MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — “Stop!” a police officer in Somalia’s capital yells as a traffic light flashes red. Most of the cars keep going. Angered, he steps into the middle of the road and gridlock follows. Mogadishu recently began installing road signs for the first time, trying to end a culture of “anything goes” on the streets.
“We use sticks to stop cars, but they only listen to gun-toting soldiers,” the police officer says.
Large parts of the country’s residents are unfamiliar with traffic laws, increasing the pressure on traffic police struggling to impose order in the streets in a dangerous and chaotic city with a population estimated at up to 3 million.
“They haven’t seen law and order for two decades. It feels like we are starting from scratch,” said Gen. Ali Hersi Barre, the city’s traffic police chief.
Re-launched in 2011, Somalia’s traffic police lack basic equipment like police cars. They also lack modern laws to enforce. Authorities are working on adopting new traffic laws to replace an outdated law passed by Somalia’s parliament in 1962. That law calls for fines in a currency no longer in use.
Despite the lack of codified law, police still issue fines, revoke licenses and send offending drivers to jail. Along one street in the capital, authorities tied a driver’s hands behind his back and towed away his Mercedes, which had been improperly parked.
Old, over-loaded trucks groaning under the weight of cargo crawl through Mogadishu, snarling traffic. Troops from the African Union, who often fear being the target of suicide attackers, do not stop for traffic signals or accidents they are involved in. Instead they speed away from traffic police who are powerless to stop them.
“They don’t stop for accidents they cause. Even worse, they don’t have a reference office to deal with such matters. That’s a key obstacle to us,” said Barre.
Traffic police face another danger beyond bad drivers. Though Mogadishu appears to be moving past the days of all-out war, car bomb attacks are still fairly frequent. A car bomb blast aimed at a U.N. convoy on Thursday killed six Somali passers-by.
Militants have also used targeted gunfire attacks to kill traffic police. Officials say four were killed last year.
In the face of all their challenges, Mogadishu’s traffic police say they expect new traffic laws to help reduce the number of accidents. And they remind themselves that only three years ago the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab controlled most of Mogadishu, meaning no traffic police worked at all.
One Mogadishu resident, 48-year-old Hassan Ahmed, said the reappearance of traffic police signals a return to normalcy.
“It’s really a good progress we hoped for, it reminds us Mogadishu’s peak era,” Ahmed said.