Rowdy and unruly: The confusion caused by Ugandan goons on motorbikes

By Jürgen Nambeka

You would think this is a scene from the popular Netflix series “Squid Game” as boda boda drivers struggle through a chaotic swarm of other drivers, pedestrians, taxis, buses and heavy vehicles.

At one point, a boda boda flashes in full beam right in front of you, another brushes past you as it accelerates to drop off a customer, five more drive in the opposite direction and bewilderment hits you, unable to distinguish if the country is driving To the left or to the right.

In a designated area in Kampala where they park while waiting for customers, you wonder if these riders care about their safety. Worn wheels, torn seats, no helmets and just a few with reflective jackets.

Along Bombo Road, a cyclist reversed his bike just by the side of the road. Why? He’s out of fuel and, with little money to afford gas, he reverses it then back out, and now, using his mouth, pumps air through the gas tank . After a minute, he starts the motorcycle and disappears out of sight.

Such is the scenario at several busy junctions in Kampala, Gulu and Lira, where every cyclist is in a rush to help someone trying to navigate the traffic jam on their way to a destination.

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But in this haste lies great lethality. Every individual using a boda boda in Uganda risks being among the 10 people who lose their lives every day in boda boda accidents, according to a 2018 United Nations report.

Boda bodas, believed to have grown by 58.7% since 2007, reportedly emerged in the late 1990s when businessmen used them to cross the border from Kenya to Uganda to smuggle goods while avoiding tax levies.

The cross-border movement led to the use of the word ‘boda’. Then ‘boda boda’ as more and more motorcycles crossed the border.

The form of transportation was adopted due to the low-capacity rapid transportation it provides to both urban and rural populations.

Speed, for which many have embraced bi-wheelers, is now crucial for Ugandans going in and out of the cities of Kampala and Entebbe, which rely heavily on boda bodas for transportation.

There are just over a million boda bodas in Uganda, according to the UN, and they continue to grow due to their low initial cost from China. But many boda boda riders here acquire them through creditors and have to work very hard to repay the loans.

With boda bodas causing congestion and most road accidents, the Ugandan government introduced a mandatory law in 2004 that guarantees every cyclist to wear a helmet while riding.

However, the number of boda bodas who do not use the helmets intended to protect them is still high, and the police do little to enforce the law. Despite the presence of law enforcement officers on most roads in Uganda’s urban centers, boda boda drivers still constitute a significant portion of road users who disobey road traffic rules.

The 2021 Global Road Safety Partnership report shows that road safety in Uganda has deteriorated rapidly in recent years, with boda bodas topping the number of road accidents caused in major urban areas.

Bikers who want to satisfy their customers’ quest for punctuality ride their motorcycles randomly as long as they “secure the bag”.

The bikes they ride are uninsured despite the fact that the Uganda Insurance Regulatory Authority, Uganda Revenue Authority and the Ministry of Works and Transport are working together to try to improve the management of third-party insurance transactions by introducing a mobile payment platform.

Assuming the riders are involved in a minor accident, fleeing the scene of the incident so as not to be caught is their main way out.

Often bikers flee to avoid attacks from passers-by, who in some cases may even steal the bikes. Whenever the police are involved, it’s chaotic as bikers can be accused of not having registered the motorbike, wearing a torn helmet, driving recklessly, not having third party insurance cover and driving bikes in poor condition.

According to Ugandan law, anyone arrested for reckless driving is fined between 39,000 and 60,000 shillings, which boda boda drivers who live hand to mouth cannot afford. The alternative is a three-year prison term.

According to the World Bank Country Road Safety Report 2021, Uganda has the highest number of road fatalities in Africa. For every 100,000 people, 29 die in road accidents. There is a high probability of finding boda boda riders in Uganda without third party insurance coverage.

Third-party coverage provides the boda boda operator whose motorcycle is insured with protection against damage to the motorcycle, rider, and personal belongings in the event of an accident.

