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When the wheels came off powerful matatu societies

Traffic police officers stop a matatu drive in the 1980s. [File, Standard]

The chaotic journey that started in 1970s screeched to a halt after an 18-year-old reign. The tires of the matatu associations were punctured by Attorney General Mathew Guy Muli whose mighty pen did the unthinkable.

In one clean whorl, Muli’s mighty pen on December 6, 1988, sealed the fate of Kenya Country Bus Owners Association, Matatu Association of Kenya and Matatu Vehicle Owners Association.

Consequently, Muli closed down operations of the three public service associations, and placed them under receivership. He directed the Official Receiver of the Republic of Kenya to be the receiver of the bus and matatu associations.

The government consequently took over all the societies' moveable and immovable assets and unwittingly opened a new chapter in Kenya’s transport sector, which saw mutation of the organisations in public transport.

Since the 1950s, the government had always had a loathing for the informal transport sector birthed by the State’s segregation policy and failure to organise public transport for Africans while the settlers’ needs were catered for by train and bus companies.

Attorney General Mathew Guy Muli. [File, Standard]

Initially, in 1930s, Nairobi had only 50,000 residents and the railway catered for their transport needs. But by February 1934 the London-based Overseas Motor Transport Company started its operations in Nairobi with 13 buses plying 12 routes. Later in 1950, Kenya Bus Services (KBS) which was partially owned by the city council, came into being.

Then came matatus, so-called because they were charging 30 cents or 'mang'otore matatu', which were operating illegally. They got a new lease of life when President Jomo Kenyatta issued a presidential decree in 1973 that allowed matatus to carry passengers without a Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licence. This caused an explosion of matatus in Nairobi, shooting from 375 in 1973 to 1,567 in 1979.

Buoyed by this, the operators organised themselves and formed the Matatu Vehicle Owners Association (MVOA). This culminated in the amendment of the Traffic Act in 1982 that recognised this new creature.

For the next few years, MVOA and other associations operated in bliss although their power became apparent when political protests became a norm in 1980s, paralysing public transport whenever they called a strike.

Not even the introduction of Nyayo Bus Service as a government parastatal in 1986 could break the stranglehold the matatatu associations had on public transport.

It is against this background that Muli deregistered the giant organisations in an attempt to tame them because they had become too powerful for the government’s liking.

The scrapping of the centralised organisations saw the emergence of smaller but equally chaotic route-based organisations that operate like cartels as they demand 'entrance fee' from new players and limit the number of operators on certain routes. And now the boda bodas have joined the melee. Insanity is guaranteed.