IN recent weeks I have been asking myself how we got here with so much infrastructure. Never in the history of this country was it possible to drive from Bukoba to Mtwara on a nice road. Or from Mwanza to Tanga via Babati and Arusha. For $20, I can visit my in-laws residing some 1,200 kms away, by just hopping on a bus.
I did my ‘O’ level education in Moshi and went to high school in Iringa. National service was split between Mafinga and Nachingwea in what was Mtwara province. I then took a medical diploma in Bugando Mwanza and was sent to work in Musoma hospital. Later I pursued a pharmacy degree in Muhimbili Dar es Salaam and was sent for field work in Mbeya.
You could say I did my share of road travelling back in my school days. It used to take four days to travel from Tosamaganga to Moshi; by road to Dodoma, then next day via train to Ruvu station, and a night connection from there.
It was torture but it made me strong. Going to Bugando from Moshi was at least three days as we could be stuck between Singida and Shelui for days because of mud and rain. Were there accidents? Certainly, but fatalities were few because buses had steel-reinforced bodies.
When a bus flipped, passengers suffered cuts and bruises but the bus structure remained basically intact and protected passengers. I remember we were on a railways bus from Dodoma to Arusha travelling at night.
The road was bumpy and dust filled the cabin every time the bus slowed down. Sometime in the middle of the night near a place no one could identify, in the middle of nowhere, the steering went haywire (something to do with a centre-bolt, we learned later) and the bus headed for the bushes. It hit some shrubs and earth mounds, flipped on its side and landed feet up like a cockroach. I hit my chest somewhere but was too frightened to feel the pain until much later.
We spent long hours there until another rickety bus came to rescue us in the afternoon of next day. Another time we were travelling back to school from Arusha via Dodoma during the day when we hit a rock on the roadside. The impact threw some of us off our seats into the next aisle.
The bus filled with sand and dust and lay on its side like a lazy lion in the Serengeti. We spent a day and night there. Travelling by road in the 70s and 80s was harrowing. We knew one day this would all end. Sure enough in our lifetime, even with limited resources, a strong resolve and leaders with long term vision, Tanzania has overcome the poor road infrastructure days of 30 years ago. Tarred roads are expensive to build and maintain.
Why build a nice road I ask you? From Dar city centre to Moshi is almost 600 kilometres by road. With the exception of a few bad patches between Mwanga and Same, that road is a pleasure to drive. It must have cost the government about US $ 600 million.
Why spend all this money on roads? I want to believe it is not because we want to take pictures to post on Instagram or share with donors. We want to speed up service delivery by making it possible to get goods from our ports to where they are needed in the 30 or so provinces.
We want to ensure our citizens can visit their friends and family during Christmas expeditiously or take a sick relative from KCMC to Ocean road hospital. Good roads make it possible for a loving son to take lifesaving or perhaps palliative care medicines to a sick mother in Rukwa, medicines that may not be available at the provincial hospital. We have built the good roads but have made a mockery of road travel on tarmac. Let me enlighten you.
In the old days, just a few short years ago, it was possible to do the Dar-Moshi trip in seven hours, with some time off for lunch. It was also possible to drive from Dar to Mwanza departing at six in the morning and arriving at 11pm.
Not any longer. Has the distance changed? Not really. Nowadays it takes 12 hours to reach Moshi from Dar es Salaam. And it takes two days to arrive in Mwanza. But why? Because there are 100s of roadblocks both visible and invisible.
The number of 50 and 30 kilometre speed signs outnumber the towns and settlements along the way. Each of these circular red sign posts are enforced by speed bumps where there are human settlements. This has been the results of knee-jerk reactions of the traffic department and esteemed leaders in the august house. As the number of accidents go up and especially whenever there is a major bus mishap with fatalities, somebody jumps to erect a few more speed bumps and slow-down signs.
And parliament responds by calling for higher fines and tighter sanctions for all drivers. There are so many traffic police on our roads, you wonder if there are any police men and women left to man police stations and act to deter serious crimes. If our roads were hospital wards, we would surely be safe from harm.
But have accidents stopped? No. Have fatalities decreased? Little evidence of it. What has happened is, drivers and vehicle owners have been coughing out millions of shillings in fines for petty traffic infringements. You get caught, you pay for it.
This forced taxation and mistreatment is slowly making some motorists and travelling public negative towards their government. Why buy a Landcruiser, Noah or Murano which can go 180-200kph if you are only allowed to drive it at 50 or 30kph? Why pay 500,000/- annual road licence and millions as import/sales tax for a motorcar if you only drive it at bicycle speed?
In America the speed limit in many states is 65mph (104kph). It used to be 55mph. Do they have accidents? Spectacular pileups involving many vehicles are not uncommon because their highways can be six or eight lane one way. About 35,900 people die on US roads annually, or 11 deaths per 100,000 population.
About 3,574 persons died in Tanzania from accidents in 2015, or 7.1 deaths per 100,000 population.
According to the Tanzania police force, 99.3 percent of the 1,249,642 traffic offenses in 2015 were minor, and 99.9 percent were caused by males. Many fatalities in accidents involve buses, lorries and motorcycles. Perhaps 10,000 buses ply the roads regularly, and maybe 1,000 traverse national highways. There must be at least a million private vehicles in the republic. How come we have same speed limits for a semi-trailer and a Corolla?
It is cheaper and more effective to educate and mobilise the public on road usage and traffic rules. The buses on our roads are squashed like a chapati sandwich in accidents. Motorcyclist ignore all traffic stops, lorries drivers go like they are on steroids. And yet every motorist is given the same medicine. We can do better.