By Simon Ng’ona
In the early 90s most of the countries underwent liberalisation, with Zambia being no exception. The underlying rationale for liberalisation is that free flows of trade, finance and information boost growth and human welfare. However, some adverse factors have ensured that this promise has not been realized.
As liberalisation takes place with countries relying more on market forces, the question of ensuring fair competition and keeping markets functioning efficiently assumes increasing importance. Dealing with unfair competition/anti-competitive trade practices in a liberalised economy is critical to safeguarding the interest of consumers.
Competition in any business is healthy and necessary because it ensures that the pursuit of profits by private enterprises is compatible with consumer interest. It also provides a well functioning market for existing companies and removes market barriers to prospective entrants in the market.
In Zambia, like in many other countries, trade practices are governed by a legislation called Competition and Fair Trading Act (CFTA which was enacted in 1994 by the Government and is being implemented by Zambia Competition Commission (ZCC)). This Act tries to prevent anti-competitive practices, ensure the efficient operation of markets and protect the welfare and interests of consumers.
One of the industries which has been fully liberalised in Zambia and exposed to competition is the transport sector. The liberalisation of this sector away from the monopoly of United Buses of Zambia (UBZ) has seen a hive of activities with an increase in the number of people/firms owning commercial buses and taxis. Before this development, mobility was a problem because of the small number of vehicles – the outcomes were long queues, consequent delays in reporting for work, high transportation charges because of monopolistic elements in the transportation sector and so on.
However, though the mentioned recent developments have affected the transport sector positively, passengers have not fully realised the potential benefits as consumer welfare continues to be greatly compromised in terms of price, service and quality. Anti-competitive practices resulting in consumer exploitation are still in vogue and have compelled advocates for commuter welfare to raise their voices.
Commuters Right Association of Zambia (CRAZ), an organisation advocating the strengthening of commuter rights in all modes of public transport has observed with dismay the happenings in this sector.
CRAZ national Secretary Pascal Chikumbi said that it a very saddening development in that commuters are being exploited by transport officers.
“As an organisation involved in advocating for the rights of commuters we will not relent in voicing out the injustices which has befallen this sector. What people must know is that commuters have the right to safety, choice and right to be heard but the situation is different,” he said.
“Minibus operators have compromised on quality, choice and safety in a number of ways. For example, lining up on first-come-first-pack basis implies that passengers have to board the bus that is packing at that time compromising on choice. This has resulted in sitting on damaged seats or getting on a bus that has inadequate ventilation,” he said.
“Even the materials they use to make seats impose great danger to human nature. Look, some one uses aluminum or steel bars with little comfort to make a seat. How comfortable are you going to be if you are traveling a long distance because some of these buses commute to areas outside Lusaka? Even during accident times, you will find that there are more chances on one getting injured because of the same materials. There is 90% possibility that one might hit himself to these materials,” he said.
Other issues are the overloading of buses and occasional mistreatment of passengers by conductors and drivers who often use derogatory language, diversion from normal routes to run away from traffic police if the bus is not road worthy and passengers being dropped at places different from their original destinations.
Mr. Chikumbi further said that minibus owners usually set daily revenue targets for their agents. This has serious implications for vehicular speed and time spent at bus stops with implications for the incidence of road accidents. Further, they also try to make some extra money for themselves even at the cost of the safety of passengers.
Meanwhile Road Transport and Safety Agency (RTSA) Principal Publicity Officer Mercy Mwila has urged the public to report people who are found breaching the rules and regulations binding the transport sector, with a promise that RTSA will not relent in executing action.
“I urge members of the public to inform us of such practices. What people must know is that they are custodians of road safety and they should report all evil activities they encounter. We have a tall free on Zamtel network 983 and just in case the line is busy people can still get us on 097910002, 097910003, 097910004,” she said.
“Once there is that corroboration with the members of the public, our work will be easier. For example, if you see a vehicle over speeding along Kabwe road either heading to Lusaka or kabwe, you will help us if you informed us about that. What you do is simply get the registration number, type of the vehicle and the color, call us on the numbers I have just mention and we will be able to trace the vehicle using our Zambia Transport and information System. The system helps us to trace the particulars of the vehicle therefore making it easier for us to contact the owner of the vehicle. This also helps the owners if they are not the ones driving to know how people misuse their vehicles,” she said.
Africa Resource Centre, Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), an international Non Governmental Organisation, observes that the transport sector services deserve a closer look so that fair pricing and good service delivery to passengers are ensured as this sector has a direct and unavoidable impact on the well being of many people. CUTS further recommends that the Competition Commission, RTSA and CRAZ should discuss and find plausible ways of resolving challenges facing the sector especially those impinging on public interest and that CRAZ should be empowered through support and guidance. Once CRAZ is empowered, it should conduct drives to raise awareness among people about their rights, especially with regard to public transport and commuter welfare. Further, there should be a coordination and consolidation of efforts by all consumer organisations and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) because currently, they work in isolation. The working relationship between ZCC, RTSA, CRAZ and CUTS should be enhanced to promote harmonious interface between passengers and transporters. Traffic officers should check roadworthiness of vehicles at the point of departure as well as on the road and finally there should be proper coordination among the sector regulator, Ministry of Transport and Communications and the commission to deal with the challenges.