By Alexis Gueu
Like most major cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Abidjan has a traffic problem: Congestion, pollution and extortion amongst public transport providers means that the basic service of mobility can only be provided to citizens on a limited scale. Alexis Gueu analyses the situation.
The busy streets of Abidjan: Jumble in the city
The city of Abidjan, economic capital of Cote d’Ivoire with more than 4 million inhabitants, or 20% of the Ivorian population, is plagued by a problem that all major cities of sub-Saharan Africa share: Traffic congestion, pollution and problems in the public transport sector.
In Abidjan traffic, you easily get the impression that only the strongest on the road prevails. Public transport is a fight over customers and control of resources. Countless traffic jams prevent smooth flow of traffic throughout the day. The number of accidents is high: On average, they cause 600 deaths and 13,000 injuries each year. Gbaka1 and woro-woro2 drivers are responsible for 94% of these accidents, 6% are related to other factors such as the poor condition of vehicles.3
4 Smokes emitted from vehicle exhaust pipes release pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and unburned hydrocarbons (HC) into the atmosphere, harming the citizens’ health and the environment.
Unions compete for control and profit
But what are the causes of this multi-faceted traffic problem? First, the public transport vehicles known as “woro-woro” and “gbaka” make the law on the street and disregard official regulations. In their search for passengers, the drivers of the vehicles that are often in dilapidated condition do not respect any rules of driving. They go through red lights, park abruptly in the roadway to get off or board a customer, or park on the sidewalks without worrying about pedestrians. According to an officer of the traffic control unit, a driver of gbaka or woro-woro commits a dozen of traffic violations on average in a single day.
Second, the many different trade unions that exist in the public transport sector create stations illegally in order to control as many street corners as possible. “We know that stations and other lines grow like mushrooms, and we are talking about 600 to 800 trade union organisations in this sector,” said a trade unionist. For him, the overwhelming number of trade unions and their diverging views and conflicts between them accentuate the jumble.
“Every union official is obsessed with the control or the creation of the largest number of sections (stations) in order to supplant the others,” said a woro-woro station manager.
In reality, the merciless race to create the most stations or intercommunal lines serves a single objective: ‘’Tax all public transport vehicles on the sites (stations) in order to make the maximum amount of money,” states another station manager. The unions set prices for transport from one destination in the district of Abidjan to another.
For example, the line from Adjamé (municipality) to Marcory (municipality), is served by 600 woro-woros. 5 On the Adjamé-Marcory line, each woro-woro makes 10 to 20 trips per day. What about the lines with more than 800 vehicles? In the absence of a serious investigation conducted at this level, a well-known official from the sector has indicated that the stations are making hundreds of billions of CFA francs illegally every year.
Extortion is widespread, state officials are complicit
To control their sections, the unions hire so-called gnambros, or “henchmen”, charged with taxing the drivers. Gnambros from different branches of trade unions show up at the creation of new stations, or control the extortion money levied on the daily trips. This slows down public transport and makes it very difficult for customers to move from one neighbourhood to another.
The problem is further aggravated by the fact that many gnambros have decided to do their own business under the guardianship of trade union organisations. In the words of one gbaka driver, “if you refuse to pay the extortion money to the gnambros, they will force the passengers out of the vehicle and even beat the driver”.It is not uncommon for high officers (police, gendarmerie), judges, lawyers, and mayors to be complicit in these practices. This makes the problem even more difficult to tackle since the ones who are legally responsible for punishing transgressions profit from them and turn a blind eye. “A gnambro can beat a driver who refuses to pay his money in front of a police officer, and it’s possible the officer will not intervene. If you’re dealing with a union or a gnambro, you’re dealing with an officer or a judge. You can go and complain wherever you want, you will not get your right,” said a customer
Just recently, a pregnant woman was killed by a unionist driver. It turned out the driver had no license and was driving in a forbidden direction. He was not convicted and according to the author’s sources, released from detention after one week. Such unpunished breaches of the law have led to the image of public transportation deteriorating even further.
Licensing and training of drivers needs to be improved
The deadly accident like the one just describes points to another problem: The inadequate training of drivers and the corruption involved in acquiring a driver’s license. Currently, anyone can get a license. There are no requirements, not even being able to read and write.
Most drivers teach themselves or are taught by relatives and friends. “My uncle gave me a driving license when I stopped going to school (…) At night, my uncle himself taught me to drive. After a month of learning, I started driving a woro-woro”, says a driver.
Drivers often use old vehicles that are in bad condition. Old engines not only pollute the city, the various technical faults also increase the risk of accidents.
Inadequate and expensive public transport effects school and working life
The problems in the public transport sector impact heavily on people’s daily lives. Constant traffic jams prevent pupils, students and workers from being at school and in offices on time.
Among pupils and students, this weakens academic results. They arrive late at home and still have to revise their lessons and do exercises for the next day. Although this rhythm negatively affects their performance, it is not officially recognised as a cause of academic failure.
Public transportation also puts a significant strain on people’s budgets. According to the ground information, in Abidjan, 7 out of 10 people argue that an individual spends more on transport than on other charges6. Many claim that it is not possible to put money aside for savings in these circumstances. “We eat only once a day, as transportation takes all my money”, says a local resident who has to support a family.
What needs to happen?
Given these circumstances, it is more than necessary to take action and find a lasting solution to the problems outlined here. These solutions must be collective.
The Government of Cote d’Ivoire needs to think about strengthening existing bus lines, and create a subway line that will link the different municipalities of Abidjan. Real political courage and coercive measures are needed to dismantle the network of corruption and practices of extortion. Effective regulations have to be implemented to keep old vehicles off the street and make sure that technical standards are met for those that are in use. Licenses should only be handed out under strict conditions. The transport sector as a whole needs to be reorganised, capacities of stakeholders need to be improved.
The Ministry of the Environment, together with NGOs in environmental conservation, should create green spaces instead of the many woro-woro and gbaka stations. They should also create more awareness among urban planners, union leaders, and drivers about the detrimental impact old vehicles have on the environment. If these changes happen, there is reason to hope that Abidjan will meet global sustainability standards soon and that the city will offer functioning public transport to its citizens.