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Matatu owners the biggest obstacle to orderly transport

By Joe Ombuor | November 17th 2018

Fixing public transport requires more thought, courage and visionary leadership. The so-called saccos are running a failed system.

They must be scrapped and a cartel-proof innovative replacement found. The late Transport minister John Michuki, though hailed for sanitising the sector during his time, actually excercebated this mess by allowing a private transport operator to compete with an ailing Kenya Bus Service (KBS) rather than help it recover. That ushered in an imbroglio, particularly in Nairobi.

His so-called Michuki rules anchored on seat belts and speed governors were akin to treating symptoms of the public transport disease. Remember the walking nation where Kenyans fell off the roofs of trains? It was a pack of misery. Those rushed rules cannot yield any useful dividends in a city where suffering has only increased for commuters since their recent re-introduction. Fares have soared. Travelling space has shrunk.

What Kenyans need is adequate, efficient, readily available and affordable public transport, not strapping themselves on seats in moving junks whose owners are preoccupied with profit. All we need is political will and determination. And that is only possible when the government steps into the sector currently in the grip of private hands and stops being a spectator awakened only by ghastly accidents.

The ongoing operation is knee-jerk, poorly executed and of no useful purpose. Reason? Matatu operators are busy recovering expenses incurred on accessories. While logic underpins the fastening of seat belts for long distance travel, the same cannot be said of crowded urban commuter service involving the movement of masses at short intervals. There were no seat belts for Kenya Bus and passengers were carried standing, yet accidents were rare. What ails public transport is abandoning this crucial sector to private individuals, including police officers entrusted with enforcing the rules. They cannot punish their own crew and the impunity so engendered spills to other operators. This, coupled with endemic corruption, has mutated into something akin to stage four cancer. Hence the private operators can threaten strikes or pull vehicles from the roads at will.

Get serious

Road safety calls for a well-thought-out strategy that has proved impossible with powerful private operators, who arm-twist the government to do their bidding, and greedy traffic police officers obsessed with filling their stomachs on bribes as little as Sh50.

So powerful are the private commuter operators and the cartels around them that the noble idea in 2009 of introducing smart shuttle buses to ease Nairobi’s traffic congestion blew up in the wind, leaving then Nairobi Metropolitan Minister Robinson Njeru Githae, bamboozled. Some buses designed to use cards actually arrived, but never operated on assigned routes.

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Githae said the buses would have a timetable of operation and keep scheduled times. It was never to be, thanks to matatu operators’ hostility that left Githae with no option but to swallow his words.

Recently, we heard of an ambitious Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) consequent of which separate lanes on Thika Road were painted in anticipation. The modern buses that would have pushed matatus outside the Central Business District (CBD) remain a phantom to this day. Again, it was victory for matatus and the cartels that operate them. Not so long ago, an announcement from the Office of the President had it that Nairobi would have a tram system to connect major city roads to the city centre. It turned out to be hot air.

Governor Mike Sonko has countless times announced that matatu stages would be relocated from the CBD, only to be overpowered and forced to eat his words as ugly ramshackle contraptions prevail.

Meanwhile, Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam are coming from behind and overtaking Nairobi with organised public transport, and Kampala is following suit. Kenya must get serious with this sector, or continue lagging behind.

- Joe Ombuor is a senior writer with The Standard.  [email protected]


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