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Don’t have posh planes? Give them cattle wagons



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One of the more bizarre stories in our neck of the woods this year, is this one about problems Kenya Airways is encountering trying to fly its Bombardier aircraft to regional destinations.

Burundi, Djibouti and South Sudan have refused to give KQ permission to change the aircraft it flies to their capitals from the Embraer 190 to the Bombardier Q400.

KQ says the Bombardier is cheaper to fly, a sensible point, given that flights between Nairobi and other countries in East Africa are among the most expensive anywhere in the world.

This, and the shabby service some passengers often get at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, has saddled KQ with the image of a callous, exploitative neighbour. But because regional rivals were grounded long ago, it remained the only alternative until RwandAir came along.

One would expect that regional governments would have told KQ that they would allow it to fly the Bombardier, as long as they saw a significant reduction in air fares.

But, surprise, surprise, that is not the beef they have. Typical of the attitude of most East African states, Burundi, which has no airline, reportedly rejected the Bombardier Q400 because it had no Business Class – for the big people.

In other words, officially, the governments are rejecting the KQ service because it is not posh enough! KQ itself has hinted that the real reasons for the rebuff are political.

The idea that the Bombardier is not posh enough for countries, some of which don’t even have a national bus or minibus taxi company, may make you laugh but it needs to be taken seriously because it represents a pervasive mindset, and shines a light on why we have struggled with development.

We do posh and grand projects, then the day after they are commissioned, buyer’s remorse sets in.

We build highways to nowhere, and expensive railway lines and services that lose money because they don’t have enough passengers or traffic.

We splash out billions of dollars on electricity dams, and when they are done, it turns out there are no transmission lines to distribute the power nor consumers who can afford it.

In South Sudan, to this day, there are still ruling SPLM leaders and senior SPLA officers who roll up in $90,000 Toyota Landcruisers and $100,000 Range Rovers, and park them outside their grass-thatched $190 huts where they live with their two wives and children.

By the early 1980s, like elsewhere in most of Africa, the railway system in Uganda was half dead. The state-run bus company was falling apart. The government decided it would get the cattle wagons, put in some wooden benches, and run a passenger train for Kampala’s working class and poor.

It was not posh, and the city middle class was too embarrassed to even admit that they knew of its existence. The masses, however, fondly called it “Kayoola” (the ones that gathers the multitudes), and with its cheap rates, mobbed it.

It’s more than 30 years, and in serious terms, it remains the most revolutionary mass transit initiative a government in Uganda has ever come up with in the past 40 years. It’s time for a cattle wagon for East Africa’s skies, with a fare that is not daylight robbery.

In fact, the Bombardier Q400 may even be too posh for that.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]

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