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On Uganda’s boat tragedy

The sinking of a boat in Lake Victoria which killed many revelers over the weekend was a classic tragedy. I lost friends on it. And typical of the Ugandan character, the next day social and traditional media were awash with finger-pointing and blame-making: the government (in some cases President Yoweri Museveni) failed in its obligation to save Ugandans from themselves. It is a claim that I have increasingly grown skeptical of and hostile to.

The idea of a state as different from the people who make it has over the years gained huge ascendence in Africa but particularly Uganda. On practically every failure on our continent and country, the blame goes to government and “leaders”. I’ve grown increasingly suspicious of this kind of reasoning in large part because leaders and the states over which they preside emerge out of the population. It follows that they can only remain in power largely by pandering to certain ideas, beliefs, and idiosyncrasy of the population and placating the interests of the most powerful groups.

In Uganda’s boat tragedy, the nature of the Uganda population, most especially the elite, was in abundant supply. I do not want to blame the victims of this death, but there is a lot in their tragedy that reflects our national character. I will illustrate this with personal experiences of a daily nature.

Every day while driving around Kampala, I come close to knocking and even killing a Boda Boda rider – often carrying three or four passengers, driving reckless on the wrong side of the road, through red traffic lights or overtaking from the wrong side of the road. Often I stop and get out and grab the Boda Boda rider by the neck and then speak directly to the passengers or the rider.

“You man, you are risking the lives of your customers by riding recklessly. You owe them a responsibility of care. So you must drive them safely. How can you be so irresponsible and reckless as to put the lives of your customers in danger?” Ironically in many of these unhappy encounters, Boda Boda riders are actually apologetic. However, in most cases, passengers insult me. They yell at me saying I have lugezigezi and that I am “wasting” their time with my complaints. They urge the Boda Boda rider to hurry and ignore me.

The reader may notice that if anything happened, it is only my car that would suffer damage, itself to be repaired by insurance. I would suffer no physical or financial injury. But the Boda Boda rider and his passengers would suffer bodily harm, the more reason they should be concerned about their personal physical safety than me.

Over years of these street quarrels with Boda Boda riders and their passengers, a lesson sunk: What we are witnessing in Uganda is not a failure of the state but of “democratic society.” The masses of people armed with the power of the vote have made it impossible for the state to enforce particular rules on them. If the police are afraid to enforce the law, it is because such action would be politically damaging. And few politicians subject to votes for their jobs can take unpopular decisions. So we have the state that we want and deserve.

In 2010, then inspector general of police, Kale Kayihura, ordered a massive crackdown on Boda Boda riders without helmets and who drove recklessly. Police swung into action. The riders petitioned state house and Museveni hosted them to a mass rally at clock tower. They made their case to him and, in the presence of Kayihura, he told them to ride without helmets and asked Kayihura to back off. It is easy to blame Museveni for such crass opportunism and people should. However, that is how democratic politics works everywhere.

When Museveni left, the riders attacked Kayihura and would have killed him had he not been rescued by the special forces command soldiers on the rally. Kayihura and the police took their lesson and made winning over the support of Boda Boda riders a cardinal goal in their management strategy. Henceforth, Boda Boda riders were placed above the law. It is in this context that Boda Boda 2010 was born, and took over the management of the police. The voters had carried the day.

It is also in this context that we need to understand the weekend tragedy on Lake Victoria. Ugandans want their fun and the state is unwilling to enforce rules on them. Even if police had enforced the right number of passengers on the boat at the boarding place, it would not have worked. Many commentators are not even aware that many passengers who had been left behind hired speedboats and caught up with their death-trap – as if driven by fate to their death as happens in Greek tragedies.

Every society has its norms, values and habits. These pour into the state as laws and regulations. Therefore effective law and regulatory enforcement is not just because the state wishes so but because society treasures that which the state is seeking to enforce. In the absence of strong societal pressure and initiative, the state gets incapacitated. If there is limited enforcement of safety standards on cars, Boda Bodas, boats etc. it is because we as Ugandans pay lip service to our own safety.

Whenever human beings suffer a loss, they look for a villain to blame for their misfortune: the devil, the scheming gods, the neighborhood witch, etc. In Uganda (and Africa’s) case, the state, the leaders or the president provides considerable grist to the blame-others mill. No one does any self-reflection on how they contribute to their misery, misfortune and tragedy.

I am keenly aware that this article specifically, and my arguments over the last six years or so generally, easily get interpreted as a disguised and smart way to defend Museveni and the “incompetent, corrupt and cruel rogue state” over which he presides. While I have no desire to polish Museveni’s image, I make no apologies for coming across as doing just that.

The tragedy on Lake Victoria will happen again and again regardless of what the state pretends to do unless and until we as Ugandans individually and collectively begin taking our safety seriously. I take my safety on Boda Bodas seriously. So when I sit on one, I dictate how the rider will ride and they respect my rules. No riding on the wrong side of the road, no overtaking from the left, no overtaking when another car is coming, no riding through red traffic lights. I have never used Safe Boda. But I ride on bodas with the best safety – and that is my personal insistence on how the rider rides.

Ugandans need to begin taking personal responsibility for their actions and stop blaming the government, the state and/or Museveni. If that happened our country will prosper with or without Museveni and the state over which he presides. If things are going wrong in Uganda, join the forces calling for change. Permanently complaining on social and other media as if you are a passive spectator in the destiny of your country is not a formula for success.

The lesson for me comes from Museveni’s personal experience. When he felt that Uganda was being mismanaged, he took a decisive decision and went to the bush to fight for what he believed. He had no money, no guns, nothing but triumphed. Those who feel Uganda is mismanaged should do similar – go to the bush or the streets or the ballot box and get rid of him. Then they can build the Uganda they want. One hopes that they won’t be like Museveni and repeat the mistakes he used to blame on their predecessors!

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Written by Andrew M. Mwenda

Andrew M. Mwenda is currently the Managing Director of Independent Publications Limited, the publishers of The Independent, East Africa’s leading current affairs newsmagazine. An admirer of Socrates, Karl Popper and Frederick Von Hayek, he is an activist, a journalist, a columnist, a part time poet, a businessman and a social entrepreneur.

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