Opinion|The white devils: The curse that is Juba’s corrupt traffic police
You will see them first thing in the morning prepping ambushes for motorists along Juba City’s main and back streets and on blind corners where drivers least suspect them to be. They are the ‘white angels’ as corrupt elements of the traffic police have come to be disparagingly referred to by the motoring public who fault them for being endemically corrupt and ripping off drivers instead of alleviating peak hour traffic jams.
In their quest for bribes and resultant maladroitness, the traffic police deftly employ a list of requirements which include but are not limited to a vehicle having a fire extinguisher, a license to have a tinted window (even factory-made) which is renewed every six months at a cost, having a reflectorized triangle, a valid log book which is renewed yearly at a cost and of course having a valid driving license.
The other requirements are a driving test permit (one wonders how you acquire a driving permit without this), a jerk, and a spare tire and when you have all the above, they ask why your car is dirty.
The classic is when they fail to find fault and ask in a humble tone for “something small for drinking water.”
Interestingly, many citizens attribute the corruption and love of pilfering from motorists to small pay and delays in paying salaries but I would like to differ because the sinister practice started way before independence and as soon as the SPLM/A moved into Juba in 2005. An honorable and jolly chap who had lived in Khartoum was shocked at the level of extortion by the traffic police from the ‘bush’ and hypothesized that the SPLA soldiers who were now traffic policemen must have learned the corrupt practices from East Africa. I agreed with him entirely because the people we found in Juba and other areas under Omar el-Bashir were fairly honest and when you lost a phone, you would hear an announcement on the radio to pick it up.
That aside, it was only natural that the corrupt practice of the traffic police openly robbing motorists escalated when South Sudan shut the oil pipeline shortly after independence and money became scarce and soared even more after the December 2013 crisis when the government stopped paying salaries altogether.
Naturally, with the avaricious nature of the white devils, no one is above reproach and looting is fair game for them. Many of them, some of who are functional illiterates, have taken on diplomatic and other vehicles that they do not have a right to stop. Some have even tussled it out with SSPDF drivers who many road users have the wisdom to leave to their devices and bad driving habits.
One time, at the Seventh Day roundabout, an SPLA driver in the notorious green Land Cruiser Hardtop Pickup wondered why a traffic cop stopped him when the light was red and went ahead to ‘educate’ said cop that the red light meant the army could go. As expected, a melee ensued which was joined by the soldiers atop the truck and the cop’s colleagues. It was a messy but not rare sight.
Last November, one traffic cop even had the ‘audacity’ to take on Former Juba City Deputy Mayor Thiik Mayardit who just happens to be a relation of President Kiir but got resoundingly whacked in the process and disarmed of his ‘precious’ pistol which was most likely used to harass innocent drivers in the past.
One ‘white devil’ even grabbed the meat a motorist had shopped for his family’s dinner in lieu of money. The no-nonsense driver, not willing to let go of his family’s food, alighted and pursued the traffic cop and violently retrieved the meat while yelling that the cop was robbing him of meat to the chagrin of the gathering public who had taken an interest in the rumpus.
Many South Sudanese, being already traumatized by many years of war with brief hiatuses, and now skyrocketing commodity prices and a flailing economy, debilitating diseases, and insecurity among other problems, tend to have hair-trigger tempers and this has often played out when a commuter or truck driver feels he is being extorted and or mistreated by a traffic cop. Most often, they fly off the handle when other cops have already ‘robbed’ them of hard-earned money. Many have thrown caution and fear to the wind and walloped cops. It plays out every day.
More interestingly, earlier in June, the public woke up to ‘breaking news’ that the police had apprehended 38 fake traffic police officers or people impersonating cops and robbing the motoring public with zeal in Juba. The Assistant Inspector General of Police in charge of the Traffic Police Service, Lt. Gen. James Rout, said the suspects stormed roads in the city, flagging down vehicles at various checkpoints to conduct their illegal activities.
“There are a lot of people putting on traffic police uniforms and collecting money from water tank drivers along the road," Gen. Rout was quoted as saying. "We have arrested 38 people who are now in prison.”
