Of VIP Convoys, Security and Egos
If cabinet ministers and party leaders are not putting up road blocks manned by AK-47-toting guards in their neighbourhoods, then politicians are halting traffic with their slithering convoys so that they can shift safely and effortlessly from their homes to their closed-door meetings and on to their favourite restaurants, and perhaps even Parliament when they are so inclined.
At the end of the day, I can live with the inconvenience of the occasional delay, even though watching questionable ‘VIPs’ throw their weight around, pushing everyone else off to the side of the road and generally treating all and sundry as inconsequential microbes is blood boiling. The fact is I have (luckily) never been stuck behind a VIP roadblock in an emergency situation. The immorality of forcing ambulance drivers and those lying in critical condition in the back of their vans to wait indefinitely because you need to get to the airport, a press conference or a birthday party on an asphalt red carpet is obvious to a five-year-old. Nonetheless, every influential person who can do it, won’t blink an eye over it, and will likely defend their ‘right’ to do it.
It is easy to understand, though, especially in a country like Pakistan with endless law-and-order problems, that VVIPs under threat of real danger need to secure a route before they venture out: bomb blasts and assassinations (both failed and successful) are sickeningly too common.
But there’s a limit. VVIP movements in Pakistan are clearly inefficient, and without undertaking an empirical study, it seems fair to say that they are abused, with the privilege of these security protocols provided to too many people.
Tuesday night, around 11pm, the Newsline van came to a dead stop behind three dozen other vehicles at the “Do Talwar” roundabout in Karachi. There were four of us inside. Police vehicles and uniformed men in the middle of the street could be seen blocking the road ahead of us. I wondered aloud if the president was in town. We asked an officer standing on the nearby median who was coming through. He claimed he didn’t know. I was impressed with his reticence: an uncommon Pakistani trait.
Five minutes later, there was no sign of a VIP convoy. Not even a siren in the distance. A peek behind us showed a sea of headlights. Traffic was backing up. A minute later, there was faint electronic wailing in the distance. A white police car was approaching. When it curved around the roundabout and passed us going the opposite direction towards the Clifton underpass, it was alone. One lone cruiser scouting the route, ensuring the “all-clear.”
A minute later, another siren. This time it was a solitary motorcycle police officer.
Thirty seconds later, the third vehicle from the police escort passed, this time a jeep with several men packed into the roofless back. And then, a few seconds behind this lead vehicle was the main convoy: jeeps, motorcycles, black sedans. As the cars scurried by tightly like a mixed pack of zebra and wildebeest on the Serengeti, I counted the vehicles: four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. I kept counting. There were three unmarked black sedans mixed in the middle: one presumably carrying the ‘VIP,’ the others probably acting as decoys. The count continued: 10, 11, 12, 13. When the last jeep came around the roundabout, I uttered, “28.” Twenty-eight vehicles, but how many people were involved in transporting this ‘precious’ cargo?
We had been held up for about eight minutes waiting for the convoy to pass. The pizza delivery guy next to us on his Honda two-wheeler had already called his handlers, instructing them that his next delivery was going to be late, before hiding his mobile phone back down the front of his pants. I wondered who among the hundreds of cars stuck at every intersection along the route was under real pain and stress because of the delay: who was trying to get to the hospital, home to see an ill child, or to another part of town in response to a friend’s cry for help?
Many people have ranted about the excessiveness of VIP movements before. On a blog titled “Sehar Says,” Sehar Tariq writes, “In Pakistan, your importance is measured by the number of people who have to wait for you and the amount of time that they have to spend waiting for you. Small-time bureaucrats make a handful of people wait for at least a few hours before granting an audience. The really important people will make entire cities come to a stand still as their entourage zips around town.”
I even came across a Facebook page called “Creating Awareness for unjust VIP or VVIP Movements in Pakistan,” though, the page is about more than VIPs and their egos.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of videos online showing VIP convoys and their flashing lights. A website called ChaltaTV.com has some citizen-journalist footage of what they claim to be an Asif Zardari convoy. A group of motorcycle-riding police lead the first sedan, which is surrounded by four jeeps. Then the main herd of vehicles follows. There are at least 70 vehicles in total. Watch it below. It’s a disgusting waste of scarce resources for a cash-strapped government with tens of millions empty-stomached citizens. And it makes a 28-vehicle convoy look frugal.
I found out on Wednesday that Bilawal Bhutto was in town and chaired a meeting with senior PPP leaders the day before. Maybe he was at the heart of the convoy that raced past us at Do Talwar? If so, that means he has a long way to go before he hits the 70-car benchmark allegedly set by his daddy.
But beyond the waste, misuse of resources and frustration caused to thousands of people everyday, how many people is one politician prepared to put in the line of fire to protect his own skin? How many decoys and human shields are expendable? Because as history has taught us, here in Pakistan, you rarely stop a suicide or terrorist attack, but simply hope to minimise the damage.
Watch video footage of a VIP convoy in Pakistan from ChaltaTV.com: