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Touchy traders: When markets are hard to crack for policy makers

Residents select second-hand clothes (Mitumba) at Kakamega's main market on July 5, 2021. [Benjmain Sakwa, Standard]

When Azimio Coalition presidential flag bearer Raila Odinga made a comment on mitumba when launching his manifesto last week, he may not have expected the subsequent backlash.

His casual comment that mitumba are clothes donated by the dead abroad spiraled into a heated discussion among fellow politicians, the public and stakeholders in the sector, who were out to school the former prime minister how the sector works.

It is not the first time a politician’s tongue has slipped on this twisted mitumba sector. Or any other sector with similar operations.

In fact, there are sectors in the country which politicians or policy makers in the government should probably keep out of their mouths - no matter how good the policies or ideas are.

An example is the public service transport sector, popularly known as matatu sector. The late fiery minister John Michuki was probably the only one who came close to inculcating government policy in the wayward sector. But soon, it has reverted to its normal operations. Matatu Owners Association Chairman Simon Kimutai blames the police for going to bed with the drivers and conductors.

“What is difficult in enforcing the law?” he posed. “The problem is the police see it as opportunity to collect revenue for themselves in exchange for an offence committed.” Even the Office of the President through the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) seems to be struggling to deal with matatus.

In May, NMS Director General Major General Mohammed Badi for the umpteenth time could not find a way to have the vehicles utilise the Sh200 million Green Park terminus whose construction space was hived from Uhuru Park.

His first attempt was December 2020, just three months in office. Just like former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko who abandoned the push to bar matatus from entering the central business district in December 2018, NMS is making little headway.

Mr Kimutai says no matatu operator has resisted. “It is a failure. They (Nairobi Metropolitan Services) have tried it three times, it has flopped,” he said.

So why are these industries a hard nut to crack? Is it that the government does not understand how these sectors work?

Ken Gichinga, chief economist at Mentoria Economics consultancy, says these sectors fall under political economics as they hold the livelihoods of so many people whose voice (politically) has significance on who takes office.

“Any attempt to reverse the economic fortune sometimes ends up with political backlash,” he says.

“They host so many people who obviously can make a political difference to political party or politician.”

Economic principles

The question then becomes: how do you balance economic principles within a sector that is politically charged?

Mr Gichinga says the best way to navigate it is primarily through consultation and allowing the sectors to regulate themselves. “Or allow those sectors to make the proposals from their part,” he says. “If you approach it in that perspective, there is an easier likelihood for you to partner with them.”

This piece of advice is what worked recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta directed all motorcycle (bodaboda) operators to be registered afresh as a step towards streamlining the sector.

This was after an episode where a woman was robbed, assaulted and almost stripped naked after she supposedly got into a traffic incident with a rider along Forest Road, Nairobi.

A crackdown ensued but was later suspended as the government opted to consult with the sector.

“This is to give room to the government to reorganise the sector through a multi-sectoral committee working on a framework of implementation,” read a statement from the National Police Service.

Bodaboda Safety Association of Kenya reports that the industry employs 1.2 million youth countrywide.

Mr Kimutai agrees with Mr Gichinga that whatever policy change the government wants to inject in a sector cannot bypass the stakeholders.

“The reason why stakeholders should be involved is that they understand their industry. And when you fail to involve them and you fail, you will want to blame them,” he says. Recently, the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) reopened its portal after locking horns with Kenya Driving School Association (KDSA) in an impasse that spilled to Parliament and the courts.

As such, driving school instructors could not renew their licences or submit new learners to NTSA for driving tests.

Business came to a standstill for months as the two bodies argued on the Traffic Driving School Instructor and Licence Rules 2020. “Is NTSA aware that all other Kenyans are suffering from not being able to access these services? They are Kenyans, they pay taxes, and in fact the government is losing a lot of revenue,” said the association’s chairman during a press conference.

Kenyan phenomenon

KDSA went to court, arguing that there was no public participation and the High Court agreed, leading to NTSA’s retaliation - arguing that it was obeying the court orders. The clashes between policy makers, the government and sectors are not only a Kenyan phenomenon.

A study titled The Politics Behind the Phasing Out of the 14-seater Matatu in Kenya authored by Ommeh Marilyn et al, documents similar conflicts in South Africa and Jamaica.

In South Africa, for instance, paratransit operators were against the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit systems because they felt they were not adequately consulted and that the livelihoods of many would be affected. “Operators opted to violently demonstrate against the reforms,” says the 2015 report.

It documents a similar case in Jamaica, where the government struggled to bring out a balance between private and public transport providers. “This was hindered by the lack of institutional capacity and political will, tied to the prevalence of poverty and deprivation throughout the city,” the report says.