In March this year, Harriet Zimchetera, a businesswoman from Lilongwe’s Chinsapo Township, hoped on a motorcycle taxi to visit a relative at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) in the capital city. Halfway through her journey, the taxi, popularly known as kabaza, got into a serious road accident.
Zimchetera was badly wounded and she lost consciousness. When she came to hours later, she was lying on a bed at the same hospital she was to visit, with broken ribs, bandaged and strapped to a drip.
Her story is common among residents of Lilongwe City and other vibrant economic centres of the country such as Karonga, Salima and Mangochi, where an influx of kabaza’s has led to a sharp rise in road accidents.
Nation on Sunday has been investigating the impact of the kabaza accidents, with statistics revealing an alarming rise in the number of road accidents, worsening the burden on the country’s healthcare system.
Investigations also show that with most of the kabazas are unregistered, which makes operators vulnerable to attacks by robbers seeking to grab the motorcycles and sell them.
The Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS) has since described the kabaza situation as an “unfolding crisis”, saying it is working with stakeholders to deal with the problem.
Police statistics show that road accidents in the country have increased substantially. Police blame the rise on the kabaza motorcycles and bicycles. In the first three months of 2021, police recorded 2 974 accidents nationwide, up from 2 162 accidents in 2020, representing a 37 percent increase.
Of the 2 974 road accidents, 283 were fatal in which 323 people died. Again, the number of deaths is an increase from 2020, when 23 percent of the road accidents were fatal while in 2021, the fatal accidents have increased by 30 percent.
A comparison of road accidents involving motorcycles between January and March 2021 and the same period in 2020 shows that more road accidents have happened this year; with 289 accidents happening this year compared to 195 in 2020.
Out of the 289 accidents, 43 were fatal in which 30 motorists died; 35 were serious in which 24 motorists were seriously injured while 211 were minor and 175 motorists were slightly injured.
Of the 195 road accidents in 2020 in the three months, 14 motorists died in 26 accidents; 30 were seriously wounded in 20 accidents, while 122 motorists suffered minor injuries in 149 accidents.
Data from the DRTSS paints a more gloomy picture. In 2020 alone, the country registered 1 488 accidents involving motorcyclists compared to 830 registered in 2019.
A total of 124 riders and pillion riders (passengers) died in the accidents in 2020. Based on this data, on average, the country was registering four kabaza accidents per day in 2020, a rise fromd about two accidents per day in 2019.
From January this year, kabaza accidents have led to the death of 860 people, data from the Ministry of Homeland Security shows. In the same period in 2019, 625 people died and 484 were injured.
The situation is so bad that at KCH, Central Region’s biggest referral hospital, officials have started recording details of accidents involving kabaza taxis.
Between April 1 2021 and 30 April 2021, the hospital registered 185 cases including 140 in its Out-Patient Department (OPD), 43 admissions and two deaths. In May 2021, the hospital registered 235 cases including 167 in OPD, 64 admissions and four deaths. All these were kabaza-related accidents.
The cost to victims
Zimchetera, a married mother of two, earns a living by selling clothes imported from China. After the accident in March, she was unable to run her business for about a month.
At around 4pm on the fateful day, as she jumped on the kabaza to visit her ill sister at KCH, the motorcycle taxi operator did not give her a helmet, nor did he wear one.
As the kabaza approached Lizulu Market in the city, the accident occurred. To date, Zimchetera does not recall how she ended up on a hospital bed. She only remembers waking up on the bed, her face, legs and arms bandaged to stem the loss of blood.
“I was bleeding in my left ear and had severe headache for two months. Even after I was released from the hospital, I later had to go to a private hospital at ABC [African Bible College Clinic] where I paid for further scans and tests to rule out any internal injuries,” she recalled in an interview.
Investigations show an array of accidents in which victims—young and old, urbanites and rural people, students, business people, pedestrians and other motorists—have suffered varying degrees of physical injury and property damage.
A traffic police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the accidents are worsening. The officer recalls one night when he recorded four cases of kabaza accidents.
Said the officer: “Most of the owners know they have no licenses, no insurance and no helmets. They know they are in trouble with the law and just escape after the accident.
“One person had broken ribs and a broken leg. It is scary, what is going on.”
Often, the kabaza operators leave their victims on the accident spot for fear of police or court cases.
