Boda-nomics: Answer to economic problem or the making of anarchy?

Police officers seize motorcycles along the streets of Kisumu on March 9, 2022. This was a day after President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a national crackdown on boda boda operators. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Weep not our beloved leaders, the chaotic boda boda sub-sector is a true reflection of the economic legacy that you are leaving behind.

As many have opined both in mainstream and social media platforms, your intervention now can best be described as the shedding of crocodile tears. Too-little-too-late. However, the brighter side is that it is never too late to right an economic disorder for posterity into the future. Any efforts to re-order this sector is most welcome anytime.   

A sacred obligation of this page is that nothing is off the limits if it offers credible evidence to dissect a complex economic phenomenon and render unbiased options out. With this in mind, it is my considered view that the boda boda sub-sector is a double edged sword. For the record, I use boda boda services for an average of four to five times a month for a number of reasons.

One, due to exigencies of duty - I often find myself in places where they become unavoidable necessity. Two, to bypass traffic gridlocks and manage time when constraint by several errands in different parts of the city. Three, for security reasons when I consider a particular environment to be risky or desire to move incognito. These guys will act as your guardian angels in those instances.

Finally, and most important, it is my desire to remain connected to real life in our society. Like Abraham Lincoln once said, should the gods demand that I serve my country in a position of authority some day, then I want to be ready.   

The sad reality is that we have an economic system that rewards mediocrity while it punishes innovation and enterprise. Our public sector and to some degree the private sector is fueled by cronyism, nepotism, tribalism and political sycophancy. Those that have chosen the narrow path of not trading their values for money or anything else have tales to tell on the economic costs they’ve had to endure.

Learning trips

Every time I hop onto a boda boda, I take time to engage with my rider no matter how short the trip is. In this chit chats, I get raw insights into the political vibes trending in the region am in; they will direct you to the nice places or those to avoid if new in the area; if you take one for the road or want to know places of worship, you can trust them to provide informed available option. I must confess, sometimes I have received ideas or crystalized my thoughts for some articles have written here from the insights shared by these guys. 

Unlike many of us imagine, a majority of the riders are fairly well educated and informed. I have met University graduates, diploma and certificate holders, trained teachers and others with full-time jobs in the trade as a side hustle to supplement their incomes.

They are husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers to real people. They have dreams like the rest of us. Unfortunately, their leaders and privileged elites have rigged the economy against them with bad policies and promoting cronyism. In elections seasons, they are ‘weaponised’ against opponents and abused as ‘majeshi ya waheshimiwa’. Like any of us, they have to make a living in a harsh economic environment.

Having said that, have also had a brush with them when the shoe is on the other side. These guys operate by the rules of the jungle. As their passenger the risks are real and visible. They breach any known traffic law at will and dangerously maneuver through motorist without any care in the world. Anytime you ride on a boda, there cannot be any basic reasonable assurance that you’ll get to your destination a live or whole.

In case of conflict, especially with motorist and at times with the police, they are a brotherhood. From my engagements with them, very few will decline even assignment where they are aware of crime or irregularities are being committed by their client. In simple terms, there are no rules in their world and even where they exist, they can be stretched to the limits.

The question then is: How did we get into this? When did it become a near norm for people of sound mind to cause such untold trauma to fellow citizens? How many incidences like this that are never captured in camera in our villages and smaller urban areas?

Tip of the iceberg

The rogue behaviour witnessed in this sub-sector is not an isolated case. It is a true reflection of the broader workings of our economy. About a decade ago, I was a participant in a two weeks Common Wealth Regional Performance Management programme facilitated by a Motswana. According to her and the primacy of performance lingua, the true performance of any government or institution is what is manifested in societal behaviour, corporate culture or organisational way of doing things.

For instance, how a country treats her less fortunate or economically disadvantaged is the true representation of their governments performance. Equally, if you want to evaluate whether a person who has offered themselves for leadership positions can perform or not, just check how they treat their subordinates.

For the benefit of my audience, if you ever want to understand the true corporate value of any brand, organisation, establishment or even a family, just visit their washrooms. You can never misjudge their true value based on the condition of those lowly facilities. If they are clean and neat, then you can surely trust their brand. Otherwise, run for the hills.

On our boda boda sub-sector, as at the date of this article, there is absolutely no verifiable source of data as to how many they are, who the riders are and whether or not they have any valid driving licenses. There are no known barriers to entry to instill discipline or regulations of how they should conduct their business. 

Something stinks

The National Crime Research Center (NCRC) on a policy brief in 2018 has clearly demonstrated the sub-sector is a serious threat to public order. Key findings indicated increased death associated with reckless riding, breach of public order, robberies, possession and use of drugs, committing murder, kidnapping and abductions, defilement and rape, smuggling of contrabands and firearms.  

The National Transport and Safety Authority annual reports have clearly provided evidence that the sub-sector accounts for highest mortality rates of road accidents in the country. Almost each county has separate designated wards for boda boda accident victims across various health facilities. Thus, the sub-sector is not only robbing the economy of the energy and creativity of its youth, but also increasing the health cost burden to individual households and collectively to the economy.

The questions on what interventions are necessary to streamline the sub-sector are clearly articulated in the NCRC policy brief. My worry here is that isn’t this chaos a true representation of how this economy works? Isn’t the related matatu sub-sector governed by the same rules with the exception of a few inter-county companies forced to be orderly by market forces?

How then can the same government turn around and claim not to have had knowledge of the goings on in the sub-sectors?

Who profits from this chaos? Who is fooling who here?