Unlocking Uganda’s traffic gridlock starts with resetting leaders’ minds

Tuesday November 02 2021

Prof Julius Kiiza, a political economist at Makerere University, says the most common use of drones in Uganda is taking wedding pictures instead of overcoming transportation obstacles. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG


A Ugandan scholar has come up with a new diagnosis for what afflicts his country, making it one of the poorest despite having many resources that include experts in different fields of development.

The problem, according to Prof Julius Kiiza, a political economist at Makerere University, is the tendency to plan for the past instead of planning for the future, which he calls the “boda boda psychology”.

The defect, according to the professor, manifests through leaders and planners who exhibit a diminished view of themselves and their society in comparison to other countries, making it taboo for them to entertain bright dreams of nurturing a modern society.

Prof Kiiza’s diagnosis stunned an audience of engineers, scholars, planners and expatriate experts who gathered at the Kampala Serena Hotel on October 21 to receive and discuss findings of a study commissioned by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation on the prospects for reforming Kampala’s public transport.

After the team of local and international researchers made their presentations and the executive director of Kampala Capital City Authority made her speech, the professor went for the jugular, leaving most stakeholders present sorely exposed.

As fate would have it, the transport stakeholders’ dialogue took place just after a team of boda boda riders had executed a private motorist over a small altercation with one of their own in the city, at a spot between the country’s two main Catholic and Anglican cathedrals. As the city boda boda become a law unto themselves, Prof Kiiza said it is objectionable that instead of banishing the illegal industry, leaders and planners are discussing how to accommodate it. He also expressed disgust at a big man who invited him to Entebbe on short notice and, to beat the traffic jam, sent him a lead car with sirens — another “solution” Uganda’s powerful citizens currently offer for transport system efficiency.


The man of letters then dazzled the audience with visuals from Korea and China, where experiments of drone taxis are underway, and got the reaction he wanted, as participants objected to the comparison with “poor” Uganda. He then had them for lunch, asking if there is a single country on earth that was created with modern transport infrastructure or they had to build it themselves.

He flashed flyover networks in China that ensure that traffic keeps moving, unlike Kampala where people sit in traffic jam for hours inhaling dangerous exhausts, while planners and leaders lament about private landownership that “makes Kampala’s roads narrow”. He kindly shifted to nearer examples of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, where traffic congestion is being tackled by modernising infrastructure.

The university don also lamented the failure to apply available technology to solve transport problems, citing the most common use of drones in Uganda as taking wedding pictures instead of overcoming transportation obstacles.

It is not often that such high-profile presentations in our polite society get turned upside down by a brutal intellectual. The Ugandan thing is to clap politely and then wait for tea break to whisper your disagreement ineffectually to your tablemate. But such is the hopeless state of Uganda’s transport sector that anyone who tears up half-hearted proposals is bound to become an instant hero. For example, the latest study on Uganda’s transport industry didn’t pay sufficient attention to climate change and vehicular pollution, which kills ten times more Ugandans that Covid-19 has killed in two years. And, although many people now connect from Mukono (a district in Greater Kampala) and the city over Lake Victoria using highly risky small boats, the study is silent about water transport, the cheapest form of mass transport known to man.

Yet five big urban centres, Kampala, Jinja, Entebbe, Mukono and Masaka, are so close to one another by water linking them by ferry would cost a miniscule fraction of what building a road would.

The researchers made a historical study of Uganda’s public transport, but didn’t mention the attempt to dig a canal from the city centre to the lake by a defunct monarch, Kabaka Mwanga II, in the late 19th century, an effort that was cut short by the colonisation process, leaving the project to remain a small man-made lake, the Kabaka’s Lake.

If Prof Kiiza was in charge, clearly the first step towards normalising and then developing Uganda’s public transport would tackle the mindset of leaders and planners. But then, professors are not in charge; politicians are.