- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda — The cheap, ubiquitous, overcrowded minibus taxi has become a symbol of rot at the core of Ugandan society.

“The taxi mess [is] a severe obstacle to national progress,” Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago said.

He took office in May, promising to inject competition into a transportation system run by a monopoly accused of misappropriating fares and neglecting basic service standards.

Kampala has some 9,000 taxis, all controlled by the Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association (UTODA), which operates under a government contract.

Surly taxi drivers and conductors who collect fares cram 18 passengers into their 14-seat minivans, clog traffic and trigger a collective loathing almost everywhere they roam. They have turned Kampala into an urban nightmare, even by African standards.

With key political connections, no competition and vast sums collected from fees imposed on drivers, the taxi association has been under little pressure to maintain the decaying blue-and-white vehicles.

Many of the taxis gush sooty clouds of smoke in their wake. Sharp metal coils protrude from their fraying upholstery.

With no city bus or rail system, most commuters have little choice but to take the taxis, even though more than a third of their travel time is regularly spent at a standstill in traffic jams.

“There is no way really to know how long it will take,” said restaurant cashier Jovia Nakyeyune, 25, who regularly leaves her home two hours before her shift starts every morning to take the taxi.

The two main taxi terminals in the center of town, meanwhile, have deteriorated into the filthiest part of the city. They still lack paved parking lots and even basic amenities such as flush toilets and seats or shade for waiting passengers.

When it rains, the dusty lots turn into green-brown swamps navigated best on tiptoes.

Yet, for years, commuters have chosen to bear the degrading hassles.

“We have no power, no authority, so we just pray it gets better,” Ms. Nakyeyune said.

Uganda’s future looks increasingly uncertain. Unemployment and inflation are soaring, the currency is weakening, corruption is growing.

The condition of public transportation has become a powerful symbol of the decay, and the lord mayor is finding growing public support for his campaign against the taxi monopoly.

In June, Mr. Lukwago accused the taxi monopoly of collecting nearly $1.5 million but paying the city only $149,000, with the rest mostly enriching a few politically connected cronies.

Taxi association officials claim they collect far less than the amount the mayor said. They also say the maintenance of the taxi depots is the responsibility of Kampala Capital City Authority.

The dispute led to a strike by drivers and conductors for two days earlier this month. The few drivers that worked through the strike used the opportunity to charge passengers double the average fees.

“But it also built awareness of UTODA’s excesses,” said Jonathan Abaine, secretary-general of the Uganda Passengers’ Protection Association.  

Mr. Lukwago’s fight may be in vain. Other mayors have swept into office vowing to snap taxi association’s grip only to fail.

Despite the taxi monopoly’s poor record, the government has renewed its contract every year since it was formed in 1986, the year President Yoweri Museveni came to power.

Mr. Lukwago already has encountered high-level resistance, including from the city authority’s executive director, Jennifer Musisi. She has attempted to block his effort to expose the taxi association’s financial dealings.

Critics say Ms. Musisi, appointed by Mr. Museveni, is under pressure to protect vested interests. Ms. Musisi insists she is working with the mayor to fix Kampala’s transportation woes and predicts the city will see real results within a year.  

The World Bank has issued a study to develop a rapid bus transport system in Kampala. A local company, Pioneer Easy Bus Limited, is set to start operating 100 60-seat busses next month with a goal of eventually operating more than 500. Pioneer promises lower fares than the taxis.

Previous attempts to offer bus service have failed reportedly because of pressure from the taxi association.

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