Arrest further degeneration of Matatu sector or we will have a ‘mafia’ in our hands

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Residents of Rongai demonstrating over increased cases of road accidents.
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By Bephine Ogutu

What comes to mind when you hear about the matatu business? Do you see opportunities, chaos or both? Well, irrespective of your perception of the industry, the fact of the matter is that this is not a business for the faint-hearted.

The industry employs hundreds of thousands of Kenyans and it’s a source of either basic income or extra income for many. A lot of employed people have invested heavily in this sector that is always associated with corruption and indiscipline. This is the sector that has made the police force to maintain the top spot in corruption indexing. Even the police officers themselves have vehicles that are notorious in breaking traffic rules.

Mini-bus taxis, which were largely owned by middle-income Kenyans, began offering transport services from rural areas and from informal settlements around the city from the 1950s. As urban populations surged, so did demand. Unregulated and largely unlicensed, these taxis continued to operate illegally in the city until 1973 when then President Jomo Kenyatta issued a decree officially recognising matatus as a legal mode of public transport – licensing came much later. The main idea was to increase and make the mobility of people more efficient and create more jobs in the informal sector.

In 2003, in an effort to bring sanity and control the matatu industry, government, through the late John Michuki, issued a legal notice requiring all the public transport vehicles to join Saccos or limited liability companies and by March 2011, over 655 matatu SACCOs had been registered with the Ministry of Cooperative Development and Marketing.

Today, there is a motley rules and regulations put in place to govern and control this sector – including the restriction of issuance of Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licenses to companies that own at least five vans. Amongst these regulations is that demands that passenger drivers be employed on permanent and pensionable terms, complete with insurance cover, annual leave and scheduled shifts.

Those who succeeded Michuki did not continue in his zeal, and the sector slowly relapsed to its old ways. In 2012, government introduced the National Transport and Safety Authority, NTSA, which was mandated to, among others, “to harmonise the operations of the key road transport departments”, and manage and regulate transport across the country.

The NTSA was a noble idea but due to failure by those in charge, impunity and corruption reigns full force. In short order, its officials became corrupt and grossly abused their newly given powers. NTSA became a law unto itself and pushed corruption to new levels. Unlike, for instance, traffic police who would impound vehicles and have drivers charged in court, this new outfit had the powers to summon any Matatu Sacco from any corner of the country, impound cars and even revoke licenses on the spot, without fair hearing.

“When you give Sh200 in the morning, they look the other way despite the number of defects your vehicle may have. NTSA officials are expensive as they demand at least a Sh2,000 bribe, or retain cash bail so that you are not taken to court,” an official of a city matatu Sacco told the Nairobi Law Monthly.

The result of this has been a strained relationship between some transport management companies and the regulator. As well, investors were reportedly losing millions of shillings through unfair business practices as most Saccos collapsed internally while cartel-like groups were registered and given licenses to operate. In reaction, matatu owners who had been in business for long, and who had invested in it heavily, came together to find a way to survive.

There are over 100 PSV Saccos in Nairobi County, most formed not out of the need for good management of fleets, but as a formality, to comply with government requirements. It follows that almost all of them are poorly run; many drivers work long hours, don’t have requisite benefits and are demotivated. So to speak, they are as ‘mad’ as Kenyans think they are.

There are in existence vicious cartels and political groups – with clashing, vested interests – that control different routes; it is lucrative business for them. Now and then, rivalry between them degenerates into violent, deadly conflict.

Lack of professional and reliable management structures, tools, expertise, as well as failure by government institutions to provide guidelines on public transportation has hindered growth in the sector, and is to blame for the systematic rot and breakdown witnessed today.

A major hindrance to effective management of these Saccos is their inability to gather and share information regarding the challenges the industry faces, as well as about the competence of their drivers and complaints about the industry.

It is this gap that a group of researchers from the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley (USA) seeks to fill. The researchers, working with Echo Mobile, a Kenyan technology company based in Nairobi, are conducting research into the Kenya public transport sector for academic reasons, and with the possibility of making recommendations to stakeholders on optimal management practices.

The team has developed an app, Smart Matatu, that receives data from a tracking gadget to monitor driving behaviour and vehicle location at all times. The device has been programmed to sends alerts to the vehicle owner/ managers about unsafe driving tendencies like over speeding, hard braking, driving off-tarmac and hard turning. The app has been designed to connect with the gadget and users can access it immediately to track a vehicle’s location and mileage, among others.

The Saccos are not all gloom, however. For instance, whenever there have been accidents – like with the case of a Rongai-bound matatu in September this year – or unbecoming behaviour against passengers – as happened when, in November 2014, matatu crew sexually abused a lady inside a bus that belonged to Nazigi Sacco – it has been relatively easy to find and punish the culprits by targeting the Sacco. In the two instances above, authorities punished Saccos as units, prompting them to find and hand over the offending persons/vehicles.

The matatu business is one of the most profitable in the transport sector, but the ill reputation of PSV crew, aided in no little way by corrupt traffic police officers and regulator, continue to bear down on it. Some have said that the nature of this business forces and encourages corruption, such that even when crew are not on the wrong and the vehicle is roadworthy, bribe money still changes hands as insurance for the future – it pays to have friendly cops in one’s books.

All things point to it that if it is not closely regulated, the industry is slowly being organised into the form of organised crime – one that, if allowed to so blossom, not even government will be able to control.

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