The decision to help a feeble old man cross the busy Weija-Kasoa road on December 11, 2015, came to Ebenezer Asare naturally.
The 43-year-old plumber was noted for his selfless acts of kindness. And helping an old man cross the road, according to those who knew him, was a humanitarian act he wouldn’t hesitate to undertake because it cost him nothing.
But this act—his last— cost him everything.
It would be his last day for many things: the routine walk to the roadside with his ever-smiling wife, Grace Quarshie; his last day of wishing his wife was pregnant with their first child; his last day fixing broken pipes or laying new ones.
On that cloudy Friday, at the Kasoa Galilea neigbourhood in the Central Region, the soft-spoken plumber and his wife walked out of their home into the temperate morning breeze after a long night of tormenting heat fueled by power outage. It was at a time Ghana was in the throes of the energy crisis. But the power outage would only be remembered because of the gloomier incident that followed the gloomy night.
How it happened
At the bus stop, his wife hopped into a Dansoman-bound trotro vehicle to ply her trade for the day. Ebenezer Asare was headed for Achimota but had to wait for a family friend for a brief engagement before he set off.
Pedestrians on the busy Kasoa-Accra road were held hostage by speeding vehicles. Characteristically flying as though they were on an emergency assignment, the drivers refused to allow pedestrians to cross the expressway that connects the Greater Accra Region to the Central and Western regions.
The traffic light at the junction, which would have created a lull for pedestrians to cross the highway, had become part of the dysfunctional monuments that serve as a needless reminder to Ghanaians of their broken systems.
While Mr. Asare waited, an old man approached him for help to cross the road.
After many attempts, Mr. Asare saw a gap between the last vehicle that sped past and an oncoming one and decided to take a dash across the road with his frail companion. But the two did not survive the sprint across the busy highway.
A truck carrying sachet water hit them midway through their journey across the road. The old man died instantly, right before a dysfunctional traffic light. His head was severed from his body, his mutilated remains scattered on the road.
Ebenezer Asare was temporarily lucky, his wife of five years recounted.
The plumber was thrown onto a truck used for carrying goods, popularly known as Abossey Okai Macho, and the search of the nearest hospital to save what remained of his life.
Madam Grace Quarshie, a seamstress, hadn’t started the day’s business when the news reached her.
“I had just got to work and was praying when my phone rang. His [Ebenezer Asare’s] phone was smashed into pieces. But the driver who took him to the hospital retrieved his SIM card and inserted it into his [the driver’s] phone and got my number, which was saved as ‘my wife,” she recounted how she was contacted.
“All the drivers who got to the accident scene just speed pass without helping. It was the good Samaritan driving ‘Abossey Okai Macho’ who picked him up and sent him to the hospital.”
The driver who picked the injured Ebenezer Asare was handicapped because he did not know the nearest hospital.
“He was a stranger in the area. So, even when I showed him a nearby health facility for at least first aid, onlookers were screaming about a hospital in Kasoa. The man rather headed to Kasoa and got into a gridlock. My husband bled so much that by the time he got to the hospital and they were about to put oxygen on him, he had died,” she told The Fourth Estate, damming her tears.
Ebenezer Asare, a GDP-contributing member of the Ghanaian society is now data for graph-plotting officials of the National Road Safety Authority (NRSA) who say he was one of 1,802 pedestrians killed in 2015.
“Broken traffic lights contribute a great deal [to road accidents] … it creates disorderliness in the road environment, especially in cases when the police or traffic wardens will not be available to provide sanity” the Head of Regulations, Inspections and Compliance of the NSRA, Kwame Kodua Atuahene told The Fourth Estate.
While the NRSA keeps plotting graphs and the police continue to collect the dead from the country’s roads, the information given to them, in part, by the still defunct, death-causing, limb-dismembering, and the blind traffic light at Kasoa Galilea keeps rising.
Almost six years after Mr. Asare’s death, the dysfunctional traffic light, which could have saved his life, remains unfixed and many continue to perish or get injured at the same spot.
Apart from being one of 1,802 people to have suffered road fatalities in 2015, Ebenezer Asare was also on the roll of the 831 pedestrians killed that year, while crossing a road, according to statistics from the National Road Safety Authority (NRSA).
