Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Moved 2 Moscow

The Economist's Baobab column from April this year chronicled and compared the comically centipedal convoys of many African heads of state. Its worth reading in full, and its point that such motorcades are both over-cautious and an unwise expenditure of aid-dependent governments. President Sirleaf's motorcade was picked out in particular: 

ON A recent Tuesday evening, President Ernest Bai Koroma's motorcade swung past St Mary's supermarket in the west of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. A motorcyclist came first. Mr Koroma followed in a Mercedes saloon. Most of the other six vehicles in the procession were gleaming black 70 Series Toyota Land Cruisers. The 70 Series wagon starts at $68,210. The World Bank puts Sierra Leone's GDP per capita at $325. 
Mr Koroma's extravagant motorcade is modest compared with other African leaders. When Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni travels up-country he takes between eight or nine cars, a couple of mine-resistant South African armoured personnel carriers and a large silver Mercedes truck with a mobile lavatory. Occasionally mobile-phone signal dies when he arrives, suggesting that one of his vehicles also contains some kind of jammer. 
For a trip to church some weeks ago, the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, travelled with three four-wheel-drives from the Special Security Service, two pickup trucks from the Liberian national police, and an off-roader carrying Nigerian troops from the United Nations peacekeeping mission. Long-time Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe travels with two motorcyclists up front who clear the road, arriving at high speed then stopping by their road, their lights flashing and sirens blaring. Three blacked-out Mercedes saloons follow, one with the number plate "Zim1". Finally two pick-up trucks appear, with ten or more armed guards in them. Which of these many cars Mr Mugabe himself travels in is unclear.

This wasn't the only time that Presidential Motorcades were mentioned in African-focused press during the same time frame. From the Brookings Institution Africa blog:

Likewise, President Banda has come to power with a lot of goodwill from home and abroad . But she must be careful not to follow the path of her predecessor. It is easy to squander such goodwill. President Banda must be very careful not to fall victim to the trappings of power. Last Friday (April 13, 2012), I was traveling around Lilogwe and I was stopped by police as the president’s motorcade passed through. The president’s limousine was surrounded by over 20 outriders, a large number armed cruisers and other vehicles as part of the president’s security detail. A very large convoy by any standards. While the president’s security is critical, there is no need to be extravagant. For a country that is heavily dependent on donors and one that is experiencing severe fuel shortages, such an image does not reflect a leadership that seeks to move away from the trapping of power that marked Mutharika’s regime. So, Your Excellency President Banda, as you rationalize the activities your government, start by getting rid of some of those vehicles in your motorcade.

These long motorcades may or may not be overblown or overbudget. That point is not, to me, the most detrimental effect of these long motorcades. This is not just a contingent of cars moving down the road, after all. This is a heavily armed caravan, with sirens whining and guns drawn, rushing at high speed down the highway at all hours, requiring (and sometimes forcing) other vehicles and citizens out off the road and out of the way, a repugnantly aggressive tactic that has lead to at least one death in the past year, when a Presidential Escort struck and killed a pedestrian in Paynesville in July. Traffic laws, as little as they are celebrated in Liberia, are not applied here. 

This is a daily, or multi-daily occurrence, often during rush hour, or other periods of heavy traffic, which have become increasingly constant in the last several years as roads have improved and more people have bought cars. The only relief is during the President's frequent visits to other countries. 

President Sirleaf is not alone in skipping the gridlock. The Vice President has an only slightly smaller, slightly less-armed motorcade to and from his residence in distant Paynesville. But any time the President gets in a car, space is made for her movement. As you may notice from some of these videos, the grand finale of this show, along with various Special Security guards, UNMIL troops, as the Economist mentioned, are a random assortment of SUVs with the bright red government plates, or just regular business and private plates, or NGO plates, which may or may not have been part of the convoy at the beginning, but just may be tagging along to skip the traffic. All it seems to take is a big helping of the old "look like you belong" behavior and pressing the hazard button of the dashboard for some flashing lights. In the montage below, notice the yellow (business)-plated grey SUV tailing the last police escort as it rushes through ELWA. The last video is from when Sirleaf and the aforementioned Malawian President Banda attended church together on the Sunday during her official state visit to Liberia, also in April: 

This seems to be the precipice of a slippery slope which Liberia's motorists are now happily sliding down. In the past year, a proliferation of impromptu motorcades seems to appear almost daily. National Police vehicles now routinely travel with their sirens sounding, rushing at high speed into on-coming traffic. Perhaps they have pressing business, but perhaps they are just making (ab)use of their privilege. Any government plate (such as the black Representative plate in the first video below) is a license to instantly enter motorcade mode: hit the flashers and cross the yellow line into the opposite lanes of traffic, or at least, as in the examples below, have other motorists show you undue deference even if you stay on the right side of the road: 

This practice has become an everyday occurrence, and there is no way of knowing whether there has been any official sanction for these Make-Your-Own-Motorcades, or whether this method is authorized, but its frequency seems inversely proportioned to the increase in gridlock traffic on Tubman Boulevard, and are a rather dispiriting display of public servants and regular citizens finding was to flaunt the law, the rules, and dilute social norms. 

Its starting to feel a bit like the ridiculous circus that is the gridlocked Moscow, which has become infamous for the proliferation of special flashing blue lights (which come with immunity from traffic laws) can be purchased by business men and other private citizens to whip past stalled lanes of mere mortals.  Maybe Monrovia needs its own Society of Blue Buckets. But it'd be nice if this society would move away from the chaos of Moscow rather than speeding head-on toward it, and it would be better if the elites in and out of government weren't imitating oligarchs.
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