In 1989, after the success of our home-grown oral rehydration programme, I spent two weeks in Kano, the north of Nigeria and home to the Hausa and Fulani peoples, as a WHO consultant on oral rehydration treatment for gastroenteritis. On the way back we had to pass through Lagos, spending 12 hours there before catching the midnight BA flight to London.
The airport was about 45 minutes away from the UN hostel where we stayed. At 6 pm we were told we had to leave immediately because of traffic. We ended up in simply the worst traffic jam I have ever seen. It took four hours to get to the airport.
It was not only the sheer number of cars and trucks, it was the rampant indiscipline and lawlessness. No one obeyed anything. People cut in and out as they pleased, mounted islands, went around traffic lights which functioned haphazardly, blew their horns and cussed one another. The police were few and totally inadequate. No one listened to them.
From the comfort and heights of our air-conditioned bus we watched with horror as two frustrated policemen tried in vain to pull a driver out of his car, striking him repeatedly with a bootoo, because he had refused to stop at a traffic light and was blocking the avenue. The driver fought back, blew his horn, screamed and finally got away when a space opened in front of his car. One policeman raced after the car, the other gave up, wiped the sweat off his face and sat down on the sidewalk.
We were happy at that point to notice the official looking revolver our driver carried. Little seems to have changed. A recent Atlantic article by Joshua Hammer, entitled World’s Worst Traffic Jam or How a 40-mile trip to Lagos took 12 hours, repeats my ordeal in greater detail and describes how a combination of cheap fuel (ring bells, anyone?), increase in population (Minister of Finance), bribery (uh huh!) and the ties between Nigeria’s political and business elite (no way, Jose!), have combined to make traffic jams a way of life in Nigeria.
It seems that the trucking industry is under the control of some of those unscrupulous northerners I used to see barging their way in air-conditioned Mercedes Benzes through the streets of Kano, sirens and security on motor-cyclists screaming at the plebs in their Toyotas and Hondas to give way, here comes a VIP!
These gentlemen have shot down every effort to improve or privatise Nigeria’s half-dead British-built railway system, ensuring that all goods must move by road. Nothing like a little collusion between business and government to make life difficult for the ordinary citizen and corruption endemic.
Corruption can have different definitions. Perhaps the simplest definition is that it is the abuse of public power for private gains. Not that it cannot exist in the private sector, but in developing countries with huge budgets, it is usually the public official using his position to derive benefits for himself, for his family and friends, or for his political party, who is the mainstay of corruption.
Corruption has moved from being a phenomenon of little interest to being one of major concern. A country with much corruption cannot have a truly efficient economy or a truly democratic state. Corruption can be a cancer for both democracy and the market economy and if not checked it can essentially kill both, as it is killing us.
So it was with some surprise that in the same article I saw a reference to a book by Tom Vanderbilt, entitled Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), and whose theme is that Traffic behaviour is more or less directly related to levels of government corruption.
Vanderbilt cites a clear correlation between “traffic-fatality rates per miles driven and a country’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption index. In terms of road safety, the Scandinavian countries fare the best; Nigeria is near the bottom of the list.” The same relationship applies to corruption, of course.
The correlation seems to stand up to further scrutiny. A review by US car insurers that uses driving-fatalities data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the American Motorists Association (which measures which states hand out the most driving tickets), rates states from the southern part of the USA (Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Texas and Florida), as having the worst drivers.
If you use federal public corruption convictions to rank US states by political corruption, most of the same states, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida appear in the top ten. Exactly what this says about our own traffic jams and general indiscipline on the roads is unclear.
The way we behave on the road is really an indicator of our attitude to many things, rules, other people’s rights, the value we place on human lives. All these are attitudinal issues that will influence our behaviour in most other situations too. If this hypothesis is anywhere near correct, we in trouble. But we know that.