One rather amazing phenomenon in Uganda today is the ‘refusal’ by public passenger transporters to raise fares despite the ‘refusal’ by the government to intervene in taming the fuel prices that started rising over five months ago, when the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out.
But did the government really refuse to intervene? Many motorists, passenger transporters and some of the one million boda boda riders think the government has actually been subsidising them by not stopping its drivers and transport officers from stealing its fuel and selling it cheaper than the pump prices.
In this effort to cushion the public from Ukraine-born inflation, the government drivers and transport officers are joined by some boys in car washing bays, who have acquired skills of siphoning petrol from customers’ cars.
The result is the sprouting of new fuel retail outlets in slums, where boda boda riders buy petrol in half-litre bottles — from mothers juggle-cooking on charcoal stoves and handling highly inflammable merchandise — at roadside markets, where any motorist can top up with a litre or two and worry about the damage to the vehicle from adulteration later.
Logically, we should now be designing a new campaign to sensitise the public on how to handle stolen petrol without getting burned. We as a nation are well known for running successful health campaigns to protect our people from death.
From the late 1980s to date, Uganda has been an undisputed leader in anti-HIV/Aids campaigns, and more recently, our campaign to prevent coronavirus infections was very successful.
Actually, we already have a promising campaign to protect lives from energy theft, being run by the electricity distributor Umeme. This utility company recently started distributing plastic clotheslines in slums and Mt Elgon areas, where power theft is endemic. Among the residents of the eastern districts around Mbale, where death by electrocution is almost a daily occurrence, they call it a snake bite. Presumably, the electric wire is shaped like a snake and it strikes as fast, often leading to death.
Well, Umeme has recently been distributing plastic clotheslines after noticing that many innocent women get ‘snake-bitten’ when they hang their wet laundry on wires in places that use ‘free’ electricity stolen by men.
As a result, deaths by ‘snake-bite’ are reducing because the victim of the power theft — Umeme — has started a campaign to reduce deaths in the very communities that cause it huge financial loss.
Only last week, an unlucky habitual electricity thief in Mbale who connects illegal users to the grid at a fee had his hand blown off by a tear gas canister when enforcement officers went to arrest him.
Senior local leaders condemned Umeme and police for going to arrest the man they themselves described as a well-known power thief before daybreak. Umeme insists it was 6am. The only argument going on is over the time when the thief’s hand was blown off, and efforts to protect mothers from ‘snake-bites’ continue.
So, as we moot the campaign to protect our fuel thieves who are keeping the transport fares down, we need to borrow a leaf from Umeme and be sensitive to the bystanders who should be saved from death by burning.
In the northwestern border districts, where the sale of petrol in bottles started by local youth called Opec Boys, they have actually led the way to move from fuel-combustion transport.
In Arua town, they started adopting electric motorbikes three years ago. So chances of their women being burnt up as they cook and sell petrol are now much less than in Kampala environs where the risk is higher.
Although electric bikes are slightly more expensive than petrol ones, charging them from a domestic source is cheaper than using fuel.
The search for solutions to Ukraine-born inflation continues.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]