Ugandan railway workers continue tradition of resistance to the ‘iron snake’

    As the long-dormant railroad industry begins to reawaken in Uganda, so too does a tradition of resistance in East Africa.
    Railways Division resident Omer Joel ties his cows to an abandoned train car. (WNV / Phil Wilmot)

    The Uganda Railway Workers’ Union led a two-day strike last week, forcing managers from a multinational railway construction company back to the negotiating table, where they must confront grievances over compensation and worker treatment.

    The dispute began in November, when Rift Valley Railways, or RVR, alleged that fuel was stolen by two Ugandan workers — locomotive driver Francis Bakutayo and police constable Peter Mutenyo. They were promptly barred from work, but after the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, or MGLSD, failed to find sufficient evidence against the employees, RVR agreed to reinstate them by January 1.

    When New Year’s Day passed and the employees still had not been welcomed back to work, the union decided to take action, albeit briefly.

    “We ended the strike after the MGLSD began carrying out negotiations for us,” said Victor Byemaro, general secretary of the Uganda Railway Workers’ Union. “However, a collective bargaining agreement must be signed by January 17. If [RVR] does not settle by then, labor will intervene.”

    Like many unions, the Uganda Railway Workers’ Union often uses strikes to push for their demands. In comparison to other unions in East Africa, it has demonstrated firm solidarity even when a small number of its fellow workers are laid off unfairly.

    In 2014, over 700 railway workers went on strike to protest the firing of three employees who did not receive proper compensation. Contracts were also violated in a similar fashion in 2012. In short, RVR has a reputation for disregarding written agreements with its employees.

    “They dismiss union workers with contracts and then hire daily workers whose work ends the same day it begins,” said Byemaro. This is common practice among large foreign companies in East Africa. Since unemployment looms around 90 percent, they are able to exploit the labor of a desperate population on a day-to-day basis.

    Worker grievances on the railroads were not born out of thin air. Long before the industry peaked, peoples of East Africa suffered its wrath, responding with resistance.

    The iron snake and its remains

    The Kikuyu and Maasai tribes of Kenya are said to have once prophesied the coming of an “iron snake,” a vicious thing that would make haste across Kenya, wreaking havoc along the way.

    Most agree this iron snake was the Uganda Railroad, built by the colonial administration from the late 19th century onward. But as snakes often do, this one shed its skin and left it to rot.

    “No trains have passed here in a long time,” said Jennifer Awor, a resident of the now ironically-named Railways Division neighborhood in Lira, in northern Uganda. “When it was still operational in the early 1990s, people would board it free of charge.”

    Back then, Railways Division was a worker hub, with a spinning mill that employed thousands. But, in 2008, President Yoweri Museveni’s government sold it to a private investor who did not keep it running. The abandoned train station and industrial facilities now make Railways Division something akin to a ghost town.

    An abandoned train station in Railways Division. (WNV / Phil Wilmot)

    Despite nearly half of the country’s railroad being defunct for decades, the past five years have witnessed a surge in interest to revitalize the industry. One reason is the traffic congestion in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. As the population skyrockets and more vehicles clog the streets, hundreds are now using short-distance trains for their daily commute.

    At the center of this railroad revival, however, is the question of whether the industry exists for the poor of East Africa or its foreign investors and otherwise wealthy and well-connected individuals.

    Who really owns RVR?

    As is common with multinational corporations, little clarity on the organizational structure of RVR exists. A nonfunctioning website, Chinese managers, investors from various continents and a slew of involved companies and financiers makes it nearly impossible to discern business relationships.

    The website homepage for Rift Valley Railways bears this message, along with a broken email link.

    RVR is registered in both Uganda and Kenya, but has no headquarters in Uganda. In addition to the reinstatement of its workers, the union is demanding RVR install a management team in Uganda with a clear structure and budget. The workers want the company to be autonomous, not under the hazy leadership of a distant head office.

    “Their headquarters is in Nairobi, Kenya,” Byemaro said. “Managers in Uganda have no power to make decisions.”

    Sexual harassment by managers, militarization of trains

    As news of the strike broke, focus shifted from the worker firings to charges of sexual harassment by managers toward female workers. Employee Agnes Namusisi claimed her pay was withheld for three months because she had refused to grant sexual favors to her boss.

    Should such employee concerns go unaddressed, threatened Kampala Mayor Erias Lukwago, the Chinese company China Railway Seventh Group would face the possibility of being blacklisted by the city.

    Byemaro, however, was less concerned with the sexual harassment charges, indicating that railroad industry companies have made some improvements.

    “What we are concerned about is the militarization of the trains,” he said. “Armed private security personnel are sent on trains to prevent the theft of fuel. It is only by luck that no one has been injured, but shots have been fired.”

    One such shot took place at a train facility this December in Kawolo.

    “They may have been told in their training that our workers are their enemies,” said Byemaro. “They are not disciplined with their weapons.”

    Another shot was fired in Tororo in October, an important junction where trains coming from Kenya divert to the northern and western regions of Uganda.

    The fading train tracks in Railroad Division are a reminder of Lira’s once thriving neighborhood. (WNV / Phil Wilmot)

    In April, Tororo’s residents near the railway were being relocated due to the redevelopment of the old British colonial-era infrastructure. Worried of being displaced with no compensation — as is often the case when multinational companies grab land in Uganda — they voiced their concerns to the national media.

    Recently, those relocated in Tororo received compensation and have built better homes than their previous residences. This was a rare victory of its kind in Uganda, where the facade of development is often used for land grabbing and natural resource theft.

    The ‘Lunatic Express’

    The history of Uganda’s railroad project, forced upon indigenous people without their consent, was fraught with hardship and devastation from the start.

    Lions would pull workers out of trains and maul them to death — most notoriously in Tsavo, where at least 28 people were killed by just two lions in 1898. Diseases and anger from tribes residing on the land complicated matters all the more.

    Following a 1895 abduction and probable rape of two Maasai girls, the nomadic Maasai, equipped with proud and skilled warriors, staged an attack on a caravan of railroad workers in Kedong Valley — then in the Uganda protectorate, but now considered a part of Kenya. Five hundred were killed (most of them Kikuyu), prompting Englishman Andrew Dick to fight back with his rifle before being killed by Maasai spears.

    These kinds of stories inclined American author Charles Miller to dub the Uganda Railway the “Lunatic Express” in a 1971 book on the subject.

    Although the iron snake has been largely dormant in recent years, its resurgence seems all the more likely. The bigger question is whether the railway will prove to be a benefit for all — as in the case of Tororo, home to a number of happily relocated residents and an improved transportation infrastructure — or just the privileged, wealthy few.

    The railway workers, fresh off their recent victory, will no doubt be pushing for the former, and keeping strikes and similar sanctions close at hand.

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