In that same year, 364 pedestrians within his age range (36-45) were killed in the country’s road carnage.
In the last three years, an average of eight to 10 people got injured on the country’s roads daily, while about two or three die partly because of malfunctioning traffic lights.
“Helplessness” of Department of Urban Roads
Mrs. Pat Ony did not see this accident near Kasoa. But accidents are déjà vu for her. She sees them more than the average Ghanaian would see. It’s part of her job to see them. And if you asked how her day went today, her unconventional conversational pick-up lines could be, “I didn’t see any accident today.”
And it is because she is the head of the Accra Traffic Management Center, an office full of live videos from CCTV cameras fixed at vantage points on roads from Accra’s central business district to the Neoplan Bus at Achimota in Accra, recording every road incident.
Inside her office, you would see a panel of screens hanging on the wall as the eyes of their staff dart from screen to screen looking for something that screams trouble.
“You could have a vehicle crash into a set of controllers or the signal system and then the vehicle runs away. That is one of several ways in which traffic lights get damaged,” she said.
Then there is also another list: power trips and outages, cable theft, dumping of refuse into the controllers, and rodents chewing cables.
All these conspire to ensure that traffic lights at nearly 40 intersections in Accra, out of more than 200, are no longer working or are faulty.
When The Fourth Estate visited the Kwame Nkrumah Interchange, the team counted at least 20 non-functional traffic lights.
The Kwame Nkrumah Circle is a major transit point for travelers navigating not just Accra, but the entire country. The Department of Urban Roads estimates that 84,000 vehicles ply the route daily. The pedestrian traffic is equally thick in Kwame Nkrumah Circle area, the second-largest commercial area in Accra after the central business district.
Apart from the traffic lights in front of the old Vodafone head office on the Circle-Achimota road, not a single traffic light functions at all the seven other intersections at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle.
In response to a Right to Information (RTI) request by The Fourth Estate, the Ministry of Roads and Highways said the defect warranty on traffic lights at the newly constructed roads and facilities at the Kwame Nkrumah Interchange area expired in 2015.
The Nkrumah Circle interchange was completed in October 2016.
Traffic lights near the VVIP station, Orion Cinema, Ridge Taxi Rank, GCB Tower, Kaneshie and Neoplan lorry parks and the SSNIT Office near the New Times Corporation are all down.
Most of these broken lights hang loosely on the wires that were meant to supply power to them.
Living the dangers daily
Inside a commercial vehicle that has seen better days, Abdul Karim Iddrisu, a trotro driver, kept his gaze on his dashboard which has a miniature plastic dog with a limp neck.
He bit into rockbuns wrapped in a plastic bag. In between chewing and sipping a bottle of malt drink, he pointed to a broken traffic light and frowns.
“That one there has been down for more than two years. Every day, we must exercise extreme caution in order not to knock down people. You find pedestrians running across the road recklessly. It is as if they don’t care about their lives,” he said as he chomped his snack, occasionally using the back of his palm to wipe his mouth.
Not far away, Nancy Gyan, both walked and ran across the intersection near the tunnel close to Orion Cinema with her face flushed with fear.
It has been the ritual for the 22-year-old phone vendor who crosses the intersection to and from work daily, battling impatient drivers.
“This place is extremely dangerous. The drivers don’t care and wouldn’t mind knocking you down because the traffic light, which would have made them stop isn’t working. It is just by God’s grace that I survive this daily,” she said.
The Head of Regulations, Inspections and Compliance of the NSRA, Kwame Kodua Atuahene, shared in the fears of Miss Gyan. He said it is a major concern for the authority.
While the NRSA official acknowledged that broken traffic lights contributed to pedestrian knockdowns and crashes in general, he said the authority was unaware that almost all the traffic lights at the entire Kwame Nkrumah Circle were down.
“No, it has not come to our attention. It is one of the things we are working on to see how we could receive prompt notices of this nature.
“Broken traffic lights contribute a great deal [to road accidents]. When you get into the environment, the expectation is that you communicate with the road signages and the fixtures. So, if for any reason traffic lights are malfunctioning, it creates disorderliness in the road environment, especially in cases when the police or traffic wardens will not be available to provide sanity.”
