I have stated this before, let me say it again: Boda bodas, the passenger motorcycle now so ubiquitous in Uganda, in every corner and at every turn on our roads, is the country’s number one public health emergency.
What boda bodas do on Ugandan roads is an epidemic of incredible proportions. You see it everywhere, every day. It is horrendous, surreal and difficult to come to terms with. It just gets worse.
Driving on Ugandan roads is a nightmare, and the folks riding the motorcycles are the biggest culprits. By one estimate, boda bodas account for close to 50 percent of fatal road accidents in Uganda, a likely conservative estimate.
The mere fact that there are so many boda bodas on Ugandan roads, operating unregulated and often unhinged, means they are bound to account for most of what goes wrong. In Kampala, bodas have commandeered whole streets and in due course of time will likely constitute gang groups with ‘exclusive’ control over certain roads and locations.
This is where you would think the government ought to be deeply concerned as to take measures to arrest the problem. There is need for a heavy whip to restore order on Ugandan roads, especially in Kampala. Certain categories of vehicles (largely government-owned and notably SUVs belonging to the Judiciary, some carrying judges!) violate basic traffic rules with impunity.
But the boda-man is in his own league. The red light means nothing. There is no limit to the number of passengers and other non-human material that gets loaded onto the small bike. They ride from anywhere including on narrow pedestrian sidewalks. Zero regard for a pedestrian crossing the road or walking along a street.
When I go running anywhere around Kampala, I am often not sure if I can make it back without being run over by the boda boda. On the highways, one has to assume at every second that a boda boda will swing into the road unexpectedly and to tragic effect.
The boda boda epidemic has been getting out of hand every passing year. Too many on the roads, but most important is the sheer disregard of the law and the impunity of believing you have the right to do wrong. This has the net impact of normalising and accepting a great deal of what is otherwise flat-out wrong.
The staggering fatalities would be good enough reason for us as a society to urgently reset as to forge a new regime of managing public matters. But there is something worse than the physical damage, the injuries and deaths resulting from boda boda activities: the deepening culture of lawlessness and disregard of basic rules.
As I have argued here before, the man riding the two-wheel passenger bike is literally in the driving seat of our national moral fabric and social ethos. He is reshaping our attitudes and behaviour about what is right and wrong. In the main, the default modus operandi of the boda man is to disregard what is right, to ride on the pavement and the opposite side of the road, to not see the red traffic light and have no regard for the pedestrian crossing the road.
Because bodas now rule the roads, their way of doing things and their standard operating procedure is increasingly becoming the mainstream. There is a sense of sadness and sorrow you see on Ugandan roads and wonder if we, as a nation, have any sense of shame and decency; if we indeed have a value system to undergird our public conduct.
But then we have Gen Yoweri Museveni, the definitive General of the national resistance who by his own pronouncements has fought many wars and there is none he can’t win. He is a self-declared chief-fighter, the Sabalwanyi.
It is puzzling, therefore, that Gen Museveni cannot rein in the boda menace and restore some semblance of order on Ugandan roads, especially on the streets of Kampala where in some places and at certain times, the chaos is out of this world.
Elected leaders in Kampala see the boda boda crowd through the lens of political support and votes, so they pander to their whims and look the other way while mayhem reigns. This has been the state of play for long under successive opposition actors holding sway in the political trenches of Kampala.
Gen Museveni has mostly been in the cold in Kampala politics, always unable to get voters to his side, so he is best placed to swiftly tackle problems in Kampala that require politically unpopular solutions.
Gen Museveni scarcely needs Kampala’s votes or popular support for him to rule, in fact he can rule Uganda with his traditional repository of power – the gun – regardless of public opinion and popular sentiments.
If anything, Gen Museveni should be worried that the marauding motorcycles are building up a crescendo that will one day bring Kampala to a standstill, and likely bring down the government!