The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Pioneer Buses Face Tough Road Ahead

Pioneer Easy Bus (PEB) management might have been handed a new lease of life after Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) released their buses, but the road ahead remains quite bumpy for the company.

Rebecca Athieno, the PEB legal officer, said recently that they were not sure when they would resume work, after close to a year out. The company, she said, was still in negotiations with Mukono and Wakiso districts and KCCA on how to conduct transport. Athieno said the agreements they signed with KCCA, Mukono, Mpigi, and Wakiso, proposed the construction of bus lanes and stops. That, however, has not yet been done.

The directors of the company intend to keep the buses parked until they sign a new agreement with KCCA.

"Hopefully, we shall resume business before the end of January. We are in talks with government officials and we are lobbying for the contract to be signed and implemented," John Masanda, one of the directors, said recently.

In the envisaged new contract, the owners of the company want government to put in place special bus lanes and create exclusive routes for buses. The buses will continue to ply their old routes. URA said they had signed an agreement for PEB to start operating in the city, ten months after they were grounded for defaulting on their tax obligations.

The new terms state that PEB is expected to pay Shs 8bn to URA in instalments over the next 24 months. According to Abdu Sallam Waiswa, the manager for debt collection at URA, PEB will pay between Shs 270m and Shs 300m monthly.

"Management of Pioneer are free to use their buses but they are subject to a caveat," Waiswa said. "No other company or individual demanding anything from Pioneer can attach them before they finish URA debt. And no one is allowed to buy the buses or sell... "

But there is a lot more to sort out. PEB owes money to its employees, some contractors, and institutions such as KCCA, among others. The firm employed close to 500 people but many said they had not been paid by the time the buses were impounded.

Bad environment:

Athieno, however, said the old workers were free to try to renew their employment. When the buses were impounded in February last year, the owners said the operating environment had not been favourable.

They blamed government for failing to honour obligations like constructing bus lanes and allowing exclusivity by phasing out taxis. None of these issues has been sorted out as PEB prepares a comeback. Speaking to The Observer earlier, Dr Amin Kiggundu, a public transport expert, said government had failed Pioneer bus.

"The prevailing environment here is not yet good enough to run a successful and efficient public transport system...," Kiggundu said.

Buses will still jostle for space with other cars on narrow roads. PEB officials thought they would have the monopoly of running the city transport system, with taxis confined to the outskirts. Parliament declined to grant their wish, advising for the two - the buses and the city taxis - to operate side-by-side.

Uncertainty remains on what will happen when Pioneer resumes business. Utoda, the taxi drivers' association, is eyeing the same transport business, with ten buses already plying different city routes.

Said Kiggundu: "The government must step in and facilitate Pioneer bus. Like any other private investor, Pioneer bus owners need to be given an enabling environment to allow them operate in the city."

He added that Pioneer bus should be given a soft loan or even a tax waiver. PEB's Athieno says the city is too big and there is need for close to 2,000 buses to ply Kampala, Wakiso, Mukono, and Mpigi districts.

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