The mystery behind Rwanda's road carnage

The accident, which involved a bus owned by Kigali Safari, claimed 14 passengers. The accident has brought to surface the poor working conditions of drivers as well safety on the roads. CYRIL NDEGEYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

A recent accident involving a coaster bus plying Rwanda's upcountry route has rekindled fears about public transport safety in the country.

It also brings to light simmering frustrations among long distance drivers over what they term exploitative employment terms imposed by operators.

The accident, which happened last weekend, claimed 14 passengers. It involved a speeding coaster owned by Kigali Safari, which was coming from Musanze, Northern Province, heading to Kigali. It rammed into an oncoming vehicle in Shyorongi, while descending to the city.

The grisly accident is one of the many blamed on speeding drivers plying upcountry routes who seek to cover as many trips as possible in a bid to earn more — sometimes not getting enough rest.

Eye witnesses said the driver was speeding, despite upcountry buses being fitted with speed governors.

The spokesperson of the Traffic Police Department at Rwanda National Police, Mr Emmanuel Kabanda, could not confirm whether the bus was speeding, but said investigations were ongoing.

Emergency services

“At this point, we are still investigating the cause, but one of them points to an oncoming vehicle being in the wrong. We confirmed 14 passengers died from the accident,” Mr Kabanda said.

Following the head-on collision, the mangled bus rolled down the steep Shyorongi hill and it took police and other emergency services hours to recover the bodies.

The scramble for passengers and the rush to make the required trips, as well as meeting daily revenue targets has, in most instances, been blamed for drivers’ haste, resulting in crashes and breach of traffic rules in the city and upcountry roads.

A field survey by Rwanda Today showed total disregard for the country’s labour provisions in the transport sector where many drivers get only three to four hours of sleep per night and are not paid for the overtime.

The drivers said they are working without contracts or insurance, while getting little pay that is subject to illegal deductions.

While drivers’ monthly salaries range between Rwf70,000 and Rwf120,000, most end up taking home as low as Rwf15,000 because employers force them to take responsibility for charges on traffic offences as well as compensating for unmet targets.

In Kigali City, for instance, drivers of the popular 35-seater coasters are given a target of ferrying between 750 and 850 passengers each day, failure to which the money is deducted from their pay.

Your employer

“If you get into an accident and are hospitalised for two or three months, you don’t get medical or accident cover from your employer. When you recover and come back to work, you find that your position has been given to someone else,” said Omar Innocent Nshyimiyimana.

Due to the high unemployment rate in the country coupled with stiff competition in the transport sector, operators only hire drivers who are willing to accept these difficult terms and verbal contracts.

Young drivers are the most preferred because in most cases they are willing to work under these conditions.

According to drivers, attempts to raise their concerns result in them being fired in most cases.

Mr Dieudonne Karege, a former driver, told Rwanda Today he was sacked for voicing his grievances after his employer denied him a copy of the terms of employment he had been told to sign.

A court case

Contracts are said to contain clauses considered unfavourable for drivers hence why some employers fear they could be used against them or be the basis for a court case.

Mr Karege said not having a copy of the contract denied him the chance to take his case to court after he was fired.

About 1,200 drivers claim to have been illegally sacked from Belvedere Lines, Sotra Tours and Impala Travel Agency, which are transport companies that closed down.

The former drivers come together under an association called PRODCO that seeks to advocate for drivers’ rights. However, attempts by other drivers to join PRODCO attract harsh action from employers.

“Most of the affected drivers fear to raise their grievances because when their bosses find out, they get fired,” said one of the drivers, adding that transport companies make sure that they block workers from joining trade unions.

A few upcountry transport operators grant drivers two days off in a week, but only during off peak hours. Majority of the drivers in Kigali like John Gitore, who has been working in this sector for more than 10 years, reported living with prolonged fatigue as they are usually overworked. They start work at 1am and report back as early as 4am.

Hit targets

The fatigue, coupled with speeding and the need to hit targets, are blamed for the accidents which put passenger’s lives at risk.

Transport Regulator Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) estimates a sharp increase in the number of passengers using public transport from 250,000 people in 2013 to 450,000 people last year.

Rwanda Today could not establish if anything was being done about the driver’ concerns since concerned government officials were not available for comment by press time.

However, public transport owners’ association (ATPR) chairperson Eric Ruhamiriza, said no claim of unlawful working conditions had been brought to their attention.

RURA had touted the awaited use of Drivers Vocational Cards in public transport as likely to contribute to improving drivers’ working conditions since employer-employee job terms would be the basis for issuing the card.

Mr Kabanda said initiatives such as the use of cashless payment systems, installation of speed governors and the just-introduced vocational cards were being used to curb accidents and bad driving habits.

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