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What Pioneer buses show about Ugandans

By Peter Nyanzi

For 100 new buses to rot away in the city is a gross national shame and embarrassment for all Ugandans

What emotion do you get at the sight of a mass of Pioneer buses rotting away in the parking lot of Namboole Stadium? Every time I see the red and yellow heap of them literally rotting away, questions race through my mind. I look away in total mortification. It’s a national disgrace. Do we have a soul, a conscience as a country? Are we sane as a society? Do we, as Ugandans, ever feel a sense of shame? Just think about it; one hundred brand new buses rotting away in a city where millions of citizens are besieged by a transport crisis day in day out?  New buses rotting away in a city where hundreds of thousands of youth are jobless? New buses rotting away in a city where accidents are claiming lives of countless city dwellers thanks to thousands of rickety taxis and reckless boda boda riders? New buses rotting away in a city where KCCA and the tax authorities are struggling to raise revenue to improve social services? New buses lying on a heap of ruins in a country still listed among the most indigent and least developed in the world? It’s a grossly obscene joke of a spectacle.

Yes – believe it or not – for close to two years, 100 brand new buses are not transporting people but are wasting away in a parking lot because the relevant authorities cannot agree on how to bring them back on the road. Excuse me.  If not insane, almost obnoxious, tell me what this is. Even if it were just a suggestion, it would be a totally quixotic one; unimaginable. Look at it this way. A single bus employs a minimum of four people directly; leave alone the others who get income from it indirectly. With 100 buses, you have jobs for 400 people guaranteed.

Including mechanics, technicians, administration staff and managers, the whole company could provide a minimum of 450 direct jobs. Supposing every bus consumes a minimum of 300 litres of diesel per day from which the government gets about Shs 600 per litre in taxes. That translates into Shs 18 million in taxes on diesel alone for the 100 buses per day. Multiply that by 366 days you will get almost Shs 7 billion per year – and that is minus taxes from other lubricants, spare parts, materials, and PAYE from workers among others. So, how much has the government lost in revenue for the two years that the buses have been grounded? Your guess is as good as mine.

But why condemn the innocent buses – assets that should be making hundreds of millions of shillings daily – to a painful and obviously wasteful decomposition? So we thought we have a pococurante government? It could be an understatement. I mean the buses’ woes have been attributed to protracted negotiations with URA over taxes and the local authorities over flimsy details such as routes and fees to be paid to local governments in Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono. URA was bent on auctioning the buses to recover tax arrears until President Museveni, to his credit, said no.

That is how far he went. He should have done more, in my view, given the economic benefits from bus transport. As it is, this is a national shame and embarrassment. It is a mordant display of reckless wastefulness. Does it augur well for the government’s vision for private sector-led economic development? No, it contradicts it. We all agree that it could be that the proprietors’ business plan had issues. Or maybe some mistakes were made by the local investors. Does that mean that that very important investment should be allowed to go waste? I strongly think that the Pioneer bus matter is surely not beyond redemption. Some public officials are not doing their job. The concerned institutions – Cabinet, Parliament and the private sector must sit down with the almost helpless company officials to find a solution to this problem – once and for all.  There are many viable options available. Bottom line is that the buses must get back on the road.

Who will be convinced that Uganda is a great investment destination when we don’t care about our own local investors? While Pioneer is a private investment, it was serving a vital public function, which ideally, should have been the role of the government anyway. That is the case in most countries – developed and developing – it’s the mandate of the government to ensure that citizens have access to an affordable, effective and efficient mass transport system. What is the government doing about the acute transport crisis that Ugandans are grappling with? Nothing.

Now, absurdly, the same government doesn’t seem to care that even the one small company that was doing something about the transport crisis, is dying a painful death. Yet, the relatively cheaper and more efficient Pioneer buses had become an instant hit with Kampala’s long-suffering dwellers. The people who had made the buses their only means of transport now don’t know why the buses were grounded.  The reasons being given don’t appear to make any sense at all to most ordinary Ugandans. They would want the buses to return tomorrow.

Let the concerned authorities rise to the occasion and save Uganda – and themselves – this national shame.  KCCA, the Uganda Transport Licensing Board, Parliament, the Ministry of Local Government and even State House should wake up from their slumber. The reason governments exist is to support their citizens. A government that does not help its people, especially local investors and the public, is not worth the name. And normally, a government that just watches on as useful assets – hundreds of buses – rot away should feel ashamed.

As it stands, this horde of brand new buses decomposing at Namboole Stadium is not just an eye sore. It qualifies to be described as a national shame. We should all walk with our heads bowed in total embarrassment.


Peter Nyanzi is a journalist

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