by | Jan 23, 2019 | Articles

The boda-boda phenomenon: Towards reclaiming transparency and accountability through taxation

One Saturday afternoon in October 2018 at the intersection between Kinga’ra Road and Ngong Road next to the Junction Mall in Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi, a friend and I witnessed a minor accident involving a boda-boda motorcycle and a saloon car.

The motorcycle taxi was driving on the wrong side of the road after making an illegal turn at the “Junction” roundabout in a bid to enter King’ara Road when it was knocked down by the car.

Luckily there were no major injuries aside from bruises on the rider.

However, within moments of the accident, in what is a common occurrence around the country, a swarm of noisy boda-bodas had gathered, with their riders demanding that the motorist pay their colleague.

It did not seem to matter the rider was in the wrong.

The reason for “mobbing” the car driver, as explained by Mr Michael Odhiambo, a rider in Riruta Satellite, Nairobi, it is because many operators have no insurance cover or licences that they prefer to resolve accidents without involving the police.

“If, for example, you hit someone,” he says, “most of the time they will demand for money. That is when you call for back-up and say, tumvuruge mpaka akubali (Let’s harass him till he submits).”

Such mobbing is common-place, besides which the everydayness of the “boda guy” makes him a relatable.

As my friend commented, “Wacha yule Wanjiku unashinda ukituambia, the boda guy is the real us.”

He had a point. But I thought that, if the proverbial Wanjiku symbolises the average Kenyan, the boda guy is her visible, if more vilified twin – vilified for often appearing unruly flouting traffic rules with impunity to great inconvenience and endangerment of many road users.

I recall this incident noting many of us have our lapses regarding our civic responsibilities.

This was the point my friend was making, which is articulated by the rider Michael’s admission that many of his colleagues operate without licences; that, in essence, they may not be paying some of the taxes as required by law.

However, even as the government is enforcing the Michuki Rules to restore sanity in our roads, why should the boda-boda operators appear so unaccountable, seeming so unruly and lawless?

A related question is the ease with which they seem to mobilise, something politicians have long recognised as a useful to manipulate during election campaigns for their own political ends.

Yet, according to research, it is this same phenomenon of easy mobilisation coupled with the idea of taxation as a civic duty that could be applied in transparency and accountability to curb corruption and put a check on excesses of politicians and other duty bearers in government.

First, observe the emergence of the boda-boda industry as one of the biggest drivers of Kenya’s economy. The operators generated Sh219 billion in revenue in 2017. This was more than East Africa’s most profitable company, Safaricom, which had total revenues of Sh212 billion in the 2016/17 financial year.

Such a contribution to the economy suggests existing, if untapped, leveraging ability. Research from around the Eastern Africa region shows that taxation can have a decisive effect on transparency and accountability by granting bargaining power to cohesive, well-organized groups of citizens against their governments.

In Somaliland, for example, economic elites in the semi-autonomous country  were able to bargain for legislative elections in return for submitting to taxation. The heft of their contribution to the economy asserted its influence on a government in dire need of revenue.

The import of this, however, is in the utility value that “the ability to collect taxes [not only] has implications for the quality of governance,” as a policy report to the British parliament and other examples observe, but how “taxpayers…are more likely to hold their governments to account if they underperform.”

laboratory-in-the-field experiment on taxation effects on behaviour in Uganda gives credence to this assertion. Conducted in the country’s capital city, Kampala, it demonstrates “effectiveness of tax bargaining that can also function where tax bargaining is difficult (due to collective action problems for citizens) or unlikely (because taxation is coercive).”

It finds that taxation creates a significant increase in the level of accountability citizens demand from leaders, in addition to activating stricter fairness norms. This was found to be driven by the sense of moral satisfaction that individuals receive from imposing punishing sanctions on a non-accountable leader.

This underscores the concept of ownership, through which citizens are less likely to acquiesce to corruption and more likely to punish non-accountable behaviour when invested in their own self-interest through contributions to a common good.

Research also shows that tax compliance is higher in countries with lower corruption and higher public goods provision. It well known, for instance, how there exists a fairly high respect for authority in Rwanda compared to other East African countries, and how this reinforces lower corruption. This is in addition to the country’s much-lauded utilisation of donor and other revenue in accountable and effective provision of public goods and services.

Taken together, the above examples present the case worth exploring in Kenya. They show taxation may alter citizens’ preferences over corruption.

The boda-boda phenomenon may be a metaphor for our collective latent abilities as Kenyans, but it also demonstrates the bargaining power within their grasp.

Notably, however, is the recognition that each country is unique to its circumstances. Therefore, in addition to the Kenya Revenue Authority’s Schools Outreach and Tax Club programmes, this is a call for relevant local solutions through which sustained public oversight in transparency and accountability may be effectively achieved.

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