Culture of maintenance
On a storey building near the Kwame Nkrumah Circle, Mr. Samson Odoi, the national coordinator of Street Sense Organisation, an NGO that champions road safety, agreed that malfunctioning traffic lights contributed to pedestrian knockdowns and road accidents in general.
“The Motor Traffic and Transport Department and the city guards are there to ensure enforcement, but it is not their responsibility to enforce proper parking among others. It is not their responsibility to put up traffic signs,” he explains.
The two road safety experts accused the Department of Urban Roads and the assemblies of failing to live up to their mandate.
“Once these traffic lights are up, it is the responsibility of Urban Roads and the assemblies to ensure that these traffic lights are fully operational. It is like a white elephant. Why put something in place [for safety] and it won’t be fully functional?” Mr. Odoi asked.
On his part, Mr Atuahene said the Department of Urban Roads and the assemblies were responsibility for maintaining traffic lights in the city.
He, however, said the NRSA was planning to develop an app that would “allow for the public to give us real-time notification of these infractions, especially when they relate to institutional irresponsibility.”
“The idea of the app is that a simple capture of either image or video notification of the location will bring the infraction to our attention.”
While thanking The Fourth Estate for bringing the situation at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle to the attention of the authority, he said a team would be dispatched to the area (on March 2, 2021) for the authority to take the appropriate action.
Some of these traffic lights have been off for more than three years and have been subjects of media campaigns in the past.
In January 2019, the Roads and Highways Minister, Kwasi Amoako Atta said his ministry would establish a Traffic Management Centre to remotely coordinate all traffic signals. That centre was inaugurated by President Nana Akufo-Addo on August 2, 2019.
At the event, the President said 41 traffic lights had been upgraded between the Neoplan Assembly Plant at Achimota to the Central Business District of Accra and that the upgrade included the changing of traffic controllers from isolated intersection controllers, which could not communicate with one another, to interconnected adaptive controllers.
But, perhaps, what the president did not know was that not all the traffic lights on the route were functioning.
To make matters worse, a $100 million contract—the Accra Intelligent Traffic Management System—a project intended to help manage traffic, promote road safety and improve security in the country generally is headed to the courts.
Beijing Everyway Traffic and Lighting Technology Company Limited has served notice of a legal tussle after the contract approved in November 2020 and awarded to it was re-awarded to another Chinese firm, Huawei Ghana.
While the legal battle builds up, the NRSA’s Head of Regulations, Inspections and Compliance, Kwame Koduah Atuahene, said the authority had decided that it would not serve anybody’s interest to continue to hold brief for some of its stakeholder institutions.
“In the past, we tried to rationalise and provide an explanation for why something is not happening in a way that we desire. This year with the support of the media, we want to begin to call out the relevant stakeholder institutions. That is the only way this country will see an improvement. So, if there is someone in charge of Urban Roads who has a duty to ensure that our lights stay on, there is no reason that he shouldn’t speak to those issues,” he said.
He said the law empowered the commission to issue administrative penalties against erring institutions, adding that the focus of the authority’s mandate was to ensure that institutions work.
“If there is any institution that is involved in road safety activity that is regulated by standard and yet chooses to ignore the standard or implement them anyhow, we need to use the opportunities to ensure that the right things are done,” he said.
The Urban Roads conundrum
The head of Accra Traffic Management Centre, Mrs Pat Ony, acknowledged serious challenges with keeping all the traffic lights running.
“You could have a vehicle crash into a set of controllers or the signal system and then the vehicle runs away. It becomes the burden of the department to replace it. You could also have the driver owning up through the police but unable to pay. Then the department is forced to do the replacement,” she said.
With hesitation and a smile, she agreed that the Kwame Nkrumah Circle traffic lights have been down for a while, saying “It has been long, yes. We plan to do the replacement in the parts that have been destroyed or damaged.”
In response to the increasing concerns about faulty traffic lights in Accra, the Minister of Roads and Highways, Kwesi Amoako Atta, on January 22, 2019, said the city’s faulty and broken traffic lights would be confined to history by June that year.
But that did not happen.
Ms Ony says the challenges have been about the availability of funds.
“…that has been said by our minister. What we are planning to do is to do a replacement. It takes money to do all that. The damages far outnumber the funds we have for replacement,” she explained.
Below are pictures of some of the broken down and malfunctioning traffic lights at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle: