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Taxi park wrangles: Will Otafiire’s order finally crack UTODA?

By Vision Reporter

Added 26th September 2007 03:00 AM

BEFORE the market wrangles are settled, Kampala City Council (KCC) is set for an even bigger and more sensitive battle over the control of the taxi business in the city. There have already been skirmishes between drivers and Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association (UTODA) officials in Mpererwe

BEFORE the market wrangles are settled, Kampala City Council (KCC) is set for an even bigger and more sensitive battle over the control of the taxi business in the city. There have already been skirmishes between drivers and Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association (UTODA) officials in Mpererwe

By Joshua Kato

BEFORE the market wrangles are settled, Kampala City Council (KCC) is set for an even bigger and more sensitive battle over the control of the taxi business in the city. There have already been skirmishes between drivers and Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association (UTODA) officials in Mpererwe, Kasubi and Namungoona. In the main taxi parks, meetings have been going on over what to do about UTODA and Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire’s directive to stop UTODA from managing the parks. However, UTODA’s tried and tested political connections seem to have saved them again.

For months now, KCC and UTODA have been engaged in a conflict over how to settle the over sh2.6b arrears, the taxi body owes KCC. KCC seems to have struck a deal with UTODA on how to pay the arrears, but the plan has not convinced Otafiire and the Parliamentary Committee on Local Government.

As the local goverment minister, Otafiire wrote a letter to KCC proposing that the tender to manage the city taxi business should be removed from UTODA and awarded to a new group, Public Carriage and Drivers Association.

However, in a turn of events, Kampala resident district commissioner, Dr Stanley Kinyatta and the President’s press secretary, Tamale Mirundi, say UTODA will see their contract through to 2011. And to add to the confusion, the Parliamentary Committee on Local Government gave UTODA up to November this year to clear the arrears or face the boot.

Until the late 1980s, most of the taxi business was owned by a group Kampala Taxi Service, linked to the then Uganda People’s Congress government. Taxis were not paying any fees to KCC. However, when the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over power in 1986, the taxi service was disbanded. Several drivers then came together and formed UTODA. Among the first known members was the late Swaleh Ssemakula and Salongo Kaggwa.

Initially, UTODA was a small group, but gradually spread its wings across the country. Eventually, a national body was set up to run it. John Ndyomugyenyi became the national chairman, while Hajji Musa Katongole, became the chairman of Kampala district. UTODA manages taxis operating in what is known as Greater Kampala, including the lucrative city centre. Because they came with the NRM, UTODA refer to themselves as Museveni’s boys. They have openly supported the NRM. By supporting NRM, UTODA leaders cemented their stay as the supreme taxi body.

How UTODA pays KCC

For the last years, until 2005, UTODA was paying sh250m to KCC. This money was, however, raised to sh290m in December 2005, when the current tender was renewed for another five years — up to 2011.

This money is collected from an official 5,000 taxis operating in the two taxi parks. KCC has, however, doubted this figure, asserting that the number of taxis is much lower. Private estimates put the number of taxis in the city at around 8,000. KCC, in a communication to UTODA on August 8, 2007, asked UTODA to carry out a new count of taxis to establish the accurate figure.

Managing taxis is, perhaps, the most lucrative business in the city. Every month, each taxi pays sh20,000 for a sticker. This fee ideally goes to KCC. With 5,000 official taxis, this adds up to over sh100m per month. Each taxi also pays sh4,500 as park fees per day. This adds up to around sh135,000 per month.

And every time they load passengers in the park, they pay an amount equivalent to a seat in the taxi. On average, taxis that ply city routes pay sh1,500. The average number of trips a taxi operating within the city makes is six per day. This adds to an average of sh9,000 per day (sh180,000 per month). Overall, the 5,000 taxis pay UTODA up to around sh2b. Of this amount, only sh290m is paid to KCC. It is thus surprising that a group that collects such a large sum of money accrued arrears amounting to over sh2.6b.

According to UTODA, although Otafiire put the arrears at around sh2.6b, this is not the case. “We agreed with KCC to pay sh15m per day,” Katongole says. This agreement was made in late August and one month later, at least sh500m has been scrapped off the arrears. In addition to paying off the debt, UTODA continues to service the principle fee of sh290m per month.

Katongole says to an outsider, it seems they collect a lot of money. However, one has to get inside to find out the troubles they go through. “Not every taxi pays these fees,” he says.

Katongole is supported by the mayor Nasser Sebaggala, who argues that although KCC needs money, they should be considerate of other factors while looking for it. He says: “Many taxis spend days in garages under repair. This is why we cannot make blanket demands for payment.”

Source of disharmony

Some of the drivers claim that although money is collected from them everyday, they have never got any benefits. “Some of that money is supposed to cater for our welfare, but we have never seen it,” complains a driver.

The other source of problems is the lack of clear leadership in UTODA. According to the query letter from KCC, the town clerk asked for a clear directory of supervisory staff and numbers of the several categories of labour employed by UTODA.

The group seems to run on the shoulders of mainly three people; the chairman, Hajji Moses Katongole, John Ndyomugenyi and Chris Ssengooba. But arguing that the group does not have a leadership chain may be wrong.

Down the ladder, every stage has managers or chairmen. These are powerful men, since they direct which taxi should or should not be registered at a given stage. They also share the revenue collected from particular stages everyday.

One interesting thing is that UTODA does not pay salaries to any of its people. However, they share some of the proceeds from the stages. Off the stages, most of the other so-called UTODA personnel, Katongole says, are masqueraders.

Drivers also complain of undue harassment by sections of the UTODA staff, especially those who are deployed on the roads.

Some of the drivers claim that they are being tortured to pay the various fees. “Some of our colleagues are in Luzira Prison, others have been disabled, while others are summarily chased away whenever they demand accountability,” complains a driver at the Namungoona stage.

Passengers also have problems with UTODA. For starters, UTODA has failed to set up standard prices for the various routes. Passengers also accuse drivers of being indisciplined. Katongole says all these issues are being addressed.

During his campaigns, Sebaggala had vowed to teach UTODA a lesson. “Nobody should hold such an important tender for all those years,” he said. But when he got into office, his tune changed.

Former mayor John Ssebaana Kizito also tried to change the UTODA tender several times, but by the time he left City Hall, his attitude had changed. He hastily arranged a renewal of the contract to another five years in December 2005.

Otafiire and Kagimu Kiwanuka’s directives, are cracks in UTODA’s support base that should not be taken lightly. Will the new emerging cracks finally lead to its collapse?

Additional reporting by Florence Nakaayi

Taxi park wrangles: Will Otafiire’s order finally crack UTODA?

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