Busia, Malaba: The face of free, rich, future EA

I have battled with this question for years: Why are border crossing points in East Africa so shabby and chaotic? Or are they?

The Kenya-Tanzania border crossing at Namanga is, well, not too bad. And the Uganda-Rwanda border at Katuna is passable, especially on the Rwanda side.

But the Kenya-Uganda border crossings at Busia and Malaba are madness. The boda boda (motorbike) riders are insane and ungovernable. The vendors are out of control, and the roadside markets have eaten up 30 per cent of the main link road.

Then the Uganda and Kenya governments are not bothered, and the commercial trucks’ parking lots are muddy and dirty – yet they yield millions of dollars in revenues a year.

The various clearing agents and moneychangers will easily knock you over as they scramble for business.

Kenyans and Ugandans are East Africa’s most lawless and in-your-face people, and in Busia and Malaba the marriage of the two has bred a frightening monster.

These two places give you a slight glimpse of what Uganda and Kenya might look like if they were the Wild West.

But they also offer a peek into how a free, socially mobile, and rich East Africa might look.

Focused on money

The people in those places have their eyes totally focused on the money — on the Uganda side, especially, a genial plumb woman will sell you fresh and very sweet pineapple while you are in the immigration line.

The immigration officers and policemen are pragmatic in ways that are unimaginable. If you are able to pay a bribe, they will shake you down for it. If you look penniless they will shove you on quickly to make way for those who can pay.

The Immigration officers work at twice the speed of the ones at Entebbe International Airport or Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. And if your paperwork is in order, they will clear you to drive your car through in a blink.

In Busia on the Kenya side, the Immigration office probably issues more temporary passes in a day than Nairobi does in a month.

I suspect that if you tried to introduce order, the people would oppose you, because they fear you would soon begin to choose who should win and who should lose in the rat race.


And, of course, if fancy car parks were built, then the charges for use would go up and cut into their profits. Unlike at the airports, there are no VIP counters or lodges at the borders.

There are no fast track lanes for business and first class passengers.

If you arrive in your $50,000 Landcruiser, or barefoot, you all line up at the same window to get the stamp. Few such places are more egalitarian.

The people at these borders have drunk beer, dated and had children, traded, robbed, cheated, smuggled across the border so much, that they have become a totally different type of creature.

All of East Africa’s tribes and religions have collided in these places and turned them into amoral, hungry, and driven streets.

It can all be infuriating, at times. Yet, somehow, I totally love it. If East Africans are ever to rule the world, we will have to be like those vultures in Busia.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com.
Twitter: @cobbo3

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