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.