Dark times are back for bodas

Motorists ride past Police in Kampala on Wednesday. More than 1,000 bikes have been impounded. Photo by Stephen Wandera

Kampala

A young office worker dressed up smartly in her Namuwongo home and headed to work in the city centre.

About 10 minutes later, she was limping with a bruised leg and tattered outfit after the boda boda motorcycle she was being carried on fell, crashing into another one in front at the Mukwano Road-7th Street roundabout.

An armed police constable without a name tag had suddenly dashed from the roadside with a baton, to whack the boda rider who did not have a crash helmet.

The female passenger wore a blue helmet, perhaps the only one the cyclist had.

The rider zigzagged while struggling to retain control but shortly afterwards jumped off after seeing five other policemen, slinging AK-47 rifles, in hot pursuit.

Innocent cry
The woman howled as the motorcycle dropped on her feet while the one they knocked glided on the bitumen; yanking the other two passengers on it metres apart. A traffic jam quickly built at the turn.

This is the script of commotion, and agony, on most city streets this week as a well-intentioned but brutally executed crackdown on errant commercial cyclists entered a fourth day, disgracing law enforcers.

By 9am yesterday, Mr Henry Kalulu, the Police spokesman for Kampala Metropolitan, said since the start of the operation on Monday, they had seized 1,447 motorcycles. Many of the riders lacked permits while some carried those for light vehicle drivers.

Police require every boda boda - officials estimate there are some 60,000 operating in the city alone - to have two crash helmets, a Passenger Service Vehicle sticker, insurance and reflective coat that collectively cost about Shs400, 000.

“We are moving from stage to stage (tracking and arresting the errant boda boda men) and the operation is not about to end,” said Mr Bazil Mugisha, the commissioner for Traffic and Road Safety.
“We want a situation where they comply with traffic regulations,” he added.

Police said in their 2009 Accident Report that reckless cyclists directly caused 756 (about 32 per cent) of the 2, 340 fatal accidents in which 2, 677 people died. Some 15, 559 more were injured, perhaps permanently impaired.

Yesterday, Mr Mugisha said six in every 10 accidents in Uganda are either caused directly or aided by careless boda boda riders, which justifies the current clampdown.

Police say most commercial cyclists have no formal training in road usage; either do not know or deliberately flout traffic regulations – sometimes riding on proscribed lanes or dashing when traffic light flash red, complicating the traffic menace in Kampala. However, their skillful, sometimes precarious, maneuvers through the traffic jam have made them a choice for commuters in a hurry or on urgent assignments such as security operatives and journalists.

Many of the riders have been accused by Police of picking runaway robbers while sections of the public hold them suspiciously as listening posts for intelligence agencies.

This notwithstanding, the industry has transformed into a necessary evil of sorts and is booming in a country thirsty for organised and reliable public transport system.

And now the Police crackdown has caused travel blues for city dwellers and those in suburban areas with many reporting to work late or failing altogether. Most of them have increased their fares by at least Shs500.

Once President Museveni in 2001 rode to Kololo Airstrip for his nomination to contest in that year’s election on a boda boda, the riders gained a political currency that has made them difficult for officials to weed from the city centre despite several deadlines.

Yesterday, hundreds of them gathered near Shoprite supermarket aiming to trap the President, who was touring parts of Wakiso District, on his return to Entebbe State House to explain their plight.

Mr Moses Ssetimba, a rider who was not in the downtown crowd of his colleagues, said he was arrested on Monday allegedly for not having a second crash helmet yet he was ferrying no passenger.

However, officers at CPS told him there was no such offence in the law books and “surprisingly charged me with reckless driving”. He was fined Shs40, 000 and an extra Shs10, 000 for the (breakdown) vehicle that Police called to tow his motorcycle.

“So many people have the requirements to operate a motorcycle business. The Police just ambush and beat people on the road at random. This is not fair,” he said, adding: “I bought all those things so that they would not be disturbing me on the road but again I am facing the same problem.”

Chief’s apology
The assault on boda bodas and their passengers, an illegal act which the Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura witnessed firsthand yesterday morning at the Mukwano Road junction, forced an official apology.

“It’s unfortunate we have had our officers, passengers and riders injured since our mission as Police is to protect lives and property. It isn’t worth jeopardising life but the cyclists must comply with traffic regulations,” Mr Mugisha yesterday.
He issued 0800199099 as a toll-free line to report errant traffic officers and warned that ‘breakdown’ owners should not charge more than Shs10,000 for towing motorcycles.

A day in my life as a traffic police officer
I am always on the road by 6am every day from Sunday to Saturday. My colleagues and I have working shifts. The first shift ends at 2pm and the second at 10pm. The last lot begins duty at the same time, finishing at 6am.

After working seven days at a particular point, I change to another.
It is hectic and dangerous here on the road but I need the money since jobs are scarce. If there was a better offer, I would leave like some colleagues.

Jinja Road junction and Diamond Trust Bank junctions as well as Clock Tower roundabout are some of the worst spots to manage. But we endure everything; insults by motorists, scorching sun, risk of being knocked and rainfall being the worst of all. I stand here, direct vehicles and do my work but all I get is abuse of rules by boda bodas. I have witnessed many being knocked together with their passengers. Some drivers also don’t respect us.

There is one whom I told he was on a wrong lane and he began writing down my name and number on the uniform. Such actions make me worry if someone is going to report and blackmail me to my bosses that I wanted to extort money so that I get punished.

I am always abused that I never went to school. We need some respect from the drivers. I am also a human being like a motorist. I don’t see why they think I am a bad person. It is all because they lack patience on the roads.

But for the boda bodas, I think they are just ignorant of the laws. They are problematic. And when it’s very hot and dusty, like any human being, I get very thirsty, but cannot even get water to drink until I return home. They used to give us bottles of mineral water while on duty but that has stopped.

When nature calls, I use the public facilities available.
But they are not free, although recently, the attendants to those facilities have become friendly with us and allow us to ease ourselves without paying as long as one is in Police uniform.

Additional reporting by Sharon Omurungi

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