally, persons with disabilities must have specially kitted vehicles and may actually not operate certain heavy machinery that require more physical strain and dexterity. Nevertheless, reach and operation of the controls is only safe in normal driving circumstances. Emergencies and special situations demand a different type of physical ability and co-ordination. This has to be learnt separately and practiced over time. An intelligent driver would not bring formula antics or emergency-vehicle (ambulance, police, fire) maneuvers onto the public road in their stock vehicle.

With all the three ingredients in place, a safe driver – like a safe surgeon – knows when to proceed and when not to. He knows what skills to deploy for what conditions. Advances in technology have solved some of the issues. Modern cars have automatic headlights, daylights, turn signals, anti-collision systems, lane detectors and a retinue of other gizmos that enhance safety with little or no driver input. Like trains, driver-less cars are already on the roads and seem to cause significantly less accidents than their human driven counterparts do. As a primarily used-car market, most Kenyan vehicles are roughly 5-10 years behind current technology. Regardless, the responsibility still rests on the driver to appraise their skill, vehicle and road for accurate and appropriate decisions behind the wheel.

 Most drivers have the necessary physical ability and coordination for a safe trip but courtesy is sorely lacking. To a debatable extent, some drivers either do not exercise their cognitive skills or simply lack them. The work of any driver behind the wheel can be reduced to four functions: to constantly identify potential dangers, predict how they would occur, decide what to do if and when they occur and execute sensible mitigating measures.

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It took the developed countries about 40 years to lower their road fatalities from rates similar to Kenya’s today (60 deaths/10 000 vehicles) to an average of 2 deaths per 10 000 vehicles. We do not have that kind of time in our hands. Besides, the advances in technology and research and experiences in developed countries mean that what works is now well known. As for drivers, the responsibility for road safety lies squarely in our hands (and feet). I find it irreconcilable that barely literate persons can acquire driver’s licenses and be expected to deploy these faculties in a sensible and coordinated manner. People who could barely pay attention for 10 minutes in a primary school class and subsequently dropped out because of the mental strain can pay bribes and acquire a driver’s license in a few months! With their license, we expect them to stay alert and attentive on the road for 6 or 10 hours while performing complex permutations and combinations in the mind over a 500 km dark, narrow, two-way tattered stretch of a road at 100 km/h! And with tens of passengers on board in a vehicle whose fitness is uncertain! Without a comprehensive review of our driver training and appraisal system, God will certainly spend more of his time helping the Japanese overcome massive earthquakes, the Americans conquer the universe, and the Dutch reclaim the sea as our people die mercilessly on the roads. Prayers may work miracles but road safety is definitely not a miracle. We must take matters into our hands.