Tanzania grapples with Kampala-style boda boda problems
From his majestic black leather office chair in Dar es Salaam, Yusuf Ghor heaves with fond memories of Kampala, where he spent two years selling and marketing Pepsi-cola products. He talks of Maggie Kigozi, of Namuwongo, Kololo and Kampala’s industrial area.
Now 63 and retired, Ghor is the chief executive officer of the Automobile Association of Tanzania (AAT). Since 2007, his heart beats for road safety – and the big man talks big about reducing road accidents especially in this country’s commercial capital. But while Uganda gave him pleasant work memories, in retirement, it also ‘gave’ him his biggest headache.
“Boda bodas just exploded in Dar es Salaam about four years ago, inspired by what was happening in Uganda,” Ghor sighs, like a man confronting a huge problem. “And with cheap Chinese motorcycles, the boda boda came with a bang.”
The name boda boda has been traced to bicycle riders that sneaked passengers and petty traders across the Uganda-Kenya border in the 1960s, before it spread throughout Uganda and the region. Today the boda boda is mostly a motorcycle taxi, popular for beating the traffic and reaching remote areas and villages with no regular commuter taxis.
At the invitation of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), I was in Dar es Salaam to look at how Tanzania is handling boda bodas – long identified as the fastest growing cause of road traffic accidents, injuries and deaths.
It is hard to contest Ghor’s claim that Tanzania’s boda boda industry draws inspiration from Uganda. Kampala’s and Dar es Salaam’s boda boda problems seem too similar for coincidence – be it the motivation, conduct or risks posed by the riders, or the response of the authorities.
Like Uganda, Tanzania has tens of thousands of young men dropping out of school each year, with neither job skills nor well-paying casual work opportunities. In a day or two, one can learn to ride a motorcycle and vroom off with passengers.
“You used to see that boda boda never went to any formal school to get training on road signs,” Ghor says. “They just bought the motorcycles, in the backyard they started driving, and off they went into the trade.”
Of course the law requires them to have driving permits with class A. But like in Uganda, this part of the law is routinely broken. As Jafari Mrisho, a boda boda rider in Bagamoyo in the Coastal region told me, he got a friend to teach him how to ride, started operating someone’s motorcycle, and saved enough money to buy his own before he got a permit.
For a Ugandan, it’s interesting hearing Dar es Salaam’s elite decry the lawlessness of their boda boda men.
“So often I have been standing at junctions and motorcycles do not obey the traffic rules; and motorcycles are one of the most dangerous motorized vehicles for pedestrians,” laments Ayikai Mills-Tettey, a programme manager at AMEND, a nongovernmental organization funded by FIA to help improve road safety, especially with boda bodas.
“You find them coming down in the opposite direction of a one-way road. You find them not stopping at traffic lights and at the same time you see police officers standing at those traffic lights but they do not seem to see anything wrong with these motorcyclists not obeying the rules.”
And with such conduct, accident rates are high. Government figures show that last year, boda bodas were involved in 26 per cent of all recorded accidents, only second to private cars that featured in 33 per cent. In 2013, the country recorded 6,831 motorcycle accidents, which killed 1,098 people and left 6,578 injured.
The following year, for the first time in decades, Tanzanian motorcycles (most of which are boda bodas) were safer – at least according to recorded accidents. The year 2014 had 4,169 motorcycle accidents, causing 928 deaths and leaving 3,884 people injured.
Like in Uganda, boda boda riders and passengers are required to wear helmets. Very few do. Riders fear accidents, but they claim helmets are expensive. And even where NGOs such as AMEND give out free helmets, passengers reject them, fearing to catch skin diseases.
The police are having a nightmare trying to enforce the law among boda boda riders. Besides being too few, one officer says, when traffic police come down hard on boda boda men, politicians nudge them not to harass their voters.
In Tanzania – again as in Uganda – boda bodas have become a major security issue on two fronts. Because of the thriving business, motorcycles are targeted by hit-and-grab thugs who leave the riders for dead.
“One of our colleagues was a victim,” complains Yusuf Haidary, 25, a boda boda rider in the Temeke district of Dar es Salaam. “A passenger picked him from here but on the way, he tried to strangle him. He survived, but the motorcycle was taken.”
Another of Haidary’s colleagues took a passenger and never returned to his Tandika Azimio stage. A week later, his body was found – with the eyes gorged out.
In Tanzania boda bodas are also increasingly used by criminals to commit murders and daring robberies. Because Dar es Salaam often freezes into a mammoth parking lot, boda bodas offer an easy way for criminals to flee scenes of crime. This mirrors the Ugandan story, where high profile people such as state prosecutor Joan Kagezi and key Muslim sheikhs have been murdered by men riding on boda bodas.
Consequently, the Dar es Salaam city authorities have banned boda bodas from the central business district – the kind of thing that some Kampala elite have been calling for.
This ban – unpopular among lower-income Dar es Salaam residents who can hardly survive without the boda boda – has however, been hard to enforce. Typically, boda boda men play ride-and-seek with the police, and the riders often win.
And so I sought out Johansen Kahatano, Tanzania’s deputy traffic police commander, armed with questions. Why don’t riders have permits? Why do they carry up to three, even four passengers? Why don’t they stop at traffic lights? Why don’t they follow any rules? His honesty was disarming.
“Frankly speaking, the boda bodas are out of control,” he said, almost meditatively, like a man who has thought about these kinds of questions for a long time.
Indeed he has. One problem with the boda bodas, he says, is that they are “in almost every corner of this country” while traffic police has barely 4,000 men and women. Clearly, it is going to be difficult for each boda boda man to be beaten into line.
Yet whatever little the police can do could help to deter recklessness. Evidence of this came last year, when general traffic and road safety figures improved: accidents by 40 per cent, injuries by 20 per cent, and deaths by six per cent. This, says Kahatano, was not due to luck.
“Last year we set [out] to intensify enforcement, we tasked our officers that each little offence that they come across should be registered and fined,” Kahatano says.
There are other initiatives being undertaken, such as the strengthening of the law to include deterrent fines much higher than the routine $15 (Shs 53,000). A Bus Rapid Transport service (with its own exclusive lane) is expected to open this year, which will ease on the traffic congestion and probably reduce the need to use the boda boda.
Besides the police, organisations such as Yusuf Ghor’s AAT and AMEND are offering road safety training, after which riders are given driving permits and in some cases helmets and reflective vests. AAT alone has trained 5,000 riders, trying to impress on them the importance of slowing down and following the law.
“We keep telling them that ‘Haraka haraka, haina baraka’,” Ghor says. Loosely translated, it means that going too fast brings no blessings.