Without insurance cover, any driver involved in a horrific road accident in Uganda has very little chance of a full recovery; with police reports indicating that they record up to 300 serious accidents, 500 minors and 100 fatalities each month.

Figures indicate that of the 24,352 motorcyclists, passengers and pedestrians seriously injured in such accidents in three years, 16,000 were in Kampala.

Police say the crashes, which in 2020 claimed the lives of 3,600 Ugandans, were the result of reckless driving and congestion in cities.

“I was cycling on the Northern Bypass in Kampala when a boda boda cyclist rammed me from behind. I fell and I don’t know how I was brought to the hospital. I don’t know what caused the accident because I was on the right side of the road,” said Helly Ebega, a security officer admitted to Rubaga hospital.

A survey by the New Vision newspaper indicates that the emergency department of Mulago Hospital, which has an official occupancy capacity of 52 beds, is now admitting around 150 patients a day.

“The hospital receives around 300 to 500 casualties every day. Half of them are victims of motorcycle accidents,” the report reveals. The hospital, according to the study, is forced to leave many victims lying on verandas and in hallways unattended.

Nsambya and Rubaga hospitals also have a high number of motorcycle accident victims compared to other road accident victims.

At Rubaga Hospital, five out of six hospitalized patients are victims of motorcycle accidents, according to research.

“At Nsambya hospital, most of the injured fell or were knocked down by a motorbike.”

In many scenarios, a cyclist earning between 900 and 1,300 shillings a day cannot afford treatment in a private hospital.

The few people who can afford treatment in a public hospital are suffering because some hospitals are not well equipped to treat life-threatening injuries. According to the UN, Uganda has inadequate rehabilitation services in health facilities. The few that have the service are under-resourced with low numbers of workers, equipment, supplies, and funding.

Many boda boda victims end up staying home for fear of going to the hospital and racking up bills they cannot pay.

Pre-hospital care, which should guarantee them care as soon as they are involved in an accident, was not functional according to the 2018 UN report. The service is important, however, as it determines whether the boda boda driver involved in the accident ends up disabled or dead in situations that could be managed.

It is amazing that to save time, victims of boda boda accidents are rushed to hospital by another boda boda, which may cause more injuries. While boda bodas have had disciplinary issues related to trafficking, the introduction of the SafeBoda solution has played a huge role in trying to clean up the industry.

The company, which was launched in 2015, uses a mobile app that allows a customer to book a boda boda and travel comfortably to their preferred destination.

Disparate from normal boda bodas, once a motorist registers to be a rider with the company, they are trained in the maintenance of their motorcycles, road safety and customer care. .

As soon as they are ready to start work, they are equipped with hair nets and spare helmets, which ensure that even their customers are protected and feel safe during the journey. With a growing threat from the normal boda boda cyclist, SafeBoda cyclists are traceable and therefore less likely to misbehave.

Before travelling, a customer enters details of their destinations on the safe boda app. In no time, they’re hooked up to a safe boda rider, who picks them up at their pick-up points and makes sure they’re comfortable and safe from boarding until the end of their trip. They then pay the amount, which is generated by the app without interference from the rider.

SafeBoda offers a completely different experience compared to normal motorcycle riding. “I have used both normal boda boda and SafeBoda and I can vouch that the latter is better. They are less noisy and more cautious and will make you feel safe on the go,” says Nobert Atukunda, journalist at NTV Uganda residing in Kampala.

Despite the subtle and less chaotic dreamlike experience the solution provides, several runners have complained about the service. Most riders who were once happy when the company stocked up for less-paying customers are now discouraged. An anonymous source from SafeBoda told Healthy Nation that half of the 25,000 registered users on the platform are not actively using it since the company has reduced the bonuses that initially attracted them.

Previously, the company gave 50-100% bonuses on each trip only to have SafeBoda lower its bonuses to 15% and charge passengers a 5% commission on each trip.

While all stakeholders in Uganda are aware of the importance of boda bodas, an urgent need to fully regulate the sector remains.

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