Will government ever restore matatu sanity?

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BY DAVID ONJILI

The matatu crew, indeed the industry fraternity, is upbeat it won’t last. The crackdown and enforcement of the new traffic rules, they say, is just another passing cloud. The passengers on the other hand see it as a waste of time and maybe a government mandarin has a tender to supply seat belts and speed governors.

“Operation will only last till through Christmas and New Year festivities and January as children report to school then it will be back to normal, quipped one driver. What will the bribe-obsessed police feed on and what about the matatu stage gangs?

The Kenyan public transport sector continues to be controlled by gangs. They determine which matatu plies which route and even go ahead to charge illegal extortionist fees. This is passed down to matatu operators who then pass it to passengers in the form of exorbitant bus fares that aren’t fixed or predictable.

The matatus are a law unto themselves. They disregard every existing traffic law. Traffic police officers on the other hand thrive on bribes and turn a blind eye. To add salt to injury, a good number of matatus are owned by senior police officers, politicians and other senior government officials. With the glaring conflict of interest, it becomes difficult to enforce the law. The matatus are untouchable.

“When you are licensed you are supposed to do a business not blackmail people,” said CS Fred Matiang’i when warning matatu operators who had planned to go on strike following the move by government to enforce the ‘Michuki traffic rules’. But talking tough is not going to restore sanity on our roads, it must be a planned activity, educating passengers on their rights and ensuring that police are visible on the roads where rogue crew can be reported and action taken immediately.

Free terminal of gangs

It beats logic that a government can allow a few gangs to man matatu stages. They do it with arrogance and bravado; they are untouchable as they dictate matatu fares. Sad is the fact that police officers know them and do nothing about it. Why is it that they are allowed to do as they please? It is alleged that the amounts they collect are shared with some rogue police officers so that they are allowed to continue operating.

Every trip a matatu plies, the crew parts with a fee of not less than Sh100 as they stop at a stage to pick passengers. They also part with another amount depending on the time of the day and fare charged, this happens every day and on every trip. In a single day, a single matatu would part with not less than Sh1000 to the gangs in illegal fees.

If you fail to comply your matatu will either be burned down, your crew beaten up and in most cases chased out of business as you wont be allowed to pick and drop passengers at the stops manned by the gangs. This sabotage is the reason why the long transit buses with subsidized fares do not operate freely. They too have fallen victim to this gang control. On some routes the long transit buses are sabotaging the system by not operating during peak hours to allow the matatu to exploit passengers with exorbitant fares. It is a criminal system well managed by the gangs.

Cases of the notorious Mungiki Gang manning matatu stages in areas like Kayole are not new. One wonders, if they are members of such a proscribed gang then to whose benefit are they in operation? Doesn’t this water down all the tough talk by CS Matiang’i to restore sanity on our roads?

The effort to restore matatu sanity is dead on arrival if we cannot reform the police service and specifically the traffic department.

Whenever traffic police officers flag down matatus, it is to collect bribes.

Provide competition

The Kibaki administration did launch several train stations. Makadara and Imara Daima stations are a perfect example. These were to help modernize and boost railway transport within the city. Trains have the luxury to transport more passengers using fixed schedules and are on time because their journeys have no distractions like traffic jams and speed bumps.

If the government were serious, why not increase the frequency of these trains? Draw regular and reliable timetables and enforce them to ensure they work within their schedules. A passenger train has on average ten carriages, with each accommodating 300 people, which is roughly 3000 passengers per single trip. Can there be a rigorous campaign by government to the citizens to embrace train transport within the city estates.

With the government responsible for issuing of licenses for anyone interested in operating public transport, why can’t they offer incentives to matatu Saccos that operate into the Central Business District (CBD)? This can be in the form of allowing only a select few matatus from specified Saccos to enter the CBD at subsidized rates and let the rest use termini outside the CBD.

The move by the CS Matiang’I to compel matatu operators to display their fares during peak and off peak hours is welcome. Yet, will there be instant justice to the many travelers who use them? Will there be enough traffic police officers along major highways to enable passengers report and action be taken?

Then there is this issue of matatu operators going on strike for flimsy reasons every time they want to. This cripples public transport and causes major inconvenience to road users. How comes such matatu Saccos are not even de-registered or even fined? The government is a very powerful hand and no one can sabotage her if she wants to enforce order and rule of law to the benefit of the common mwananchi.