My saturday mornings pretty much start the same – the overwhelming dread of the possibility of the road traffic police at the checkpoint on the Great East Road.

At some point or another most people in Zambia dread these encounters with the road traffic police and the checkpoints. The problem isn’t only that there are too many unlicensed drivers (or drivers who lost their licences or licences got expired and never been renewed – my excuse! really it is…), but because of years of the police abusing their power to corruptly get money from motorists, people have forgotten that they are legally in the wrong too!

It makes me laugh when I hear people complain about the police harassing them, because they haven’t gotten round to getting their driver’s licence, let alone taken the test! Rarely do they stop to remember that technically, the police are right to stop and fine them. Yet it is seen as another way for the police to harass citizens and use it as an opportunity to extort money from them. Sadly, more often than not this is true.

The other day my sister and I were having a conversation about this – after a friend’s usual run in with the cops (obviously not me!) – after this friend told them that she didn’t have the money to pay the fine (she finally admitted that she didn’t have a Zambian licence – she had a European one, which they didn’t even ask to see), and they threatened to take her to the police station where the car was to be impounded and she was to be thrown in jail until someone could pay the bond. Knowing she really didn’t have cash on her and wanting to do the right thing, she asked which station would she be taken to so she could call someone to meet her at the police station with the bond money. The police officer instead told her to return later that day to the same checkpoint to pay the fine.

Sounds fishy? You could say perhaps it wasn’t worth the police officers time or paperwork to take this lady to the police station, but if procedure is procedure it should be followed, regardless. Plus does it make sense to fine an unlicensed driver or even a driver who fails to produce their driver’s license and then let them go on their merry way? Is this perhaps why Zambia has such a high level of road traffic accidents? All these unlicensed drivers who don’t know the road traffic rules driving around, could be quite dangerous.

With police officers using their position of authority to intimidate and therefore extortion people, it’s obviously why residents have little respect for the law, and see the police officers more as a nuisance than respect them for the work they have to do. Changing the head of the police department will not change this problem – does he know what’s going on at every checkpoint in the country?

Though educating people on the law would help. Do you pay your fine at the checkpoint or is it to be paid at a police station?

How do we make it easier for people to get driving licenses so that everyone who drives can get one – seriously full medicals are long! Making legal documents easier to get would help for sure i.e. in the UK you fill in a form with the necessary paperwork and mail it off, within 7 days or so you get your license – viola! And then understanding the road traffic laws would be the next obvious step.

Proper procedures, which don’t really inconvenience people would help reduce corruption I’m sure, and then police officers can focus on real and necessary duties than just harassing ordinary citizens! But knowing that you can just bribe any police officer who stops you, doesn’t really inspire anyone to become compliant or to respect the law… Just saying…