EAC's border crossings deserve much better attention

February has few days but this year it has come with a lot of action in those few days. I mean who would have guessed that it would be the month in which South Africa’s most controversial leader; Jacob Zuma finally bows out to make way for Cyril Ramaphosa. Or that while we were all catching up with events in South Africa, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister would also click on the logout button and resign.

February has few days but this year it has come with a lot of action in those few days. I mean who would have guessed that it would be the month in which South Africa’s most controversial leader; Jacob Zuma finally bows out to make way for Cyril Ramaphosa. Or that while we were all catching up with events in South Africa, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister would also click on the logout button and resign.

I guess we are simply living in those interesting times when reality is stranger than fiction. Speaking of fiction, the fever around the movie Black Panther is already on with East Africa trying to get a bite of it in more ways than one. The Kenyans are excited that Lupita Nyong’o features in the movie while the Ugandans will remind you about Daniel Kaluuya and Florence Kasumba having Ugandan roots.

I am also sure you saw that at the premier of the movie, Junior Nyong’o a brother to Lupita, was wearing a cool outfit designed by House of Tayo, a phenomenal fashion brand led by my friend (it is important to drop names at such moments) Matthew Rugamba. To crown it all, Lupita Nyong’o started a hashtag of Matthew’s name! Talk about a sister from Nyanza supporting a brother from Rwanda.

Away from the movie cinemas, Kenya Airways’ low cost carrier, Jambojet started flights between Nairobi and Entebbe. The news was met with hope that the trip between Entebbe and Nairobi that is often considered one of the most expensive by  air will become a little more affordable with a carrier that does not offer much in terms of onboard service. It is a little inconvenience to endure for that rather short flight and hopefully more people will embrace air travel.

However, my focus today will be on the cross border traffic in the region on a path to deeper integration. I recently crossed the border between Rwanda and Uganda once again like I have done so many times. I found disturbingly long queues and this gave me a lot of time to think about what was going on. The Gatuna (or Katuna) border crossing is arguably the busiest one for the two countries and so much has changed about it since I first used it in May 2005.

Back then, it was being served by only about four buses; three owned by Jaguar Bus Company and one by Onatracom (Rwandan state owned). In those days, the border would be open at 6am and closed at 6pm each day. And the last available bus was the 9am bus by Jaguar and only those with passports and temporary travel documents were allowed to cross.

Today the same border post is open 24 hours and anyone with a passport, temporary travel document and more importantly, a national ID from Uganda, Kenya or Rwanda can now cross with a lot of ease. The number of bus companies has increased from the two that I found in 2005 to over seven; Jaguar, Volcano, Trinity, Modern Coast, Mash Poa, Simba Coach and Happy Trails. Some of these companies especially Jaguar, Volcano and Trinity, have very huge fleets and at peak times will have buses setting off at every hour.

You can also factor in the numerous smaller cars (Toyota Ipsum) that ply the Kigali to Kabale route and use the same border ferrying mainly students from Kigali to universities in Kabale as well as business people. This massive spike in traffic has resulted in massive queues at the border post that is also used by all the trucks from using the northern corridor from the port of Mombasa and those ferrying goods from Uganda.

The officials manning the border have not been increased significantly to handle this growth and as a result it is now normal for one to spend close to two hours clearing with immigration at this border post. The construction of the One Stop Border facility at the same spot seems to have taken a break, leaving users with a muddy and narrow crossing point.

While I queued I felt my feet on fire but imagined what would happen if a heavy downpour started? Where would the people from the over eight buses seek shelter? If we are really serious about boosting regional tourism then we need to think a lot more about our border posts and what they represent when it comes to a traveller’s experience. And I still don’t know why on the Ugandan side one has to physically fill in details on a piece of paper. It is 2018 for crying out loud.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the New Times Publications.

 

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