Sunday May 4 2014

Will boda boda boys determine Uganda’s transport policy?

By Joachim Buwembo

Last week the minister’s maid fell off a boda boda and you would think she had escaped from a gang of murderers. She stormed into our house breathing fire as she tried to beat the dust off her clothes. At first, I could hardly make out the words she was swearing. My maid rushed her off to her room to rearrange herself until she emerged several minutes later, more composed.

A bit shyly, she explained that she had not told her people at home that she was going far and so was not going to tell them about the boda boda accident. She had gone to the ATM in the trading centre and sent some cash to the village using mobile money. It was while rushing to return that a taxi suddenly stopped in front of the boda boda carrying her, and to avoid ramming into it, the rider had suddenly swerved and they ended up in a ditch. From the ditch, she ran straight to our house which was nearer than theirs.

“Why don’t they ban these boda bodas?” she asked with cold anger in her voice.
“But you have just explained how the guy saved you after the taxi stopped without warning,” I said. “You should be calling for the banning of taxis then!”

“Taxis are meant for carrying passengers unlike the little bike on which I almost died,” she argued. “A taxi driver driving badly does not mean taxis are bad, but every time someone climbs on a boda boda, their life is put at great risk, however well the rider does his job!”

I did not want to take her on following the technical angle she was taking, so I decided to argue from the economic point of view saying, “But you know much the boda bodas have saved us by easing transport all over the country and making every place accessible using motorised transport.”

“What is the point of saving you from walking just to kill you by breaking your neck?” she asked accusingly, looking at me as if I had killed a few passengers myself.
“Not everybody who uses a boda boda dies but whoever uses it saves time,” I argued. “Don’t you see all those clever Indian businessmen riding on bodas in town while poor Ugandans sit for hours in their cars stuck in the jam?”

“I remember an officer saying on TV the other day that accidents caused by boda bodas kill more people in Uganda than any thing else except malaria,” she said. “We would not be losing so many people if the bodas had not been allowed.”

“They have their undeniable advantages if well used,” I persisted.
“Why don’t the other countries especially those that manufacture motorcycles promote the use of small bikes for passenger business?” she asked angrily. “Do you mean Ugandans are cleverer than everyone else and were the first to discover the existence of motorcycles? Are we soon going to make two strangers share one plate in restaurants because we are innovative?”

“But those countries you are talking about have developed public transport systems so they don’t have to resort to bike taxis,” I said in defence of my country.
“And why don’t we develop a normal public transport system?” she challenged.
“It costs a lot of money,” I answered. Buying enough buses to cover all the roads requires billions and billions.

“And the killer bodas don’t cost money?” she half stated, half asked. “If a bus is designed to carry eighty people, do you mean that 80 bikes don’t cost more than one bus?”
“A boda can be bought by one person at Shs5million, unless you want 80 million people to come together and buy a bus,” I tried.

“But who said we must have a million people investing in transport?” she said. “Let a few who can manage buy the buses and the rest can work in them while others go do other things. Must every young man be in transport?”

“But buses cannot reach everywhere like the boda bodas do, and you know our roads are narrow without bus lanes,” I argued, trying to remember what the issues that drove Pioneer Easy Bus out of business were.

“Do you mean there is a shortage of space for bus lanes?” queried the maid. “Is it better to let people criminally build in the road reserves than to allocate space for buses to run on?”

“Compensating people in road reserves would cost more billions than the government has,” I argued.

“So instead of punishing the illegal road reserve encroachers you think they should be compensated?” the surprise in her voice was unmistakable. “Are you then surprised that we call this madness innovation? So instead of making good laws to enable a good transport system operate government has decided to let those boda boda boys decide for the whole country how transport in Uganda should be managed? Are they the best experts to entrust the job of planning for the transport sector?”

“But these are just natural developments…” I started.
“Yeah, even the increasing drug consumption around Kabalagala on Gaba road is a natural development, so are the child ritual murders,” she interrupted. “So let the boda bodas continue butchering people because they are a natural development.”