Who will bell the boda boda cat?

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

...I have proposed that the government must start by imposing an indefinite moratorium on importing motorcycles and parts

In recent weeks, the Uganda Police Force released a series of video clips of road accident incidents involving boda bodas, the passenger motorcycles with an unparalleled presence on Uganda’s roads and, indeed, in the Ugandan socioeconomic imagination.

The video clips are simply too difficult to watch, with boda boda riders crashing into trailers or getting directly hit from busy road intersections.

I have written here many times about boda bodas, thus I need not rehash what has been hashed, just to reiterate that the boda-economy is now topmost as a source of public health emergency and a key driver of moral degeneration in Uganda.

To say this is not to discount the vital role boda bodas play in providing much needed public transportation and their critical place as a source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of compatriots. No one can gainsay the positive contributions of boda bodas.

That is not in dispute, and is not the issue at hand. The real issue is the social and human cost we are incurring and the long term ramifications. Whichever way you slice it, the boda boda economy both as mode transportation and a source of income is simply unsustainable.

As I’ve argued here before, there’s only so many jobs a boda boda sector can create in a country with runaway youth unemployment. And no way in the world can a modern city worth its name manage public transportation without a mass transit system for which boda bodas are ill-suited to play a major role.

Daily Monitor’s Public Editor Charles Bichachi has reasoned that motorcycles can be used for private and business activities not as a mode of public transport precisely because by their very nature they cannot engage in mass transit. Little wonder, therefore, that it’s an appalling common scene for a boda boda meant to carry two people instead ferrying five, at great risk!

We got to the current dire crisis in part because Museveni and his NRM government bought into a misleading World Bank prescription that all socioeconomic and political problems should be left to a fictitious free market. Thus, whatever public transportation infrastructure and systems in place in 1986 were dismantled or left to decay to death or just handed to private acolytes of the regime.

The absurdity of this comes to light when you realise that even in the world’s centre of capitalism and free market economics, in the United States of America, public transport is actually managed and operated by city authorities precisely because it is a critical public good.

Societies that invest in public facilities and provision of vital public goods are able to realise a high quality of life for citizens, which in turn makes possible greater wealth and wellbeing. It is ludicrous to assume that the market will solve every problem, because it never does, never done so anywhere in the world.

The privatisation of everything in Uganda, including public transport, has delivered impressive results in some areas but utter disaster in others. In public transport, we have the handy boda boda, able to swiftly move through often endemic traffic jam, but also a source of all sorts of perverse outcomes not least of which, in fact the overarching, is the deepening of a culture of doing wrong and disregarding basic rules and norms.

The allure of the boda boda is that the rider does where motor vehicles for the most part cannot: pass through everywhere and anywhere. In recent debates in newspaper opinions and on social media outlets like Twitter, I have encountered deeply disappointing and rather ill-thought attempts at explaining away or even apologising for the boda boda tragedy.

A common refrain is that all have sinned, that all road users engage in wrongdoing. This is at best a disingenuous argument. We know that for every vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road, on a pavement or speeding past the red light, there are literally hundreds bodas doing so.

There is no doubt that ours is a country of lawlessness and utter disregard of basic rules, but no other category of society compares with boda boda riders. Refusing to confront this fact is hiding our heads in the sand. To bell the boda boda cat will take enormous courage and swift leadership. We will need to see the big picture.

In the past, I have proposed that the government must start by imposing an indefinite moratorium on importing motorcycles and parts. This is easy to do but for the vested business interests including by political actors and powerful individuals.

The long term strategy is to innovatively grow the productive sectors to create jobs, and to develop a viable public mass transit system especially for Kampala metropolitan area.

The bottomline of all this is that, with the boda boda mess all over, Kampala is such a joke of a city, one I haven’t seen even in our immediate East African region.


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