By PATRICK MATHANGANI
True to tradition, the Narc Government's plans to restore order on the roads have sparked off anger and controversy among matatu operators and their crews. Renewed efforts to streamline public transport appear to be fuelling the bitter rivalry between the notorious matatu cartels who see in it a plan to drive them out of business, investigations by the SundayNation have revealed.
Already, matatu owners are opposed to new recommendations to restore sanity on Nairobi's roads, casting doubts on the future of another committee on transport policy appointed by Transport and Communications minister John Michuki.
The committee is currently collecting views from the public and is yet to table its recommendations.
Surprisingly, the far-reaching proposals made by a task force appointed by Nairobi Provincial Commissioner Francis Sigei had been reached with the participation of the Matatu Welfare Association).
Rivalry between the various matatu cartels has been the source of the disagreements now threatening to bring the task force's work to nought.
Cut-throat competition for lucrative routes and supremacy over bus terminuses have overshadowed talks with the Government, which were aimed at restoring order and kicking out rowdy touts.
Sources within the Nairobi PC's office say that a new group known as the Matatu Owners Association (MOA) complained that it had been excluded from the task force formed in March.
The Task Force on Public Service Vehicles was headed by long-serving former District Commissioner and now the personal assistant to the Nairobi PC, Mr Obondo Kajumbi. Mr Dickson Mbugua, the chairman of the Matatu Welfare Association, represented the operators at the meeting.
The team was in a dilemma, too, because by choosing to do business with any of the matatu groups, it could be seen to be legitimising a cartel. Despite intense lobbying by the MOA for representation, the task force chose to work with the Mbugua group, raising ill feelings against their rivals.
Mr Kajumbi confirms that the Mr Simon Kimutai group asked for representation but was turned down.
"We told them we felt that matatu business people were well represented. They should not complain because they gave us a memorandum which we have put into consideration," he says.
Some of the recommendations put across for approval across the country, are the control of matatu fares, and the removal of touts on terminuses. Mr Kimutai was among the first people to raise objection when the task force met operators and members of the public at Charter Hall.
The meeting had been called by Mr Sigei to discuss the recommendations and suggest how they could be implemented. Instead, the rival groups' supporters turned out in full force and engaged in a shouting match. But despite the behind-the-scenes battle for supremacy, the Narc Government seems determined to succeed where its predecessor, Kanu, failed.
Acting Traffic Commandant Daniel Kebenei says a countrywide crackdown against touts is on. A major campaign to expose those using fake driving licences, and insurance certificates, is on. The traffic police will also clamp down on speeding and failure to observe simple traffic rules such as the mandatory use of safety belts.
The department is promoting dialogue with genuine matatu owners to weed out cartels, he says. Many road accidents involving matatus, Mr Kebenei says, have been caused by drivers who had not gone through the proper vetting system before obtaining licences.
Police are also investigating allegations that a company operating on Nairobi's Kirinyaga Road and at Eastleigh estate has been printing fake insurance certificates and driving licences.
"It is only a matter of time before we catch up with them. There is no reason why Kenyans should be held at ransom by rowdy youths," he warns.
But he admits that for a long time, traffic rules had been broken without police taking decisive action. The rule on the use of safety belts, for instance, which is stipulated in the Traffic Act, has never been enforced.
The need to enforce traffic rules has been fuelled by the increasing incidence of traffic road accidents. Public Service Vehicles manufactured after 1987, are fitted with safety belts, but both the driver and front-seat passengers rarely use them.
A total of 237 people had been killed in road accidents by the end of last month. Central Province topped the list with 118 deaths, followed by Nairobi and Eastern provinces, with 36 and 29 deaths, respectively.
The public is sceptical though, arguing that order could not be achieved without curbing corruption among the traffic police.
The department is the most "lucrative," and deployment to man the roads is often characterised by intense lobbying, according to sources.
Police cannot carry out routine patrols because they lack the means. The force reportedly has less than five speed guns to check speeding in the whole country, has no breatherlysers, and is short of motor vehicles and motorbikes.
Worst of all, there not enough officers to man the roads, especially during the peak hours.
Mr Kebenei, who will not disclose how many officers have been apprehended for taking bribes from motorists, says the force has initiated reforms aimed at weeding out the corrupt ones. The reforms are being spearheaded by the Police Commissioner, Mr Edwin Nyaseda.
The traffic police chief laments that offenders taken to court are released after paying non-deterrent fines.
It is also hoped that the new improved terms of service will dissuade the police from taking bribes.
However, there have been well-meaning suggestions and programmes in the past, which have flopped miserably. They include the demand that PSVs be fitted with speed governors, the formation of Transport Licensing Boards, the directive that all matatus have only one colour, and the manning of terminuses by local authorities' workers.
Though intended the streamline matatu operations, the proposals, have been abandoned due to resistance by matatu owners seen to work as well-organised cartels. Some have remained mere declarations which have not been entrenched in law.
Government directives such as the May ban on touting by Transport Minister Michuki, are broken with impunity.
Towns are teeming with touts after police failed to sustain an initial crackdown following the minister's order.
This is despite the industry losing millions of shillings daily, which are paid to the touts without offering any services.
The operators are notorious for holding travellers to ransom by withdrawing vehicles from routes every time the Government makes a move to control them.
A case in point is the banning of cartels by the Eastern Provincial Commissioner, Mr John Nandasaba, on Madaraka Day, which saw operators withdraw vehicles in protest.
Commutters in Embu and Meru South were stranded for a week after rowdy touts erected roadblocks on the Meru-Nairobi highway.
In Nairobi, the task force is recommending the banning of matatus from the city centre and relocation of up-country matatus to Ruaraka market. Businesses, especially those on Tom Mboya Street are reportedly losing heavily as customers flee to avoid matatus, touts and their numerous passengers.
Those most affected are located next to the Ambassaduer Hotel and KenCom House.
But rival matatu group boss Kimutai is opposing the recommendations, saying the Government is forcing reforms on the sub-sector without consulting the owners. He has also rejected the relocation of terminuses to the city's outskirts.
"This will mean commuters paying twice to get to their destinations," he says.
In the latest efforts, the transport policy committee appointed by Mr Michuki is currently going around the country collecting views from the public.
It has several sub-committees, each dealing with a specific mode of transport, including road, sea, rail and air. It does not take a cynic to see that its work, like that of the Nairobi task force, will be rubbished by the matatu owners.
Matatu welfare association boss Mbugua denies that his is a cartel, insisting that it wants to work closely with the Government.
"Many of the matatu owners are humble Kenyans who want to make an honest living. But there are a few tycoons and influential people who have frightened them into paying large sums of money to be allowed to operate on certain routes," he says.
They can be removed through the participation of the anti-graft police unit and council officials across the country, he argues.
His organisation, he says, had noted determination by the Government to restore order in the sector. If the matatu system has worked in Uganda, there is no reason why it should not succeed in Kenya, he says.
However, Mr Mbugua has also strongly objected to plans by the Government to fit PSVs with speed governors, saying they have never been proved to reduce accidents.
Sources said the association is also divided over the new plans. "We are not supporting those recommendations. Mr Mbugua was outvoted," one official says.
If Mr Mbugua's claims that his association has 40 branches countrywide are true, it could use its clout to compel members to submit to the law.
On his part, PC Sigei warns that the Government will have to use force if matatu owners fail to listen.
"We are saying a time has come when Kenyans should get better than what they are getting. They are not a special breed that should flout laws at will," he says.
But he is also urging the operators to take up the Government's offer for dialogue.