THE NAIROBI NOTEBOOK
Who dares wins
By Patrick Mwangi
There are an estimated 40 000 of these vehicles on Kenyan roads; all of them are owned by private investors, who create hundreds of thousands of jobs for drivers, stage managers, touts, and ticketing clerks. Matatus are killers on Kenyan roads; they are the chief cause of road accidents. Driven at breakneck speeds and disregarding all traffic rules, matatus are infamous for their rude and uncouth behaviour towards commuters. For a long time, they have operated with impunity, killing and maiming Kenyans, and in the process chalking up one of the worst road accident rates anywhere in the world. As an industry, it has long been a bandit sector, held in a choke-grip by murderous cartels, who have never hesitated to unleash violence on the public or anybody who dared challenge their supremacy.
Attempts by the previous Kanu Government to change this state of affairs always came a cropper. The then Government's half-hearted attempts to rein in matatus only served to embolden them and give them a feeling of invincibility. And on they went with their devil-may-care attitude - that is, until a new sheriff was appointed. The unenviable job of turning around this sector fell on the shoulders of Transport and Communications Minister in the Narc government, Mr. John Michuki.
Last year, Mr. Michuki announced that the then dormant rules governing Public Service Vehicles (PSV), under which matatus fall, would be implemented to the letter. He did not know that he was stirring up a hornet's nest. Matatu operators went ballistic. They warned him of dire consequences should he attempt to regulate them. "We will show him who owns matatus in Kenya," bragged the leader of one of the associations. Spoiling for a fight, they called a strike to force the minister to withdraw the regulations. Mr. Michuki, a former bureaucrat turned businessman cum politician, is as stubborn as they come. He refused to budge. Matatu operators made good their threat and withdrew their vehicles from the streets countrywide.
Chaos reigned. Workers and students were forced to walk to work and to school. Amazingly, the citizenry closed ranks behind the minister. President Mwai Kibaki publicly backed his minister. Everybody agreed that the matatu menace, as the unruly public transport had come to be called, had to be brought under control. Sensing the public mood and a no-nonsense attitude by the government, matatus beat a humiliating retreat.
But, used as they were to vacillation within Government, the operators did not see any urgency in fitting out their matatus in the designated manner. They went on with life much as before, albeit licking their wounds. The rules require them to fit speed governors and seat belts, and to reduce their seating capacity to avoid overcrowding. Standing passengers have been banned. Only a driver and conductor, both of whom must wear a uniform, are permitted to operate the vehicle - no hangers-on are allowed. It is a real revolution in Kenya's commuter transport sector.
Came the deadline of January 30, 2004, and the same chaos played itself out again. The ministry remained firm - there would be no extension of the deadline. A tough police crackdown ensured that vehicles that were not compliant stayed off the road. Workers and students walked to work and school. The road network, particularly in Nairobi, was congested as all manner of hitherto mothballed personal cars, many of them unroadworthy, were put back into service.
A major victory had been won. The matatu sector was reined in and returned to sanity. Word has it that fresh investors are queuing to enter the sector, secure in the knowledge that brigands will not have the last word on an investment in which they have no stake, but that they are part of cartels that "control" routes. The Michuki fan club currently has the largest membership among the public of all cabinet ministers. Such execution of policy, though initially disruptive, is probably the only way economic sectors will be streamlined, made efficient and attractive to fresh investors.
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