Kenyan political temperatures are simmering and political heavyweights have once again turned their attention to the largely ignored masses.
At this hour, none of the hoi polloi is more popular with the elite seeking public office than boda boda riders
The campaign mood is back: The year 2022 is around the corner and those gunning for top seats are already trading barbs and courting public sympathies and support.
The Building Bridges Initiative Report (BBI) has created factions and proponents and opponents of the report are openly trying to worm their way into the hearts of boda boda riders, suddenly recognising the importance of the largely maligned sector.
Through the boda boda, they will reach the grassroots, or so they think.
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Boda boda riders may not have a reputation in a country where crime is commonly perpetrated by people riding on rickety motorcycles, but even the untrained can see politicians’ newfound romance with the legion of transporters.
Boda bodas have their influence among the electorate, and in a big way.
“Politicians know we have sway. We can influence people at home to vote for or against them.
“That’s why before elections, we are not chased out of the Central Business District (CBD),” Samuel Saidi, a boda boda rider in Nairobi’s CBD, says.
Common fights between authorities and boda boda riders over the latter’s access to the CBD have in the past seen tens of motorcycles impounded.
It goes without saying that boda boda riders would pass any message to the public faster than anyone else, especially in rural areas.
The growing dalliance of politicians with the boda boda riders could be associated with the latter’s high numbers, which keeps increasing by the day.
Official records show that in July 2020 alone, 146,757 motorcycles were imported. This was almost double the 86, 286 that were imported in the same month in 2019.
In a day, the country imports 660 motorcycles.
The National Boda boda Association reported that 22 million trips are made daily — 15 rides per boda boda. They consume Sh157 billion in fuel a year.
The association has also created the Combined Investment Scheme where members will contribute Sh50 a day, translating to about Sh25.5 billion in member contributions per year.
With their numbers rising, and monetary contributions making boda boda riders a force, they are bound to have a lot of clout.
Michael Kimani, who chairs the United Boda boda Welfare Association, says the networks boda boda riders create make politicians get attracted to them.
“They will pass the politicians’ agenda at such a high speed. For any leader, it is wise to incorporate them in his affairs,” he says.
His association has 800,000 registered members out of a total of 1.4 million riders in the country. Almost 75 per cent of the riders are youth, with 6 per cent being female riders.
“Some of the others belong to other associations that have come up recently,” he says. United Boda Boda Welfare Association was launched in 2012.
Simon Mudavadi, who ferries passengers across Nairobi, gives credence to Kimani’s assertion that the reach of boda bodas makes them perfect tools for the spread of a political agenda.
“We are on the ground; we take the message across mashinani (grassroots) easily,” Mudavadi says.
With ballooning unemployment, the easiest route to survival for most youth has been the boda boda industry. Consequently, feeding on their desperation, some politicians use handouts to bait this struggling group.
“It is not love — they are just using and dumping us. Nothing more,” says Denis Momanyi.
“They know we are and jobless and we fight for their handouts.”
Even though politicians would steer away from boda boda riders on a normal day, during elections they are forced to ignore the uncouth behaviour some of them are known for.
In December 2017. in Homa Bay, an Otange Bus was set on fire by irate boda boda riders on claims that it had been involved in an accident that injured their colleagues.
Some passengers lost their luggage in the fire.
Boda boda accidents have also grown over the years with hospital wards in some counties dedicated to boda boda victims.
Boda bodas have also been widely associated with theft and murder.
In its 2019 report, the National Crime Research Centre noted that boda boda riders accounted for 52.9 per cent of robbery with violence across the country.
The report also said that boda boda riders accounted for 38 per cent of murders.
It further indicated that 26.2 per cent of the operators were involved in kidnappings and abductions and 76.7 per cent in theft.
Between January 2018 and March 2019, approximately 4,190 motorcycles were impounded when their riders flouted traffic regulations in the city. Cumulatively, the riders arrested had to part with Sh12.7 million in storage fees and court fines.
According to the National Crime Research Centre (NCRC), the most prevalent boda boda-related crimes are causing death by dangerous riding at 79.5 per cent, general theft at 76.7 per cent, breaching of public order and creating disturbance at 66.2 per cent, assault at 57 per cent, and robbery with violence at 52.9 per cent.
Riding under the influence of alcohol accounted for 52.7 per cent, usage of drugs 49.5 per cent, handling and trafficking of dangerous drugs 42.1 per cent, kidnapping and abduction 26.2 per cent, bribery 23.1 per cent, defilement 17.8 per cent and rape 17.2 per cent.
Some 1,075 people died in the first eight months of 2020 in motorcycle accidents.
Kimani says that the association has crafted a Boda boda Integrated Management Systems where it can get details of every rider, thereby managing the business in a sane manner.
ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru has said that boda bodas are a part of the government agenda. “Boda boda riders are the first cohorts of youth we are working with to transform the country,” Mucheru said in a past interview.
According to the 2019 Census, approximately 9 per cent of Kenyan households own a motorcycle with 10.8 per cent being in urban areas while 6.7 per cent are in rural areas.