Government neglect, lack of laws to blame for boda boda madness

Impounded motorcycles at Central Police Station, Nairobi. March 9, 2022. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Following the attack and sexual assault of a woman motorist by boda boda operators exposed via a viral video, Kenyans of all walks of life have expressed dismay.

Boda boda riders have gained a reputation for vigilantism, disregarding traffic rules and regulations, including operating without licences and safety equipment. As a result, they have been infiltrated by organised crime such as trafficking, robbery and murder gangs.

When a rider is involved in an accident with a motorist, they quickly mobilise, harass and assault the motorist to extort them.

Kenyan motorists and pedestrians have suffered due to the lack of traffic laws for boda boda riders. With impunity, they use pedestrian lanes, carry excess passengers, do U-turns, ride against traffic, are seldom trained and licensed and lack insurance in the full glare of law enforcement. Instead, traffic police concentrate on motorists who are perceived to be more amenable to giving more sizable bribes in case of a traffic infraction. As a result of lax enforcement, many hospitals have dedicated wards for serious orthopaedic injuries from boda bodas.

Boda bodas are a vital source of income for the youth in a country with very few employment opportunities. They are popular with users because they are convenient, fast, and cheap for transporting people and goods.

In March 2019, the ministries of Interior and Transport and Infrastructure gazetted a taskforce to develop recommendations on how to streamline the sector within 90 days. Strangely, after the incident this week, the same ministries yet again announced the formation of another Taskforce to investigate the same thing. Boda boda riders, who have become a significant player in public transportation in Kenya, have complained about being excluded in these taskforces, which is problematic because they are bona fide stakeholders in policymaking.

One wonders what the findings of the earlier taskforce were and why they were never implemented. Indeed, Kenya has a history of spending taxpayers' money to form taskforces whose reports are kept away to collect dust on shelves.

Nyanza police boss Karanja Muiruri inspects motorcycles seized at Kisumu CBD. March 9, 2022. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Since the incident and following intense pressure from citizens, leaders and women's groups, the president announced a crackdown on the industry that began with the arrest of 16 individuals accused of sexually assaulting the motorist. However, the ensuing crackdown also saw the indiscriminate arrest of motorcycle drivers regardless of traffic compliance. Since the colonial era, operations and crackdowns have been avenues for collective and punitive punishment, human rights violations, extortion, trumped-up charges and unlawful use of force.

In social science and criminology, experts favour regulation and policing meant to maintain order rather than those for fighting crime. Moreover, there is a marked difference between order-preserving initiatives and crime-fighting, which comes in after serious harm has already been done.

In this context, order maintaining would be more concerned about ensuring that roads are safe and serve their purpose of movement of people, goods and services. The enforcement of the safety aspect is achieved by regulating training, abiding by traffic rules and proper infrastructure and appropriate vehicles and gear. Unfortunately, the government allowed the boda boda industry to run amuck and infiltration by criminal elements. The unique features of motorcycles such as size, speed and manoeuvrability make them a perfect tool for criminal activity and flight.

Rwanda can be a model for Kenya because its boda bodas are fitted with GPS trackers for easy traceability, have dedicated stages, and are registered in saccos. Motorists and pedestrians too must abide by the law, and the police must uphold traffic rules without fear or favour.