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Uganda’s boat tragedy

The recovered vessel. PHOTO – UGANDA POLICE MEDIA

Why accidents like the one that killed tens of revellers will continue to happen

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | The sinking of a boat in Lake Victoria killing many revellers on November 24 was a classic tragedy. And typical of the Ugandan character, social and traditional media have been awash with finger pointing and apportioning blame. Pundits say the government failed in its obligation to save Ugandans from themselves. It is a claim I have increasingly grown sceptical of and hostile to.

The idea of a state as different from the people who comprise it has over the years gained ascendance in Africa, particularly Uganda. On practically every failure on our continent and country, the blame goes to the government and “our leaders”. I have grown increasingly wary of this reasoning in large part because leaders and the states over which they preside emerge out of the population. It follows, therefore, that they are a reflection of that society.

I do not want to blame the victims of this death, but there is a lot in their tragedy that reflects our national character. For instance, whenever I am driving around Kampala, I come close to knocking and even killing a boda boda rider – often carrying three or four passengers, driving reckless on the wrong side of the road, through red traffic lights or overtaking from the left. Sometimes I stop, get out of my car, and grab the boda boda rider by the collar.

“Why are you risking the lives of your customers,” I ask, “You owe them a responsibility of care to drive them safely.” In many of these unhappy encounters, boda boda riders are intriguingly apologetic. However, in most cases passengers insult me. They say I have lugezigezi and that I am “wasting” their time and urge the rider to continue.

Note: if an accident happened, it is only my car that would be damaged and be repaired by insurance. I would suffer no physical or financial injury. The boda boda rider and his passengers would suffer bodily harm, the more reason they should be concerned about their personal physical safely than me.

What we are witnessing with boda bodas is not a failure of the state but a general societal tolerance of reckless behaviour. Many young people from the Western world who come to live and/or work in Uganda and use boda bodas buy helmets. Ugandans do not. Why? The difference is in the social attitudes towards safety.

States can only be effective at enforcement if their laws, rules and regulations are in sync with the shared mentalities, values and norms of the people. Short of this, enforcement becomes expansive, expensive, and brutal. The costs of success would exceed the benefits sought. In a democracy where the career of politicians depends on placating the whims of voters, it is hard to attempt such a feat.

One example stands out: in 2010, the then Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, ordered a massive crackdown on boda boda riders without helmets and who drove recklessly. Police swung into action. The riders petitioned State House. President Yoweri Museveni hosted them to a mass rally at Clock Tower. They made their case to him. In his response, he allowed them to ride without helmets and asked Kayihura to back off. It is easy to blame Museveni for such crass opportunism, and we should. However, that is how democratic politics works everywhere.

When Museveni left, the riders attacked Kayihura and would have killed him. He was by rescued by Special Forces Command soldiers. Kayihura and the police took their lesson and made winning over boda boda riders a cardinal goal in their management strategy. Henceforth, boda boda riders were above the law. It is in this context that Boda Boda 2010 was born, and took over the management of the police. The voters had carried the day.

So back to the tragedy on Lake Victoria: Ugandans want their fun and the state has limitations in enforcing its rules. The state may be omnipresent but it is not omnipotent. For example, police say they tried to stop the revellers from boarding the boat saying it was in bad condition but were “overpowered” – a code-word that respectable Baganda princes were on board. The revellers had little regard for their own safety. It is difficult to save a person committed to committing suicide.

Every society has its norms, values, habits, shared mentalities etc. These pour into the state as laws and regulations. Effective law and regulatory enforcement is not just because the state wishes. It is largely because society treasures the rules. In the absence of societal values in favour of the rules, enforcement becomes expensive. There is limited enforcement of safety standards on cars, boda bodas, boats etc. in Uganda because we pay lip service to our safety.

Whenever human beings suffer a loss, they look for a villain to blame for their misfortune: the devil, the scheming gods, the neighbourhood witch, etc. In Uganda’s (and Africa’s) case, the state, the leaders or the president provides considerable grist to the blame-others mill. I am keenly aware this article specifically, and my arguments over the last six years or so generally, get interpreted as a disguised way to defend Museveni and the “incompetent, corrupt and cruel rogue state” over which he presides. While I have no desire to make excuses for Museveni, I have no apologies for coming across as doing just that.

The tragedy on Lake Victoria will happen again and again regardless of what the state pretends to do unless and until Ugandans – individually and collectively – begin taking safety seriously. I take my safety on boda bodas seriously. So when I sit on one, I dictate how the rider will ride and they respect my rules. No riding on the wrong side of the road, no overtaking from the left, no overtaking when another car is coming, no riding through red lights. I have never used Safe Boda because I ride boda bodas with the best safety – my personal insistence on how the rider rides.

