Sunday, 2 December 2012

Public Transport; Matatus and the Rule of Law

The Matatu Industry is the informal Paratransit industry in Kenya that provides services to millions of people everyday. A major raison d’ĂȘtre for public transport is to relieve congestion. This is however not so with the matatu situation in Nairobi. One of the staggering challenges facing Nairobi is the increasing population hence the increasing demand for transport services. Rapid urbanisation, high operational costs and the crumbling infrastructure has resulted in depleted public transportation services, leaving a service void in urban transport systems. The Matatu industry in Kenya reflects the environment of the city in which it operates; chaotic!

The History

The use of Matatus in Kenya started in the early 1950’s. After Kenya gained independence in 1963 there was a major rural-urban migration in search of employment. The people then were too poor to afford daily transport to and from the cities prompting mini-bus taxis to start offering this service at a cost. They gradually increased due to the lucrative nature of the business and continued increase in urban population. The matatu industry however started off as a pirate. It was an illegal commercial entity. In 1973, Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta issued a decree recognising Matatus as a legal form of transport. Initially, they were operating on an illegal basis. Even so, they did not require a Transport Licensing Board (TLB) and Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licensing. According to Kenyatta, they were a blessing to the Kenyan economy as they created jobs and the matatu operators were hardworking Kenyans who contributed to the growth of a young republic. Later, the exchequer discovered the millions that lay in the industry in terms of revenue and introduced the PSV Licensing.


Matatus form part of Kenya’s rich cultural fabric. Recently, matatus have become a mobile narrative of the news in this country. What is sprayed onto these minibuses represents the political atmosphere in the county and international occurrences (seemingly of importance to Kenya) from the election of Barack Obama, the Kenya mediation efforts by Kofi Annan in the year 2007, the ICC Prosecutions (Moreno Ocampo), KDF fight against terrorism, piracy on the Kenyan Coast and on the High Seas and so on. This is actually something I appreciate about the culture in the industry. It creates awareness. Its a form of communication device. Its only kind in the world and Kenyan to boot.

Failure of the industry

The matatu industry fails because of lack of political will to streamline the same.. Several entities see this as a ripe path to foster their political intentions. During the pre-multiparty era, matatu operators were the first to greet each other with two fingers symbolising that it was time to embrace two or more parties instead of one party. Thousands of people are operating matatus independently and competing against each other. Technically, this industry has become a monopoly. There is an array of persons and institutions that are associated with the matatu industry. This has led to a complex political, social and economic web resulting in conflicts in the transport sector. Many politicians are currently absentee matatu owners hence the non political will to reform the industry. The police sector is known to cause havoc with their unending quest for “kitu kidogo”. The current state of Kenyan roads adds to the inefficiency of matatus. Potholes and sewerage pipe bursts are among the many inconveniences on our roads today.

Matatu overlapping and reckless driving also adds to the agony of most Kenyans. The matatu industry is also open and a lot of idle youth loiter around matatu terminus creating crime avenues, drug hubs, commotion and pose as a menace to most commuters. The Mungiki control of the matatu industry also poses an imminent danger to the progress of the industry. The police sector has miserably failed in their “Utumishi kwa wote” (service to the people) mantra which has resulted into “udunishi wa watu” (oppression of the people) corruption has continued to be their main agenda neglecting the values they were taught at Kiganjo. This sector needs serious reform before we can even pretend to get concerned about the matatu menace.

The Traffic (Amendment) Act, 2012

I took a Matatu on Saturday, decided to sit next to the driver and ask him a few questions. Here is how the conversation went:

Me: Why are you resisting the Traffic Amendment Act?
Driver: There are overlapping clauses in the Act, for example, obstruction is punishable by a fine of Kshs. 100,000 and overlapping is punishable by a fine of Kshs 300,000. Obstruction is overlapping and overlapping is obstruction. The fine for either offence then attracts a fine of Kshs. 400,000. That is punitive

Red light number 1

The driver does not understand the law. He does not even understand the offences in the Act and the resultant punishment. The crime being refered to as obstruction and overlapping is what is now section 45A of the Traffic Act (driving on pavements). The punishment is an imprisonment of not less than 3 months or a fine of not less than 30,000 or both.

Me: How do you know what the law says?
Driver: We have been educated,. We know the Act is now operational since it has been gazetted (ps: the driver used the exact words)

Me: Are you not concerned about the safety of your passengers?
Driver: We are concerned about the victimisation of the industry. If they want us to reform, the police must reform. The government must re-build and recarpet the roads. Change has to start at the top!

Me: Will you not starve? How will you feed your families?
Driver: We save money with our SACCO. We think about tomorrow. So we will not starve. We must get our rights! (to which I laugh, loudly)

Green light number 1

He understands the cycle of change. He knows that all the sectors must reform uniformly.

Anywho, the law is the law. The Traffic Amendment Act seeks to cure the menace on Kenyan roads. It also addresses the issue of mounting roadblocks at designated places on the road. This will reduce corruption and give motorists certainty as far as roadblocks are concerned. It allows Kenyans to be notified of closure of roads atleast seven days prior. This will save most motorists the agony of getting stranded in the morning because a section of the road was closed at night.

Overall, it will reduce deaths on Kenyan roads. Matatu operators cannot and should not dictate what the law should be. We all must adhere to the rule of law. Kenyans, let us walk on!


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