A sad state of affairs indeed! You can then imagine how many other fake uniformed ‘policemen’ and non-uniformed Criminal Investigations Department (CID) ‘detectives’ are bamboozling and swindling members of the unsuspecting and innocent public and foreigners-their favorite targets.
It is not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last, until police bosses style up.
Interestingly, the traffic police boss, Gen. Rout put out a public notice in July 2022 directing that all vehicles entering South Sudan had to pay USD 100 yearly for an obscure digital control border security and another USD 60 per entry into the country. It was a poorly hatched harebrained scheme that was missing in EAC, IGAD, and COMESA protocols on regional integration and common markets and soon backfired. Regional truckers threatened to stop entering South Sudan and the planned daylight robbery was frozen in its tracks. The minions must be learning from their bosses.
The traffic police chaps have also acted out the adage that there is no honor among thieves and have severally exchanged kicks and blows and wrestled to the ground in their conspicuous white uniforms over the sharing of loot from drivers and riders. All this in broad daylight with the public gleefully spectating and poking fun at them.
In the past, many have even issued receipts printed by themselves. As a motorist, you query the authenticity of a receipt at your own risk. You will most likely be asked, “Are you implying we (police) are thieves?”
The cops also regularly fight over who stopped a particular potentially lucrative, driver-especially foreigners-first.
The malfeasance of the traffic police and their bosses who the latter have to pay off to remain deployed on the money-spinning beats, has made elitist drivers learn to ‘fly without perching’ and they have taken to the myriad social media apps, particularly WhatsApp and Facebook, to alert and warn each other about the locations where the white devils have camped to entrap motorists.
Most of the traffic policemen now contribute to the peak hour go slow traffic and jams that Juba is known for because they are more interested in extorting money from drivers than easing the traffic flow.
Indeed, there are omissions, and one dedicated and diligent traffic officer was noticed by drivers in mid-2020 and they mobilized on social media and gifted him with money, food and non-food items, and a car as appreciation for his exemplary and splendid service to the motoring public. But this was an exception! Not to be left out, the interior ministry promoted the cop to the rank of First Lieutenant.
It would however be futile and not serve any purpose if I do not close by suggesting solutions to address the curse that is the traffic police department in Juba and, by extension, South Sudan.
The first thing the police’s top brass must do is to weed out the thugs who spoil the image of the force and retrain and reorient the good ones in their professional duty. They can even go one better and get rid of the whole lot after recruiting a fresh batch, training them well, and paying them to avoid corruption creeping in.
Another solution is that all traffic cops, and by extension the entire police force, should wear a name tag with their service number on their breast pockets visibly and legibly so that in the event a motorist has a problem, he can go and report the wayward officer without ambiguity.
Relatedly, the police’s professional standards unit has to be revamped and staffed with upright officers who will act without fear or favor and will not protect errant cops. The unit must be trusted by the public and not victimize those who bring forth complaints. One time a female parliamentarian was clobbered by a cop at a disco for being too boisterous. When she went and reported at the police station, the duty officer was shocked that she was reporting a policeman and told her in Arabic that "your statement is not together." Such cases should be avoided and the police must apprehend their delinquent colleagues.
Regarding the payment and collection of traffic fines, the police, in conjunction with the National Revenue Authority (NRA) and finance ministry, must set up methods, preferably electronic, and open bank accounts where drivers can pay traffic and other fines. Drivers must be sensitized and told not to hand out cash to cops but to pay directly in a bank within a given period.
These and other deterrents like jailing and dishonorably discharging delinquent officers will help reduce full-blown corruption.
Whether the top brass is willing to correct the rotten system from which they ostensibly profit is another thing, seeing that South Sudan is a country where big shots do not want to be held accountable, shield each other, and proudly and flagrantly leech off the wretched of the earth.
The rot in the police is just one of the symptoms of the endemic corruption debilitating South Sudan and it goes right to the top of the government.
The author, Kok Lo’Lado, is a journalist and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made is the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.