Such accidents are taking a toll on hospitals—increasing the workload of already overworked doctors and nurses and eating into thin hospital budgets.
They are costly to the victims too—students lose out on study time, social workers are not able to provide their services, while business people lose weeks of business as they recuperate.
Besides being unproductive, Zimchetera had to pay around K20 000 each time she sought treatment from a private hospital, thereby eating into her business capital at a time whn she could not generate more income.
The lack of motorists’ training is contributing to the rise in accidents. In the first half of 2020, the country registered about 600 accidents involving motorcycles, resulting in 67 deaths, while in the same period in 2019, 406 accidents were registered which resulted in 40 deaths, according to DRTSS director Fergus Gondwe.
According to traffic rules, a motorcycle driver should carry only one passenger, but kabazas are often seen carrying two or three passengers, creating a serious accident risk.
Policy and law
The number of registered motorcycles in the country, as of 22 June 2021, was 17 984, but many more operate without registration, according to DRTSS.
Motorcycle operators and riders are supposed to abide by provisions in the Road Traffic Act (1997) and Road Traffic Regulations (2000) for their safety and that of other road users.
Among others, the Act require motorcycles to be registered and, if used for business, to carry a red number plate on a white background. The same Act also requires operators to have a Certificate of Fitness, a valid driver’s licence and, if using the motorcycle for business, to have a professional driving licence. Motorcycle users are also expected to wear a crash helmet for safety.
Additionally, city councils such as Lilongwe City Council prohibit kabaza’s from operating in the central business district (CBD). But generally across the country, the number of unregistered and unlicensed operators are on the rise.
In an interview, Lilongwe City Council (LCC) spokesperson Tamara Chafunya said the kabaza transport are not part of the council’s public transport solution.
She said: “Our traffic bylaws do not permit use of kabaza taxis in the city’s CBD. The council, with help of the Malawi Police Service, will soon move to start taking non-compliant operators on to the notices that were issued.”
DRTSS spokesperson Angella Makwecha described the kabaza situation as an unfolding crisis, saying the department is working with stakeholders to deal with the problem.
She said the directorate has developed a motorcycle training pack to be used in training motorcycle riders and has engaged driving schools to consider reducing training fees so that the training is affordable for the riders and the reduced fees range between K20 000 and K40 000.
Said Makwecha: “Some of the key measures that have been put in place and are already being implemented include; intensified awareness and civic education exercises targeting motorcycle riders on safe riding and the need to get them licensed and their motorcycles registered,” said Makwecha.
She added that DRTSS In a separate interview, National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera said law enforcers are now impounding all unregistered motorcycles.
“All motorcycles which have not been cleared by the Malawi Revenue Authority and have no registration from the Road Traffic Department are being impounded. Drivers who are not licenced are being fined,” he said.
The police spokesperson added that unregistered motorcycles have also been a target for violent attacks on kabaza operators.
“Because most of the motor vehicles are not registered, it is easy to attack the motorcyclists and sell the motorcycles elsewhere. So, we have seen attacks on motorcyclists where several of them have been gravely injured, some even killed,” said Kadadzera.
In June, police confiscated illegal kabazas and arrested unlicenced drivers in Lilongwe. The development did not please the operators leading to running battles with police. Later, the Ministry of Homeland Security intervened and allowed the kabaza operators more time to put their house in order.
Similar action was taken in other district councils, including Mangochi where kabaza operators are also common. Police also impounded all unlicensed motorcycles and drivers but following the ministry intervention by the ministry the police have since suspended enforcing the measures, according to the Mangochi Police publicist Amina Teputepu.
On his part, Malawi Local Government Association (Malga) chief executive officer Hadrod Mkandawire said local councils’ ability to clamp on the kabaza operators is affected by central government interference.
He said this is worrisome because the kabaza operators do not want to be regulated.
Said Mkandawire: “It is local government which must bring regulation. The kabaza are not only an eyesore but also a major risk to pedestrians and motorists. Unfortunately, we have seen the political hand intervening which has hindered the local government from regulating the motor cycles.”
However, Centre for Community Organisation and Development (Ccode) programmes manager Wonderful Hunga believes the rise of the kabaza taxis is a consequence of rapid urbanisation combined with effects of unemployment.
He argues that the solution to increased accidents lies in authorities such as police and city fathers sensitising the kabaza operators to traffic rules.