The tragic highway accident last Friday that killed Susan Tsvangirai and injured her husband, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, is under investigation by officials from Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Early indications, however, are that the accident was the result of bad luck and worse timing for all involved, not foul play. The bitter irony, as reported in the New York Times, is that the truck that swerved head on into the Tsvangirai's SUV to aovid a pot hole was delivering anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS treatment -- the kind of mission that Tsvangarai has consistently encouraged.
Accidents of this type are horrifyingly frequent across the continent. They are caused by a perfect storm of poor roads, defective vehicles and aggressive or incompetent driving. As a U.S. Dept of Transportation report illustrates, the bloody reality is that while Africa has only 4 percent of the world's vehicles, it accounts for 10 percent of international road fatalities. Compare that to the so-called developed world of Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan, which accounts for only 14 percent of road fatalities despite owning 44 percent of the world's cars. This is a staggering difference. Only the Middle East even comes close to Africa's numbers.
Most of the horror stories that make the round among colleagues who travel frequently to Africa do not involve crime or exotic diseases. Instead they are tales of near-death experiences involving cars whose engines simply fall out or whose brakes give way, at night while traveling at high speeds on unlit, pot-holed roads. Most of the vehicles one finds in a place like Liberia -- unless you work for the Toyota Land Cruiser-laden U.N. or some well-heeled NGO -- are cast-offs or hand-me-downs from the U.S. or Europe, well past their expiration date before they were ever put into a container and shipped to Monrovia.
The situation has gotten so drastic that the Liberian legislature recommended that no car over 10 years old be imported into the country. Like almost every law in Liberia, people will find ways of skirting it. Meaning Africa will most likely remain at the head of the road-fatality tables for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, while the chances of dying in a traffic accident in Africa are high, the likelihood of being the victim of a political assassination in Zimbabwe is actually pretty low. According to World Almanac figures (via Wikipedia), modern Zimbabwe has only had one high-profile political assassination of note, back in 1983, and the victim was not even a Zimbabwean citizen.
Of course, road fatalities and political assassinations are both seriously under-reported. That should give pause to both Zimbabwe's motorists as well as opponents of President Mugabe.
(First published March 9, 2009 in World Politics Review)