By Daisy Nandeche Okoti with Ogova Ondego
Published March 6, 2016
That the matatu public service vehicles (PSVs) represent everything that is wrong in Kenya is not in doubt. That these PSVs are unwilling to comply with any ‘rule’, ‘policy’, ‘directive’ or ‘law’ is almost legendary. Three months after brazenly defying the country’s public transport and safety agency—National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA)—matatus continue to make excessive noise, play ‘obscene’ music videos, and arbitrarily adjust fares upwards whenever they feel like doing so.
NTSA is a State corporation established under the National Transport and Safety Authority Act of 2012.
NTSA had in January 2016 directed Traffic Police in the country’s capital, Nairobi, to impound any matatu with ‘offensive’ graffiti. The agency had ordered that PSVs whose exhaust pipes have been manipulated to produce excessive noise be rectified. It had also demanded that matatus stop playing ‘obscene’ and ‘noisy’ music videos. Three months later today, little has changed.
As has happened in the past where there have been attempts to reform the informal matatu sector, NTSA lost the willpower to fight for the implementation of its ‘reforms’. Allowing matatus to have their way, NTSA said PSVs could keep their decorations and slogans so long as they did not contain any ‘offensive’ gestures, wordings, pictures or signs. This directive was flawed as it did not ‘define’ what is ‘offensive’ or isn’t.
The words inscribed on some matatus range from being politically divisive, morally disturbing to sometimes just being plainly insulting. Some matatus also have television monitor screens that play mostly music videos with highly sexualized language featuring scantily dressed women that should not be in the public because they are inappropriate and can upset people’s sensibilities.
The proposed NTSA’s ‘reforms’ have failed to take off and the Nairobi commuter still has to deal with the disturbing matatu shenanigans every day because even the law and regulators of the land do not seem to have the muscle to control the matatu renegade sector.
This failure to implement the directive of NTSA follows on similar failures over the past 12 years. In February 2015, the government’s cashless fare-payment system in all public vehicles fell through after matatus resisted the move. Had it succeeded, the ‘tap-and-pay’ fare system would have led to the formalisation into an industry of the informal public transport system, seal loopholes of theft by matatu crew and enable government to collect taxes that are almost non-existent though matatus rake in millions of shillings from travelers every month. Together with the cashless fare payment system, matatus were to have been run under Savings and Credit Cooperative societies (SACCOs) to reduce the bottlenecks of dealing with too many ‘small’ operators. Had the system succeeded, it would also have reduced the theft and corruption that occur due to lack of a transparent accounting mechanism.
Though Simon Kimutai, Chairman of Matatu Owners Association, expressed support for the cashless fare system saying it would provide investors and regulators with an accounting barometer for keeping a tab on earnings, the ‘reform’, like many others before it, was not implemented due to opposition largely from the matatu crew and elements within the Kenya Police Traffic Department.
In 2010, the government introduced its Integrated National Transport Policy (INTP) to replace 14-seater matatus with higher capacity ones to deal with traffic congestion in Nairobi; the higher capacity vehicles would ferry more people into town besides easing congestion on the road. Traffic jam remains one of the major causes of time wastage in Nairobi today. However, the INTP ‘reform’ was reversed by President Uhuru Kenyatta on the ground that it would lead to job losses. This reversal came hot on the heels of several attempts to keep matatus out of the Nairobi Central Business District to unclog on the streets. This reform also flopped long before it was implemented.
In Feb 2004, John Njoroge Michuki, the then serving Roads and Public Works Minister, introduced measures aimed at improving commuter safety on the road, driver and conductor competence, eliminate illegal ‘criminal’ elements who had infiltrated the sector as well as facilitate vehicle identification. The reforms required that the vehicles operate on clearly defined routes, complete with route numbers marked on their sides in black across a yellow line; the PSVs were to be installed with speed governors and passenger safety belts; they were to carry a specified number of passengers; and the drivers and conductors were to wear clean uniforms, be polite to passengers, desist from arbitrary fare increases and possess certificates of ‘good conduct’ from the Kenya Police. These measures, that were popularly known as ‘Michuki Rules’, were also aimed at getting rid of ‘cartels’ that reigned supreme.
Who gains from the chaos in the non-formal matatu sector? Why is the government failing to turn this chaotic but lucrative sector into a formal industry? By the way, what happened to the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA)? Does NEMA not have anything to do with noise-pollution? How about emission of fuel fumes by matatus in the air? The last we heard was that NEMA’s role had been ‘devolved’ or transferred from the central to the local government referred to in Kenya as ‘County Government’.