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Growth of cross-border traffic a good thing that has become hell

Thursday May 19 2022
Busia one-stop border crossing between Kenya and Uganda.

The Busia one-stop border crossing between Kenya and Uganda. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a presentation by someone who has ideas about the future of East African borders and had visited the Kenya-Uganda border. He thinks there is money to be made in building a fast platform for all the bureaucratic processes that bedevil cross-border business, and also in some kind of data storage.

Then, a few days ago, at Kenya and Uganda’s Malaba border, we were in the company of someone who is very optimistic about regional integration and is looking to invest money in logistics.

Separately, both of them were put off by the same thing: the traffic jam from both Kenya and Uganda crossing the border. It is either choking to death other businesses or making it very hard for them — especially customers — to get around.

Though the queues aren’t as long as they were early in the year, they are still a couple of dozen trucks deep. There is very poor traffic management on both sides, and if you come in a regular car, to get to the border, and away from it, you need to have a broker who goes ahead of you, haggling with truck drivers to give you space, and identifying which pavement you can clamber over to drive through. It is a total mess, and no grown-up seems to be in charge.

Our party, having crossed into Uganda, then couldn’t find a place to park, alight, and do a walkaround. A decision was made to return the following day, park kilometres away from Malaba, and make the rest of the distance on a boda-boda (motorcycle “taxi”).

If you are looking to invest in a fast network in a place, you are unlikely to finally put down the money if you can’t even get there to scout out a potential business site, except on boda-boda weaving madly between trucks.

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A check was also made at the Busia border the next day, and it was the same story. The exception was that in Busia on the Ugandan side, you didn’t have as many roadblocks. On the Malaba side into Uganda, though, you have three roadblocks, including one by Customs/tax agents, in a space of about five kilometres. Then about 18km away, as you exit Tororo town, there is another roadblock. And then about 20km away, you have the long-standing Customs/security one at Busitema Forest. In the space of 36km, you have five roadblocks.

After the remarkable progress of the early 2000s, Uganda has gone back to the dark age as far as non-tariff barriers are concerned.

The growth of cross-border traffic, a good thing, has also become a burden. The time has come to create separate commercial truck and passenger vehicle channels at the border, preferably some kilometres apart.

Because money is tight, and therefore East African governments aren’t about to fund that, the passenger fast track channel could be privatised, so users pay for the service.

After driving for 10 hours to the border, many travellers will consider it a bargain to pay $5 to get through a border in five minutes than to be sandwiched by lorries for over an hour to travel just three kilometres after exiting a border.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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