Are we going to continue using a boda boda mentality to solve the boda boda question?

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

If the problem is crime, you don’t solve it by passing a guilty verdict on everyone. That is actually the kind of thing boda riders are likely to do.

This week, the venerable Governor of Uganda’s Central Bank, Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, passed on. I will leave his eulogy to persons a lot more qualified, and instead, focus on an interesting video that has been making rounds on social media.

In the video, Mutebile alongside former Finance Minister, Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi and former Permanent Secretary, Keith Muhakanizi, are seen negotiating with IMF officials. They make a strong case for infrastructure, against pushback from IMF officials who would rather invest in education and health.

It makes for an interesting tidbit even when you ignore the substance and focus on form. It is easy to tell that the officials negotiating on behalf of Uganda understand the context and are making their case based on “lived-experience”. The guys across the table have a different viewpoint based on their interests, and it doesn’t help that being from the outside, they don’t “get it”.

Quite often when talking to people about policies and why they don’t work you will hear two reasons. The fact is that there is no will to enforce, the second is that the policies are formulated by people who aren’t affected by them. It is a basic human-centered design principle – those affected by the problem must be at the centre of finding the solution because they understand it best, and will also be affected by it.

Which then brings us to the boda boda question. The great composer and singer, Elly Wamala, has a song title boda boda, in which he extolls the advantages of the motorcycle business. It was released in the late 90s and recently redone by Bobi Wine – for those interested in a more upbeat version.

Besides his obvious lyrical prowess, Wamala sheds light on the complexities of the industry, from as far back as the 90s. This was long before Abudalla Kitatta and his boda boda 2010 coterie of thugs, before bodas got pegged for petty and violent crime; before they became a good answer to rampant youth unemployment. From the song, you can tell that even then, they were still getting on the nerves of the high and mighty.

Granted, on the face of it, it is apparent that boda riders are a nuisance and a menace on the roads. They are rowdy and edgy and always on the verge of a nasty eruption. They are prone to the outrageous, engage in crime and quite honestly, a danger to themselves and their passengers. It always looks like they don’t have plans for the next hour apart from a potential meet with their creator.

Yet, they are also your best chance of getting to your destination in time, the go-to for people avoiding the nightmare of dealing with a broken-to-nonexistent public transport system, are hardworking, and many, honest. In fact, if you looked hard, it is not preposterous to say that your average Ugandan youth – especially male – is a boda boda rider. If not by active practice, then certainly by mentality and thought process.

The problem for bodas is that those with the power to formulate enabling policies exist in a different context. They don’t use bodas, and circumvent the mind-numbing public transport system with lead cars and red plates. They are obsessed with policing politics and are unable to fight crime so they blame who they can. There are not enough jobs to go around so whatever small problem existed with the industry is compounded by the exponential growth of new entrants.

That explains the haphazard and perplexing way in which their regulation is handled – not to say that there is a proper system for handling other things really. But it is illogical to say that the economy is reopened while leaving work restrictions on bodas. It might make sense to someone who never has to worry about how they will get to wherever they want, whenever they want. But it doesn’t, if you work late in the night and a boda is how you are supposed get home. It doesn’t, if you rent a boda to ride at night because you don’t have a job. It certainly doesn’t, if you are handicapping one of the biggest employers.

If the problem is crime, you don’t solve it by passing a guilty verdict on everyone. That is actually the kind of thing boda riders are likely to do – which is puzzling because aren’t policy makers supposed to be made of finer stuff?

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.