“Automatic cars are for women.” Corrupt driving and civilised Hard Talk

My son, Enrique, 19, passed his Ugandan driving test today. He is a fairly proficient driver but would have passed anyway, however bad he was, by the simple—and apparently routine—procedure of handing the examiner a tip of 30,000 shillings (USD 15).

This helps explain why there are so many ditheringly incompetent drivers on Kampala’s roads and why, according to the International Roads Federation, the country has the world’s second highest (after Ethiopia) road traffic accident mortality rate.

Enrique had taken a few lessons with a local instructor in a clapped out Toyota Speedster. The windscreen was cracked and the doors could no longer be opened from the inside. The instructor was rather laid back after seeing that Enrique (who rode a motorbike for a year in Beijing) was basically okay. Formal instruction soon gave way to chatting about trucks, motorbikes, China. But in Enrique's opinion he was a good teacher who offered useful guidance on parking, hill starts, pothole dodging and hooting the horn at pedestrians.

Yet on the day of the test skills didn’t come into it. A guy from the driving school delivered Enrique and two other students to the test centre, explaining on the way that “usually we pay them [the examiners] some money and then for formality’s sake we go on the road for a few minutes.” This is exactly what happened. The students stumped up 30,000 each, then drove once round the block with an examiner who obligingly stamped their provisional licences.

There was a minor complication when the test centre proposed to make them do the three minute ‘road test’ in an automatic car. Enrique, who had learned in a manual, demurred. (“Automatic cars are for women” his driving instructor had told him.) So the test centre made him pay another 10,000 shillings to hire a manual car for the drive round the block. Enrique describes this machine, an ancient Toyota Corolla in which the handbrake didn’t work, as “an absolute piece of shit.”

The system thus seems to function more to extract cash than to ensure basic standards of safe driving. There is an official charge of 20,000 shillings for the provisional licence application forms, another 4,000 upon submission of these and, in addition to the unofficial backhander, a further 20,000 by way of official test fee. Once that formality is over, you pay the Uganda Revenue Authority 70,000 for a full licence which, for a few hundred thousand more, the Ugandan Automobile Association will convert to a globally recognised International Driving Licence. So you need quite a bit of money to get this far down the road—but not, necessarily, any driving skill.

This glimpse into ordinary, institutionalised rent seeking and corruption is singularly depressing. I brood over the way that ‘rule of law’ was introduced to Uganda, little more than 100 years ago, by British administrators who insisted that the people they were about to colonise must sign contracts agreeing to the deal. The thumb print of local rulers whose languages had no script was applied to treaties written in English, thereby making it all perfectly proper and above board as far as the British parliament was concerned. How good a start was that to doing things by the book?

The evening brings some comfort when we watch BBC anchor, Zeinab Badawi, interviewing Dambisa Moyo and Alison Evans on a Hard Talk programme about Aid [to developing countries] and the Financial Crisis. It’s ages since I have seen a talking heads programme of such limpid intelligence, and, despite marked differences in the interviewees’ positions, such absence of confrontational histrionics. (Perhaps because all three participants were women?) Moyo is stellar, formidably articulate and persuasive, and will doubtless end up running either the IMF or her native Zambia, although I side with the more nuanced Evans on most of the points discussed. Somewhat minority sport, though. I bet the audience ratings are derisory compared to those for Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear.

Nick Young
Kampala, March 5 2009