As expected, the road carnage in Uganda continued last week, with five people killed when their speeding taxi lost control after bursting a tyre at the Karuma-Pakwach bridge in northern Uganda. Another 13 people were injured in that accident.
Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that this news item received half the attention in Uganda that was accorded to the helicopter crash that killed an American basketball player and his daughter over the weekend. The news media have the opportunity to use their power and influence to elevate Uganda’s road traffic insecurity to the national security crisis that it is.
My personal experience on Uganda’s roads during my recent visit left me even more despondent than ever before. While the beautifully tarmacked roads are a great pleasure to drive on, they are also death traps for both the reckless drivers and the innocent users. Narrow roads that ought to accommodate a single one-way lane are treated like champion racecourses.
Whereas matatu (taxi minibus) drivers continue to be the racing champions, they are not alone in the art of flying rickety four-wheelers and overtaking large trucks in very dangerous areas. People drive sports-utility vehicles (SUVs) with UG (government) number plates as though Newtonian laws of physics do not apply to them. So-called VIPs and their police escorts fly their convoys, with lights flashing and guns ready for a fight, on their way to their country mansions for holidays.
Meanwhile, pedestrians and roadside traders ignore basic rules of the road. Fish sellers step onto the road, dangling their catch to attract potential clients. They inch closer to the flying vehicle when the latter shows signs of ignoring them. Vendors of fruit and vegetables have also taken up the same risky habit.
At many places, roadside market vendors have claimed ownership of the road itself, placing their goods, boda bodas and themselves on the tarmac that was meant for moving vehicles. That we do not have more frequent mass deaths at these spots is surprising. Then there is our love-affair with building as close to the road as possible. The lovely “by-passes” that were meant to ease traffic congestion in the cities and towns have been invaded by new dwellings, shops and roadside markets. A classic example is Ntugamo where the by-pass was originally meant to leave the business area to the south of the highway and allow trucks and other motorists to fly past the town.
Instead, the town shifted to the by-pass and one has to slow down to a snail’s pace to navigate through the New Ntungamo. Ditto the Masaka Town by-pass, and now we are seeing signs of the brand new Mburara by-pass being invaded by builders and marketeers.
In many areas on the country’s highways, one encounters great tests of patient navigation through narrow obstacle courses of boda bodas, bicycles, fresh foods, sorghum drying on mats, socialising citizens, goats and cows, and a few inebriated folks struggling to keep their feet moving. I have seen people taking casual strolls in the middle of the new tarmac road around Mburara. Others have found the road divider a perfect place to rest and soak in the sun’s rays.
A very remarkable event I witnessed early this month was a lorry, full of standing passengers and a couple hanging onto its back, being driven through fast-flowing water across a broken bridge on River Ruhezanyindo, just before Bwindi National Park in Kigyezi. The passengers, unbothered by the risky crossing, gave a loud ovation to their driver once they got to the other side.
Reducing road insecurity on Uganda’s roads is sabotaged by the same factors that undermine the country’s efforts in other sectors, namely, lack of public education towards behaviour change, failure of high-level enforcement of the laws, corruption and a culture of acceptance of poor standards, mediocrity and self-devaluation. A senior police officer made this point in a letter to me last week.
“I was regional police commander in southern region,” he wrote. “During my first Christmas period, 13 people perished on highways in the region. The following Christmas, I took keen interest and did personal supervision of the traffic personnel. Only three persons died of accidents in the same period. However, with elections around the corner consuming all our energies the next year, nine people died in accidents the following Christmas.
“Narrow roads and recklessness (are a lethal combination),” he continued. “I wonder where cyclists run to when two buses meet on Wakaliga Road (in Rubaga, Kampala.) It would be interesting to know how many cyclists die on Wakaliga Road. But the DPC Old Kampala is more interested in enforcing POMA (Public Order Management Act), than in analysing traffic statistics because enforcing that Act will earn him a promotion.
“When I was based in Masaka, nine cyclists died in one year at a pothole in Nyendo suburb. My appeals to the Municipal authorities to repair the pothole went largely unheeded until I left. They would fill it with marram, which would only last until the next heavy rains.”
The police officer agreed with the solutions to road insecurity that I offered in my letter last week. However, he doubted that they would work. “Our priorities are not people-based,” he wrote. “As Martins Okoth-Ochola said during his parliamentary approval as Inspector General of Police, the police died the day Gen Katumba Wamala left the post of IGP (in 2005).” He emphasised the role of public education.
“In the early 90s, Fred Yiga, then working in the traffic division in Kampala, had a weekly 30-minute programme on Uganda Television (UTV) that was popular and effective. Back then, we had one TV station. So, the whole country listened. Yiga was the most well-known police officer in Uganda then.
“Whereas radio stations are still an effective avenue for sensitisation, police fear to go on radio because of their creditability deficit. They would receive embarrassing questions from listeners.”
The officer does not hold out much hope in the Uganda National Roads Authority. “UNRA is driven more by kickbacks than by safety designs,” he wrote. One person he was confident would change the narrative about Uganda’s insecure roads is the Ugandan president. “If Museveni picked up interest in road safety, you would see results.”
That should be an easy agenda for the President, one in which he would likely have widespread support.