End of the road for matatu gangs in new crackdown

Thursday October 18 2018

Matatu

Matatu operators from Mikindani, Mombasa, on September 19, 2018 protest over the relocation of a bus stop. The transport sector is run by criminal gangs which extort money from matatu owners and call the shots in nearly every aspect of the business. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JOHN KAMAU
By JOHN KAMAU
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For the majority of Kenyans who use matatus, the next few weeks will be difficult: There will be transport disruptions and delays. But at the end of the storm, in the government’s view, the roads will be safer for travellers and the transport sector attractive to investors.

The mother of all crackdowns is being planned which, according to the Interior ministry, will sweep rogue matatus off the roads — permanently — and, with them, the criminal gangs which prey on the sector together with the crooked police officers and politicians who run those gangs.

TWO WEEKS

The transport sector is run by criminal gangs which extort money from matatu owners and call the shots in nearly every aspect of the business. What the Interior ministry is promising is “a painful and sustained” operation, to be launched within two weeks, which will clean out the multibillion-shilling cartel network and open up the sector to ordinary investors who would otherwise not go near it.

The operation could herald the return of an organised transport system in Nairobi, similar to one run by the Kenya Bus Service in the 1970s and 1980s — before it was commercially pushed out by the matatus. Many investors shy away from putting their money into an industry under the control of vicious gangs.

MUNGIKI-LIKE

Also targeted by a multi-agency team, set to be unveiled by next week, are rogue police officers and stage cartels who make a living by collecting bribes and protection fees — and who have turned the multibillion-shilling transport sector into a playground of scoundrels, who include Mungiki-like outfits — and the lifeline of extortionists.

For the better part of yesterday, senior government officials held final meetings at the National Transport and Safety Authority offices putting the last nuts and bolts on the operation that has brought in the National Intelligence Service (NIS), to help them with the intelligence on the cartel networks that make millions of shillings a day through the mayhem and suffering of passengers and vehicle owners.

RUTHLESS &PAINFULL

“It will be a ruthless, painful and sustained exercise until we see the return of order in the sector,” Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho told the Nation Wednesday evening. “This time, it will be meticulous.”

Sources said among senior officials who attended the planning meetings were Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i (Interior), Transport CS James Macharia, Dr Kibicho, Transport PS Esther Koimet and Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has already authorised the operation that will see the removal of rogue matatus and buses from the roads, prosecution of wayward police officers and the vetting of all public service vehicle drivers and touts.

LASTING SOLUTION

At best, sources at the heart of the operations say, it will see the enforcement of Michuki Rules and an overhaul of the public transport sector to make it governable — and profitable.

Last weekend, Dr Matiang’i promised to bring sanity to the roads and find a “lasting solution” to road carnage.

Matatus in major towns are currently controlled by unruly gangs, and criminal elements who masquerade as route controllers and who demand cash from matatu crews depending on the number of trips each vehicle makes in a day. All this happens in the full glare of traffic and regular police who turn a blind eye on matatus and buses flouting traffic rules — in a network of sleaze and palm greasing that goes up the echelons of the police service.

CRIMINAL GANGS

Cleaning out the thugs who have made matatus a law unto themselves will not be easy; the cartels are deeply embedded in the police, the criminal underworld and, in some cases, politics.

“The entire industry has been taken over by gangs and we have nobody to help us,” Mr Simon Kimutai, the Matatu Owners Association chairman, said Wednesday evening.

Matatu owners have, over the years, said they are forced to pay bribes to both the cartels and the police in order to stay in business. “Every day, a matatu parts with about Sh1,000 as a bribe. We have 80,000 matatus operating on the roads on a single day, meaning they pay upwards of Sh8 million to sustain the gangs,” said Mr Kimutai.

200,000 PSVs

At the moment, Kenya has more than 200,000 registered public service vehicles with Nairobi alone having slightly above 20,000 such vehicles run through a myriad of limited companies and Saccos — an experiment that failed to bring sanity to the industry since its introduction in 2013 when new rules locked out individual PSV owners.

The matatus, according to some insiders, pay an estimated Sh50 billion a year as bribes to stay on the roads. It is this loot that has turned most police officers into millionaires, despite their meagre earnings.

“The gangs are so vicious that they recently killed the owner of a bus in Kayole Estate (Nairobi) after he resisted paying protection fee. In Nairobi, the Country Bus Station is now in the hands of cartels and the bus owners and companies have no say on their investments,” said Mr Kimutai. “The gangs are allowed to operate in the guise of giving jobs to the youth.”

NEW POLICY

While the new policy measures will be unveiled soon, the transport sector will be given up to November 1, 2018 to comply with all traffic rules, which include the requiring seat belts in all buses and matatus, the reintroduction of speed governors and resumption of uniforms for drivers and touts in order to kick the gangs out of bus stops.

The government will also target all body builders who fail to comply with the new vehicle body structure. This year, a senior NTSA official was quoted as saying that only 322 matatus on Kenyan roads had complied with the body structure standard — which will now be enforced.

ROGUE POLICE

While the matatu industry ought to be lucrative, it is estimated to lose Sh50 billion a year to the organised criminal gangs, rogue traffic police officers, county askaris and touts.

Of concern to the country is the recent spike in road accidents. Yesterday, some of the victims of a bus accident in Fort Ternan were buried after a service in Kakamega. Experts say that traffic safety is turning to be a serious problem in the country with an estimated 13,000 traffic accidents annually and more than 2,600 fatalities.