After sugar, transport is Ruto's next big test

President William Ruto. [File, Standard]

Few days ago, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua recited a tired chorus that reawakened debate around Kenya’s wanting road safety record.

The DP held that the State would deal with traffic offenders no matter their status. He, in another of his bare populist mantras, ordered the police to ‘respect’ boda boda riders.

He also spoke on alcoholism – his pet subject – and how it was a rumbling threat to the boda boda sector, saying many operators had joined gangs ‘whose leaders are Azimio sympathisers.’

While we may laugh off Mr Gachagua’s remarks in Nyandarua, truth is the public transport sector rot is nerve-racking. Boda boda chaos is a sheer fraction. But as it were, those with powers to reform it, including the DP, won’t do it. Aesop’s fables would ask: Who will bell the cat?

Pervasive regulatory failure has frustrated transport reforms to a point of no return. When an important sector is handled badly, things go south. The tough roadside populist talk that our leaders love is inconsequential. What we need is brashness to name, shame and flush out the so-called cartels defiling this key sector.

Time after time, road impunity goes unpunished. We’ve multifaceted problems that can’t be solved due to vested interests – now that big-time matatu investors are politicians, powerful magnates, moneyed chains, and senior service men and women.

This is why despite having progressive laws, a well-funded National Transportation and Safety Authority (NTSA), the police and a functional judicial system, the government seems helpless or at peace with a transport industry on its knees, like those in failed states.

From faulty vehicles, speed limit violations, inspection gaps, reckless crews, corrupt enforcers, bogus driver competence testing and name it, the mess is enough to make those in-charge resign out of shame. Unfortunately for us, taking responsibility for failure is an alien subject. A driver testing requirement introduced by Transport CS Kipchumba Murkomen is the new cash cow. Drivers have to offer hush money to pass the test. And traffic police have daily collection targets and will imbibe bribes at a scale that reduces our roads to death traps. Last year, we had a disquieting accident casualty figure of 21,757.

Substance abuse and aggressive behaviour, including carrying of lethal weapons by drivers and conductors have been reported, what with their meager pay and lengthy working hours that push many to odd ways of relieving stress. There’s unruly culture like burning of vehicles by boda boda riders but authorities look the other way.

Now that President William Ruto has rattled the sugar industry, he must be reminded that the public transport sector is huffing and puffing. After withdrawing NTSA from Interior to the State Department of Transport, he should painstakingly champion a results-oriented approach devoid of politicization of investigations and ‘go to heaven’ threats.

It’s that simple. Enforce the law without fear or favour, modernise and diversify public transportation. The Nairobi commuter rail service development is timely start. More financial and tax incentives can help PSV owners navigate the business.  Introduce a stringent code of conduct primed to set behavioural standards for PSVs saccos, owners and crew. Instead of money-thirsty officers, we require a rapid response team to crack down on rogues. Last year alone saw 35,897 PSV licenses issued. The more the industry swells, the more it’s crying out loud for leadership.

Knowledge of learning from failure is incontrovertible. We must answer hard questions. On top of the Traffic Act, the highway code and all their tenets, there’s the National Road Safety Action Plan. Have they supported our road safety goals? Why is the positive trajectory John Michuki set lost?

It isn’t about the State alone. The public should know where to put themselves for willing to give bribes and compromise safety. The current anything-goes attitude must end. We don’t need cartels any longer.

-The writer is a communications practitioner. Twitter: @markoloo