It would be interesting, though dangerous, to follow all the traffic rules while driving in Kampala City. You arrive at the junction and dutifully stop because the traffic light has turned red. After a long interval, it turns green. What do you do?
While you waited for the light to change, a hundred-plus boda boda motorbikes started piling up in front and beside you. The boda boda start zooming in front of you from everywhere, you wait for them before you can drive forward safely. Some brave driver behind squeezes past you, dares the bikes and slices through, after hooting angrily and casting you a nasty look.
You become normal and start daring them also and drive forward, as the light turns red again. An angry policeman materialises and kindly shouts at you to drive through the red quickly so traffic may flow. And so on.
Once in the clear, you recognise the bang you heard back there was a bike against your car whose paintwork will have to be checked. You also realise you cannot use the side mirror because a boda hit and twisted it, but, thanks to its flexibility, you will readjust it.
Then another bike takes you by surprise, dashing from behind and crossing in front of you from the side and you slam the brakes. Of course you couldn’t have seen it through the mirror earlier twisted by the boda’s brother.
As you start breathing normally, a convoy led by a battle-ready jeep, headlights full on in the midday Kampala glare materialises, heading straight at you with its siren blaring and very angry soldiers armed to the teeth menacingly shooing you off the road.
There is no time to wonder what is happening. It is a one-way street and the armoured jeep is driving in the wrong direction, but there is no time to wonder how it went over the raised road island from the other side, followed by an executive limousine carrying some important passenger, a junior minister or his wife. You instinctively veer off the road and the VIP convoy whizzes past.
It would be fine if this was a rare occurrence but, alas, it happens a hundred times a day, for there is no knowing how many people are entitled to indulging in such illegal conduct, given the lack of system in the (mis)managed city.
In the early seventies, international scholars started talking of Africa’s lost decade in reference to the post-independence political mess that was characterised by military coups, deepening dictatorship and sickening corruption. Thereafter, scholars went plural and started talking of lost decades. Then they started talking of missed chances when some dictators got overthrown, only for the successors to become the same or worse. And so on and so forth.
Now, looking at the traffic mess that is Kampala, you cannot fail to lament the missed chance that Covid-19 had provided. Call it the missed two years. When the country went into lockdown in the March of 2020, the city streets were deserted.
The worst menace, the boda boda, disappeared, except when strictly doing delivery business. The second-worst menace, the commuter taxis that also know no rules, disappeared too. The third and biggest menace, the siren-blaring lead cars, whose charges have the power to correct things but don’t because they can beat the traffic jam by scattering other road users, also went.
Some depraved ones could be seen and heard, even though there was no traffic to clear on the empty roads, but old habits and addictions don’t just disappear. It is like an amputee trying to scratch a limb that is no longer there. How else will people know you are important if you don’t have a noisy lead car to clear the road for you even if you are the only one on the road?!
That season of empty roads, which happened again when the so-called wave of coronavirus was announced, should have been used to fix the traffic system in Kampala City. The boda boda, taxis and VIPs would have come back to find order restored, with rules like designated lanes for different transport categories. Better still, the three menaces need not have returned.
Two years is a long enough period to institute a new system. A government that has had the power to keep 15 million learners and half a million teachers from school for two years also has the power to keep a quarter of a million boda boda from the city, and redirect them where they can be used less dangerously. For sanity.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]