It is 8:00am and a number of people are waiting at the stage. For about five minutes, there is no bus in sight. After a while, a bus (coaster) and mini bus (taxi) arrive at the same time, heading in the same direction, town. Everyone runs for the bus; it is not until there are no seats left that people remember there is a smaller taxi too.
One wonders why people loathe these mini buses! Perhaps its because a taxi that is meant to carry fourteen passengers carries up to nineteen, including the driver. That means a seat that should be shared by three people instead carries four.
Jean Marie Vianney Ndushabandi, The National Police Traffic and road Safety spokesperson, defends this arrangement and says each taxi has four passengers because of the insurance they acquired.
Florence Ashaba, an accountant, says, “those taxis feel like prison because you don’t get to enjoy your journey however short it is. And what annoys me is that you are not boarding for free, but literally have to pay for the discomfort.”
In many parts of the world, the use of seat belts is emphasised because they help save lives when accidents occur. However, seat belts don’t seem to be an issue here especially for these mini buses.
Ndushabandi says emphasis is always put on the driver and the two front passengers. “If the driver is not wearing a seatbelt he has to pay a fine of RWF10, 000. If passengers are not wearing their seatbelts, the taxi pays a fine of RWF10, 000 because it is the driver and conductor’s responsibility to remind the passengers to wear them.”
So, in case of an accident, what happens to the 16 passengers with no seatbelts? Of course, their chance of survival is very minimal as anything can happen with no seat belts.
Entering the taxi is always such a hassle that one cannot imagine the chaos that would occur with a sudden emergency. Despite Ndushabandi‘s claim that they have two doors plus windows that could be used, with the overload and people struggling to breathe it could be worse. They also lack first aid boxes.
These taxis are substandard which makes them a death trap. They are not fit to be on the road carrying human beings. They can hardly move and they emit gas that pollutes the air. Although the Ministry of Infrastructure agrees that they are old and unfit to be on the roads, they say they won’t ban them, but hope that by 2017 they won’t be on the road.
But Ashaba insists 2017 is way too far because she can’t wait for these taxis to get off the road.
Anastase Munyintore, a mini bus driver who plies the Nyabugogo- Kabuye route disagrees with Agaba. He argues that to him, 2017 is a short period because he is not even sure he will have raised enough money to buy the bus.
“I have a wife and three children I fend for and our only source of a livelihood is my work as a mini bus driver. So, I have no idea what our fate will be if they get banned,” he says.
Plus he is still paying off a bank loan of RWF13m that he borrowed in order to acquire the mini bus.
Goreth Uwimana, a traveler at Kimironko taxi park prefers the mini buses to the coasters.
“They don’t take long to get filled up as compared to big buses, so this makes them convenient and time saving,” he says.
Other passengers that Society Magazine talked to said that, the co-existence of mini and big buses on the road encourages competition in the transport sector which improves the quality of services offered. So eliminating of the mini buses may see the quality of service received now go down.
A number of minibus operators say that it would be hard for them to switch to the buses because acquiring them is very expensive–the 14-seater passenger minibus costs RWF13m while a 30-seater coaster bus costs about RWF56m.
Celestin Ndaruhutse, a mini bus driver and the head of Remera and Kimironko taxi parks acknowledges the fact that most of the mini buses are old and in sorry mechanical condition. However, he says that currently because of the financial constraints it’s what they can afford.
Although the owners and drivers of these mini buses would want them to operate, Peterson Mutabazi, the Principal Senior Engineer in charge of transport at the Ministry of Infrastructure, the directive to eliminate minibuses was passed by Parliament in 2012 and that a four year implementation exercise is expected to start this year.
“If all goes as planned, by 2017 we won’t have those minibuses on the road any more, we have a strategy of replacing them with bigger ones,” he says.
However, he also makes it clear that mini-buses won’t be banned like most people expect. Instead, tax incentives will be given to importers of big capacity buses so as to motivate them.
“It is going to be mandatory for mini bus owners to form co-operatives or associations so they can acquire loans to buy big buses,” he explains.
In the other cities in East Africa, plans are in progress to eliminate mini buses. As a way to eliminate the mini buses, the Kampala City Council Authority licensed the Easy Pioneer Buses to operate in the city.
But the mini buses under the Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association (UTODA) that have dominated the public transport since 1986 are still in operation. It is not until January this year that (UTODA) announced a plan to replace the 14-seater buses with the big ones.
In 2010, Kenya passed a law saying that they will drive out mini buses, also commonly known as matatus in favour of buses. However, the law has not been implemented and they are still in operation.
Although the disadvantages of the mini buses outweigh the advantages, it seems they have become a necessary evil for many public transport users in the region.