ON THE BRINK: Of boda boda politics

It was a predictable intervention when President Y.K. Museveni made his voice heard over the week-long battle between motorcyclists aka boda boda and the Police. Kampala streets were for the most part of last week punctuated with frightening scenes of Police officers wrestling down motorcycle riders whom they suspected of breaking the code of riding in the city. In some cases passengers were publicly embarrassed, injured, or left to find alternative means.

Well, when Museveni spoke, he was conscious of the buttered end of his bread. Finance minister Syda Bbumba was immediately dispatched to lower the license fee for boda boda riders while Maj. Gen. Kale Kaihura was told not to insist on passengers wearing crash helmets. Whatever happens henceforth, the riders have clearly won the war against them.

The current breed of the boda boda industry is an offshoot from what started in 1979/80 as a means of transporting goods across the Uganda-Kenya border in Busia District.

It was the best means for handling smuggled goods – magendo – on bicycles, carts and wheel chairs that moved quickly across the border through panya routes to avoid border police detection. The phenomenon later spread to the rest of the country first to the eastern and northern towns and later stretching to Kisoro District in the far west end of the country. It has since transformed from bicycles to motorcycles.

The original boda boda as it was understood in Busia was that it was a means of production borne out of the necessity to provide cheap and effective transportation of goods – albeit smuggled – across the border.

The boda boda was used as a means add capacity to an economic activity it was therefore not an end in itself. Unfortunately, that is not the spirit of the industry today. The boda boda today is symptomatic of two major problems in Uganda; the failed transport system and rampart unemployment.

Uganda might have fairly good roads – outside Kampala – compared to some countries in the region, but the lack of an efficient and safe 24-hour taxi or bus service in the city and all its urban areas is partly responsible for the growing boda boda industry.

For the past two decades phenomenal economic growth has caused the standard of living of most urban Ugandans to improve. They have built houses, bought more cars and produced more offsprings. More rural dwellers have migrated to urban areas searching for a decent life.
Unfortunately, the transport infrastructure has not grown proportionately to support that kind of movement and although more tertiary graduates have come into the job market, not many jobs are there for the taking compounding enormous pressure on available resources.

The boda boda industry today is a ‘gang’ of underemployed youth who are ready to turn themselves into pawns for a silver coin. Wide-eyed politicians are aware of this degeneration and have taken the occasion to whip up boda boda sentiments for political capital.

The industry is infiltrated by security organs, criminals, drug traffickers and whatever other names you might want to add. The problem is not the riders; it is that they have nothing else to do.
The job market is tighter than ever and rural folks are not as enthusiastic of living in their homesteads now as was the case before because of biting poverty and yet, the lure of politics gets even more enticing especially to younger people who see it as a means to make a quick buck off those who have.

That is why a statement like: “I think insisting on helmets for a passenger is not logical… [is] idiotic” is an unfortunate utterance of a misleading judgment of leadership. Helmets are protective gears to save life and not for beautification.

fmasiga@monitor.co.ug