How motorcycle cabbies keep the peace in Rwanda

(AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
(AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
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Anyone who has sped across the cities of the African Great Lakes region at night on the back of a motorcycle taxi, whether gliding along Kigali’s immaculate thoroughfares with their flashing disco-lit traffic islands or dodging potholes in backstreets of Kampala, will understand why this mode of transport does such a roaring trade. Termed boda-bodas in Uganda (derived from the term “border-border,” in reference to their origin in the Kenya-Uganda borderlands) and taxi-motos in the Francophone countries, the two-wheeled public transport option offers a solution to that most common of urban nuisances: traffic gridlock.

In a region of hills, valleys, and swamps, the ease and convenience of the boda/moto option is unparalleled for those who can afford the dollar or so it costs to cross the city. Visitors returning from the region to Europe or the United States often endure a frustrating transition period, incredulous that they can no longer simply step out of the house, find a personalized ride in seconds, and reach their destination in minutes.

Despite its popularity, in the conflict-torn Great Lakes region the motorcycle-taxi business has a murky past, a politically-charged present, and an uncertain future. The business is also stained with the blood of alarming numbers of road accidents—one of the reasons why it is outlawed in many major East African cities. In the capitals of Uganda and Rwanda, however, it has survived and thrived, and its continuing role in these cities can be linked to past conflicts and current political tensions, albeit in very different ways in each case.

The contrast between how the sector is managed in Kampala and Kigali reveals a great deal about the different political environments and government strategies in the two countries. In an article just published in the journal Comparative Politics, I argue that we can learn a lot from studying the motorcycle-taxi business about why the state in Rwanda has in recent years been much more effective across a range of functions than that in Uganda.

In Kampala, boda-boda drivers are often considered a group of violent rogues in a sector that has long been out of control. Yet the governing National Resistance Movement (NRM) has had a close hand in the sector’s development from the very beginning. As the leader of a rural guerrilla insurgency, Yoweri Museveni has—like many African leaders—struggled to gain wide support among city-dwellers. He thus perceived the burgeoning ranks of boda-boda drivers in Kampala as vital client group able to deliver urban support in a politically hostile city. Museveni made sure that repeated efforts by the opposition-led Kampala City Council to regulate and tax the sector in the 2000s were unsuccessful, boosting his support among boda-boda drivers while also drawing them into a central government strategy to sabotage urban governance in the city.

The more that the ranks of unlicensed, illegally-operating boda-bodas swelled, the greater the army of urban workers whose support could be mobilized with a skillfully chosen word from His Excellency, and the more pathetic and useless the city government appeared. Double win. Meanwhile, there was a multiplier effect on the state’s ineffectiveness because nobody believed that new regulations would be enforced or new taxes actually collected; the state itself lacked credibility, creating little by way of a culture of compliance and fostering corruption and collusion in place of rule of law.

Over the border in Rwanda, taxi-motos proliferated in the wake of the 1994 genocide as returnees and resources flooded into Kigali, oiling the wheels of this personalized public-transport option. Rather than viewing the drivers as a source of support, as Museveni had, the incoming RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) government saw the moto youths of Kigali as a source of further instability and, after a showdown in 2006, also perceived them as a mechanism for societal control. A threat was thus reframed as an opportunity; instead of harassing the sector with one hand while encouraging it with the other, as the Ugandan state had done, the Rwandan government reinvented it essentially as an arm of state surveillance and security.

As with everything in Rwanda, the stakes were high: either the taxi-moto sector was going to be a threat to the regime by virtue of its mobility, youth, and ethnic composition, or it had to be reoriented completely to serve state interests. The latter was achieved through a regimented, securitized, tiered, and uniformed system that was unveiled in 2007. This serves a number of goals, providing a (relatively) safe and comfortable environment for investors, tourists, and aid workers, keeping large numbers of mobile eyes on the street, and ensuring that drivers are licensed and pay tax.

These divergent paths reflect the broader fact that in Uganda, central power has often served itself through creating decentralized sites for opposition and then sabotaging them, while in Rwanda domination has to be total. There have, however, been some significant shifts in both cases in very recent years. In Kigali, the strict cap limiting taxi-motos to 3,700 in number has evidently been loosened, with recent estimates of current numbers ranging from 6,000 to around 10,000. The uniforms have also become less regimented, and the color-coding scheme blurred. A tension is evident between the impetus to keep very tight limits on the sector and the fact that it is a useful livelihood option in a city where job creation is limited.

In Kampala, since 2011 a new city government has taken a tough stance on a range of other urban “problems,” but as yet has failed to get to grips with the vast swathes of unlicensed, unregulated boda-bodas. With a registration process in 2014 identifying 50,000 in the city and estimates rising to 80,000, the political and economic interests involved are enormous. A recent development has been the emergence of an Uber-style business start-up called Safe Boda. Counting among its founders a former Deloitte employee and, interestingly, a former economic advisor to the government of Rwanda, this enterprise has developed a mobile-phone application linking users to trained, registered boda-boda drivers. It’s a welcome move given that boda-boda deaths continue to soar even while Uganda’s other traffic fatalities are starting to decline, but it remains to be seen how deep this organization can penetrate the morass of interests entangled in the sector.

Meanwhile, Kampala’s police regularly impound the motorcycles of unlicensed drivers, sometimes thousands at a time. The bikes are then auctioned, with proceeds going to the government and police. Consequently, they simply recirculate, and profits are such that these losses have not dampened the sector’s growth. When it comes to actually implementing a system of regulation and taxation, the efforts of the stakeholders concerned are still constantly hampered by central-government interference. Contrary to most expectations, the NRM’s vote share in Kampala actually increased in the last election, and there can be little doubt that the president’s two-wheeled legion played a significant role in this. This support will not be relinquished lightly. As one city official put it, the indulgence of boda-bodas is “Museveni’s way of saying ‘fuck you.’”