How corruption causes carnage on Uganda’s roads

Published in Uganda’s The Independent on January 25, 2011

Some time ago, Kenneth Onekalit and Joseph Okema returned from running successful businesses overseas to help rebuild their homeland in northern Uganda. They brought money, skills, energy and hope. Kenneth was establishing a Northern Uganda Farmer's Cooperative to revitalise family farming. Joseph headed the Northern Uganda Youth Development Centre.

Last year both men died in a car crash.

This was a tragic waste of talent that Uganda can ill afford to lose. Yet such human resources are squandered every day.

Traffic accidents now claim more than 2,300 Ugandan lives each year, according to police figures. That makes at least 2,000 more than combined annual deaths from political violence, civic unrest, insurgency, counter-insurgency and terrorism.

Three main factors in this carnage are linked by the common denominator of corruption.

The first factor is poor infrastructure. The roads are a mess. True, Uganda can’t afford the hi-tech engineering, street lighting and safety barriers that have cut fatalities in richer places. Yet Uganda would get a lot more bang—and safety—for its buck if public funds for road building and maintenance were well spent.

But they are not well spent, according to the Auditor General. His office points to inflated prices, shoddy standards, poor and late delivery by numerous contractors (Ugandan, Nigerian, Israeli, Egyptian, British and Chinese); alarming disparities in costs and in procurement procedures; inadequate government planning and “lack of integrity among some of the contractors and consultants.”

That leaves plenty of room for rake-offs and kickbacks. When the government’s chief civil engineer, Samson Bagonza, was jailed for graft last June, presiding judge, Justice Katutsi , expressed a widespread belief that the rot goes further up. “This court is tired of trying tilapias when crocodiles are left swimming,” he said.

A second factor in the high accident rate is Uganda’s inadequate system for training and testing drivers. I know this from personal experience, having two sons who learned to drive and passed their tests in Kampala.

Son One took a few lessons and, following his instructor’s directions, gave the police a 30,000 shilling (USD 13) tip to obtain a pass certificate after driving a hundred metres round the block.

Son Two decided to buck the system.

His driving school lessons were crazy. He was, for example, taught always to depress the clutch before braking (eliminating “engine braking”) and to cruise downhill (to save petrol). Unwilling to see him cruise into an early grave, I took over and taught him myself.

When he was ready we went to the police test centre in Naguru. Things got tense when we made it clear we wouldn’t pay a tip. They subjected him to a gruelling “theory” test, asking arcane questions about vehicle maintenance, then requiring him to identify highway signs that I have never seen on any Ugandan road. Next they made him reverse round an obstacle course that could have been successfully negotiated only by a seasoned rally driver. Then came a road test in which, at last, he had the chance to show his basic competence. With very bad grace, they finally signed the chit and shoved it over the desk.

So it is just about possible to pass the test without a bribe. But it probably helps to have a grey-haired mzungu dad hovering in the background, muttering darkly about corruption and newspapers.

This is petty stuff compared to grand larceny of the roads budget, but it is clearly institutionalised and a public menace at a time when dozens of new drivers are taking to the roads every day.

Things are made much worse by the way traffic police concentrate their energies on extracting tips from taxi drivers, increasing the pressure on them to squeeze a profit by overloading their vehicles and racing to their destination.

A third threat to life on Uganda’s roads is widespread trickery in the in the auto spares and maintenance market.

As a bazungu family we are highly vulnerable. Many a “mechanic” has licked his lips as he sees me roll up in our old RAV, anticipating a killing by fitting some part that, all too often, is even worse than the one needing replacement.

Once, persuaded to advance half a million for a new steering rack, I returned the next day to the forecourt of the Gapco gas station in Kisementi to find the mechanic curled asleep in a corner, stinking of waragi, while the car lay in pieces around him.

I don’t mind paying a bit more, as a supposedly rich foreigner, for a decent job. But I do mind paying for a job that might send the car out of control and have me, or my sons, plough into a taxi and kill us, along with a dozen Ugandans.

And bazungu are not that much of a special case. Ugandans often get shoddy, dangerous service too.

Responsible, private companies could help clear up this mess. Gas stations should let only competent and honest mechanics work on their premises (thus improving the reputation of their own brands.) Insurers could select the better driving schools and reduce premiums for new drivers trained by those schools.

NGOs and media could, and should, take up road safety in both public education and advocacy.

But the main push needs to come from government. Credible and enforced standards and accreditation systems are needed for driving schools and mechanics alike.

And above all, big graft at the top and petty graft in police ranks must be rooted out. For whereas wealth doesn’t always trickle down, corruption nearly always does; and its wages are death.