Relationships with the law aren’t always easy. To quote the old saying “the law is an ass”. Yes it is, but no it isn’t. I think you know what I mean. Sometimes sticking to the strict letter of the law seems crazy, but I won’t follow that line any further.
I have three episodes at least of disagreements with law authorities in Ethiopia. There is a fourth more complex one that I may tell you about sometime, but not today.
In the first, the ‘traffic’ as they call them stopped me up in Addis. There you drive on the right. Coming to a corner where there were four lanes travelling each way I wanted to turn left. I wanted to cross in front of four lanes. Those coming in the other direction had a stop light. In the past, two lanes had been allowed to turn left, but, unbeknown to me, the rules, the law, had changed – now, one only could turn. So, doing what I thought I knew was right, I turned from the now illegal lane and was whistled over by the ‘traffic’.
As a bit of background, if fined in Addis they take away your licence, give you a fine slip, you immediately go and pay the fine, then come back to the same person, show your receipt and get your licence back. By then the person with your licence may or may not still be there. Or you can pay a bribe, which I am not in the habit of doing.
The guy asked for my licence. Resisting the temptation to tell him that I drove without one (I did have one) I simply said ‘no’. I think it shocked him a bit. ‘Why not?’ I was asked, ‘don’t you have one?’. So I explained that I did but that I knew how fines were handled, that I had a 500 km trip ahead of me and I wanted to be on my way. And, without stopping for him to get a word in, I asked if he had ever done wrong and been forgiven? Again, without stopping, I said that I knew that I had accidentally done wrong, and ended by saying ‘please forgive me!’ He smiled, looked at my licence which I had slowly taken out, and he waved me on. Nice guy!
A patient was brought to our hospital from the prison with a broken thigh bone (femur). We were ordered to treat him. It turned out that, according to him, ‘they’ at the prison had broken his leg. We did not have facilities to put in an intramedullary* nail which would have allowed him to walk in a few weeks, so he was put up in traction. Those bones heal slowly and usually need about three months to heal properly. I think the guy preferred our bed to the prison. Less than a week later the prison guards were there to take him back to prison. After a long and fairly heated discussion they left, without the patient, but with my promise that if they returned with an official letter stating that they would take him to the police hospital in Addis, I would fix him in such a way that he could travel the 200+ km to get there. It didn’t take long for them to get the paper. I knew that, as they drove out from our hospital, if they turned right they were going to Addis, if they turned left they were not. They turned left.
I was only about 30 in the late sixties. Maybe I was young and foolish. Not long before an important person had been involved in an accident near the hospital. Having treated the injured, I had been requested to write a legal report as to what had happened. The report obviously didn’t please the wealthy guy who had caused the accident. So, a policeman arrived in my office and offered me a considerable bribe if I would rewrite the report according to his suggestions. Maybe foolishly, but with great satisfaction (he was not a big man) I picked him up by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his uniform and threw him out the door. I am thankful that I heard no more, as I suspect I was right to refuse but wrong to do what I did!
* intramedullary nails were first used in WWII to allow the Germans to rapidly mobilise prisoners of war who had broken femurs, for example, pilots who had parachuted out of their planes. This concept is used a lot these days.