The folly of bringing two-wheel drive thinking to a four-wheel drive world
The two-year lockdown of the night economy is expected to end this weekend when bars and nightclubs are finally allowed to reopen. As usual, we plan to make a mess of it by maintaining the 7pm curfew for boda bodas.
The people who make the rules would not know it, but if music is the palm wine with which the night kola nuts are eaten, then boda bodas are the digestive system. They ferry patrons from joint to joint, and ensure the army of night workers is able to go into the battle against poverty and also re- turn home.
They also provide local map information, allowing last-mile deliveries of everything, from food and drink, to sauce.
Reopening the night economy without boda bodas is like asking people to drive their cars with- out fuel; many will end up all dressed up with nowhere to go, or how to get there.
As we have seen with the current self-inflicted fuel crisis, and as we noted last week, some of the attempts to control the corona- virus pandemic have been ill-informed and motivated by the pursuit of private wealth, not public health.
The night-time restrictions on boda boda riders are about endemic crime, not the pandemic.The public safety concerns are genuine; motorcycles allow criminal gangs to whizz around, attack their victims and disappear into the dark.
But the proposed solution to the problem – restricting their movements to daylight hours – is impractical and ineffectual. First, as we saw with the attempted assassination of Works minister Katumba Wamala, thugs can strike during day as much as at night.
While darkness gives them better cover, it is not a visibility shield to law-enforcement. It does not also stop criminals on foot, or in motor vehicles, which are used in many crimes as well. The night-time curfew on boda bodas allows us some false comfort
of knowing we are doing something about crime, but it only sweeps the problem under the carpet. Boda bodas have become a major part of the public transport ecosystem, but one that is criminally minded and lawless.The solution is to regulate them better so that they can provide safe and reliable transport to those who can’t afford alternatives.
There are ambitious albeit fantastic plans to install tracking devices in all motorcycles and vehicles and public CCTV systems have helped law enforcement detect and even solve some crimes.But these do not improve the safety of the boda boda industry, or the accountability of its riders and owners.
Most riders refuse to wear helmets or pro- vide them for their passengers.They ride down the wrong side of the road, on pedestrian sidewalks and often ram into vehicles, zooming o into the crowd to avoid ac- countability.These are not new problems. They were here before Covid and now set to
continue even as the pandemic morphs in- to endemic status.The tragedy is that we have wasted the crisis.The first lockdown was too sudden and too unpredictable for anyone to take advantage of six weeks of relative inactivity, but not the second.
Instead of the impossible proposal to ask boda boda riders to register their passengers – yes, such a proposal was indeed made – it is not too late to register the riders themselves and find fool-proof ways to identify them.QR codes that allow passengers to identify them and share their journeys, if need be, are one readily available technology.The next step would be to insist that only registered boda boda riders can venture out, day or night, and ensure that they have helmets for themselves and their passengers, with stiff penalties for non-use, or reckless riding.
The enforced lockdowns across the world over the past two years created room for innovation or faster execution.For instance, while we rushed to finish our apartment blocks, the neighbours next door just built a massive road cutting through the heart of Nairobi to, it is hoped, help address the traffic challenges.
We can – and indeed need to – do more to find solutions that aren’t merely arbitrary and strong-armed. Keeping schools and bars locked for two years isn’t a sign of being clever, but of not being imaginative enough.
Similarly, opening the night economy without the most widely used form of public transport, especially in the night, is sub-optimal. We cannot continue to bring two-wheel drive thinking to a four-wheel drive world.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.