My experiences using the commercial transport system in Sierra Leone.

The commercial transport system in Sierra Leone is the main transport system used by the majority of Sierra Leoneans. Most Sierra Leoneans depend on commercial vehicles to get about in the capital, in other towns and for travelling across the districts. Commercial vehicles can include the following taxis, vans, kekes, poda podas. Motorbikes and for crossing the sea, rivers, streams etc canoes or pam pams.
A good transport system can enhance the well being of a population. However, with a population as “impoverished” as Sierra Leone is the commercial transport system is fraught with all manner of issues. Fares paid on journeys are arbitrary mostly. If drivers see that the demand is high for transport on a particular route, they can increase the fares accordingly.
One cannot write about the transport system without first mentioning the police. By this I mean the traffic police. The traffic police are very visible in the day to day lives of Sierra Leoneans as they ply the highways and byways of our towns and cities to control traffic as far as I understand it.
It is my understanding that being made a police officer in the traffic policing departments are lucrative positions within the police force because they make significant additional income by extracting bribes daily from the drivers of commercial vehicles. I have been in various vehicles where drivers have been stopped for any and every reason and asked to hand over their licence which is later returned following negotiations and payment of a fee.
Now most of the vehicles I have seen are very clearly not roadworthy, so it is easy to stop them for the many faults that they do have. However, those faults are not rectified because the payment of a bribe to the police sorts out the matter for the day. It is unfortunate that these drivers do not see the value of solving problems once and for all so that the paying of bribes daily can be minimised or maybe cease altogether.
If traffic rules and regulations were properly enforced many commercial vehicles would not be used on the roads. It is not uncommon to see black smoke billowing out of exhaust pipes or nearly wrecked vehicles carrying passengers whilst the police turn a blind eye after a bribe has been paid. Drivers of these commercial vehicles tend to stick to their zones as travelling outside of the area you are familiar with can also lead to more extortionate bribes being asked for by the police. The outcome for all these activities and situations is increased road traffic accidents, deaths or injuries from accidents, near misses and general chaos on the highways and byways. All of this in a nation where emergency health services at the scene of any road traffic accident is non-existent.
The other observation that I have is that many drivers do not have their own driving licences. Driving licences can be shared amongst a group of drivers or with any trusted person. This enables several people to earn money without having to acquire a licence. They merely pay a small fee to the person whose licence they are using. Of course, if drivers were able to obtain their own driving licences and were encouraged to do so it would make the system accountable. Investigating accidents and incidents would be easier. It would make Sierra Leone a much safer place. However, the police are generally not interested in keeping the populace safe. Nothing is enforced to create accountability or to instigate good practice. I have been in commercial vehicles where the driving licence checked by the police clearly did not belong to the driver of the vehicle but with the passing of two green notes no further questions were asked.
The culture and practices that surround commercial vehicles means that the industry is run mainly by underage boys some of whom have dropped out of education to provide for themselves and their families. Many learn to drive by jumping into a vehicle and just driving it with no lessons and or tuition from a qualified driver. Many cannot read or write. They sometimes have no fixed abode and can be high on illegal substances.
Poda poda apprentices, motorcycle riders and Keke drivers are almost exclusively from this population.
The solutions to these problems are obvious, I think. However, the application of such solutions is where we have problems. Who could possibly undertake cleaning up the police? Or ensuring the commercial vehicle sector runs appropriately and within our laws? This is Sierra Leone at sixty years post-independence.
Nyamacoro S Silla
May 2021

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