Towards the end, top officials at Utoda, the company that had managed the main taxi parks in the city for almost two decades, played their last card.

The new management at Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) had decided not to renew Utoda’s contract to manage commuter taxis in the city. It was one of the few things that Mayor Erias Lukwago and Executive Director Jennifer Musisi eventually agreed upon.

With court set to rule on Utoda’s appeal against the termination of its contract, officials from the firm tried to call in favours from politicians whose campaigns they had supported over the years. Utoda was long believed to enjoy powerful connections to the top of the political tree. In every campaign since the 1986 election the cash-rich firm had supported President Museveni and his NRM, offering cars, money and officials to campaign on their behalf.

Left in the cold
Suddenly, however, phone calls to power brokers and politicians went unanswered. The few officials Utoda bosses were able to speak to came back with grave news; there was nothing they could do to save their stranglehold on the city transport.

State House officials who spoke to this newspaper say attempts by senior Utoda officials to evoke a stay of execution met a wall of silence.

In the two decades it ran public transport in the city Utoda had made its owners led by Hajj Musa Katongole fabulously wealthy. There were tales of sacks of money being collected at the end of every day and shared among top officials. Utoda is notoriously opaque, does not make its accounts public so these tales are hard to verify.

However, the contract was lucrative with each of the 7,000 commuter taxis paying at least Shs4,500 per day while millions more were collected from drivers and conductors in ‘welfare fees’. Other counts put the commuter taxis at 12,000.

There was little to show for the money. The Shs390 million monthly fee to the city authority went unpaid for several months; there were few visible improvements to the parks or waiting bays, while drivers and conductors complained of poor welfare.

Fruitless effort
When debate over Utoda’s contract escalated mid last year, the cartel tried to mend fences with taxi drivers who accused it of exploitation and harassment, to no avail.

An insider in Utoda, who preferred anonymity in order to speak freely about the matter, said due to non-remittance of welfare fees for several months, Utoda could no longer afford to clear wages and salaries of some of its staff, including traffic wardens and guides.

While Utoda tried to take advantage of the turf war in KCCA between the mayor and the executive director, it failed to read the sign of the times and the reform-minded intentions of the new KCCA team, which include, in the medium-term, replacing the commuter taxis with buses to decongest the city streets.

Rather than become part of the solution by working with KCCA or other partners on mass transit systems, Utoda officials, many of whom own several commuter taxis remained the problem, offering political answers to an economic exam.

“With the new leadership at City Hall and the determination we have exhibited in changing the face of public transport in the city, Utoda fell short of what is required,” Mr Lukwago told this newspaper yesterday. “[Utoda] dug its own grave by behaving arrogantly and failing to deliver what was expected of it. In fact, Utoda has really collapsed because of its self-inflicted mistakes.”

Managing mass transport in a crowded, chaotic city with narrow streets and limited parking is difficult. Trying to bring order to that chaos by replacing it with buses, bus-lanes and a sense of order is even harder.

But having defeated, in less than a year, a labyrinth of self-interests that Utoda built and entrenched over two decades, officials at KCCA will fancy their luck in trying to bring order to Kampala’s streets. And they will need it.

By Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Daily Monitor

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