Ugandans need to take personal responsibility for their actions and stop blaming the government and/or Museveni. Only then will our country prosper with or without Museveni and the state over which he presides. The state in Uganda and the people who manage it do not come from Spain, Ecuador or Japan but from amongst us. Their actions and inactions, therefore, reflect our shared values, norms, habits, attitudes, mentalities etc. Only a colonial state can reflect values different from those of the society it governs.



  1. I totally agree.

  2. MWENDA I do not know if you have children or not.

    But if you had kids and told them that eating sweets and certain types of food was bad for them, would you reach a decision to allow them or not to eat the said foods based on “a vote”.

    IF I am not wrong, there are times where you have blamed societal failures on the fact that people/ leaders are not prepared to face the hard and sometimes nasty options.

    Even you as a head of a company/ organisation would not simply give in if your workers/ employees asked for a pay increase simply because they passed a vote.

    Someone at some point has to take the hard decisions and as they say look at the next generation rather that the next general election.

    • My brother Ejakait, a government is “a group of people who govern a nation” regardless of how the group came to be constituted…………elections (rigged disputed results) coup (the winner in the shooting match) appointment ( foreign power imposed ruler and his company) etc……..
      However, when the ‘government’ takes reins of the nation, they in principle cease to be persons but ‘officers’. That is why if an MP claims incredibilities of going up-stairs with 11bn money in cash (which notes would normally fit in a FUSO magulu kumi) we don’t argue, just praying outsiders don’t hear of it or it be the last and pray that memory of grumblers be erased. When a whole Minister of Foreign Affairs eats a bribe and instead of resignation and instant incarceration, you hear a government defend him or question the allegation, you pray it passes like a bad dream and the Sekikubos (mischief-maker rebel MP) don’t tout the matter too loudly. So I can conclusively argue that ” a government(that group I alluded to) corrupts otherwise good people making them into inhumans”
      I have never worked for a government but like the spectator of a soccer contest in the stadium or TV screen, I see more and better than the players and can make objective judgement….having been a spactator for quite long and seen many governments in action.

      • Hello my brother RWASUBUTARE.

        Similarly, regardless of how the came to power, that same government enters into a social contract where you and I cede some if not most of our rights and then pay extortionate taxes on the assumption that this government is all knowing but most important in BENEVOLENT in nature thus has the ability to guide and lead us along the right path, all with our best interests at heart.

        MY late brother , bless his soul, made me go for a driving test with the then IOV of Mbale , the late Mr AKUZE before I could touch his vehicles.He knew that I had been driving from probably the age of 12 but when I reached the time when I needed to drive, and especially as it would involve me driving his wife and kids, he made sure I passed my test. And he gave Mr Akuze very stern instructions that he should not pass me simply because he and Akuze were friends.Thankfully I passed and Mr Akuze assured him that I was a good driver.And as far as I can remember he always insisted that we wore seat belts and I would not start or move the car unless I and the passengers had their seat belts on.

  3. It is good to dream, however, it is bad to write a dream as though it were the living reality. For Mwenda to state that often he engages BODA BODA riders by their collar and in most cases they are apologetic towards him is a figment of his imagination. Mwenda frets at the possibility of being “manhandled” by anyone given his diminutive exiguous body makeup.
    To carry on with Mwenda’s dream, the reason why he sees “visualizes” BODA BODAs side by side with his car is for a simple fact that Ugandan roads are narrow. In a civilized world were everyone is people, the road sides are paved to cater for pedestrians, they demarcate lanes for cyclists, buses, cars etc so as people don’t jostle for space.

    The boat, it was claimed by police was in “hiding” and police was busy looking/searching for it. How then, did they let it free when they had the golden chance of causing for its arrest? If President Museveni can side with Boda Boda riders in breaking traffic laws, how is it wrong for police officers to side with boat revellers? Moa would say, “the fish starts to rot from the head.” I can imagine Kagame would have handled the same problem differently and he would be glorified. Museveni abuses his power and it is citizens to blame. Call me a “hypocrite” and I will show you me.

  4. “…our shared values, norms, habits, attitudes, mentalities”, I guess, are nurtured and developed in large part by the leadership through deliberate education programmes, political actions and practice, respect of the law, role modelling etc. Look around and you’ll notice that in countries where the leadership has shown clear vision in developing a national consciousness on these shared values, norms, habits, attitudes and mentalities, citizens have responded. That as Ugandans we don’t seem to have these, it is not because of our nature; it’s more likely because of our leadership, past and present. The avoidable tragedies we witness ever so often are, indeed, indicative of a leadership failure. At the risk of sounding corny, leadership is about leading, in every aspect of life.

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