By Joachim Buwembo
It is interesting how the laws of science, of commerce and even of social customs can be somehow similar. In science they talk of action triggering equal and opposing reaction.
In folklore of the Kampala natives, there is something about the need to reserve energy for escaping before you start chasing a fellow man, as you can’t rule out his fighting back. In Uganda’s transport industry, there has been a reign of terror by taxi drivers and conductors, lasting almost half a century.
These guys have been the meanest, the nastiest and the most callous to their clients, the very ones owe their livelihood to. We can say the taxis’ reign started after the 1972 declaration of the ‘Economic War’ which ended in collapse of the trade, industry and services sectors.
The once efficient city transport service comprising hundreds of UTC (Uganda Transport Company/Corporation) started collapsing and smaller commuter vans called “taxis” started coming in. They belonged to individuals and so had no corporate code of conduct.
The city authorities could not or did not regulate their conduct and thus started fifty years of the most abusive public service known in the country’s history. The climax came as the easing of Covid-19 restrictions ended. The taxis were allowed to operate at half passenger capacity to allow for social distancing, which made for doubling of the fares.
But greed got the better of the taxi operators and they soon reverted to the old loading of 14 instead of 7 passengers, but kept charging the double rate fare. Thinking they were clever but they didn’t take into consideration the laws of nature. Tens of thousands of Kampala’s commuters had taken to walking during the two years of restricted public transport. So rather than being overcharged, they resorted to their already conditioned legs.
As the taxi started struggling, the boda boda were also freed to resume operating as of old.Now there is something about a boda boda; the rider can bad, but never to his passenger. It would be preposterous for example for a boda boy to go abusing the passenger he is carrying the way taxi drivers and conductors kept insulting passengers for five decades.
And then when it comes to flexibility, you cannot beat the boda. Besides, the low fuel consumption of a boda allows the rider to charge as much is less than the 14 seater, especially for shorter distances. So if you are travelling one or less kilometres with your heavy shopping, the boda will take you to your door for a thousand shillings.
You would need to have extra love for taxi men to sit in their vehicle and wait for it to fill, to be dropped at the road and start the remaining few hundred metres to your house for the same fare. So in the short two months of the full lifting of restrictions, the decades old nastiness DNA of the taxi men has mutated into one of maximum humility.
One of the still unbelievable tendencies to Kampala commuters is the new practice of a conductor loading passengers at a stage to ask give his customer who is in a hurry to a competitor. Those who remember the annoying tendency of ‘brokers’ sitting into a vehicle to fake numbers and then starting stepping out as passengers keep arriving indeed are wondering what angel has touched the taxi men to start being so considerate. It is called competition from substitutes.
But now the fares inevitably have to keep rising, however angelic the attitude of the taxi men has become – thanks to the skyrocketing fuel prices. But like the taxi fares and attitudes, there will come a limit beyond which the fuel dealers won’t be able to squeeze the Ugandan customer any further.
Once the transport operators can no longer break even, they will not be able to buy the fuel just for the love of fuel dealers. The time for entrepreneurs to seek at alternative to petroleum for powering transport may be coming sooner than later.
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