For the last two weeks, matatu owners, their crew and passengers have had to contend with counter-reactionary rules imposed by the government through an overzealous Cabinet Secretary.
Interior CS Fred Matiang’i’s mission to supposedly rid the matatu industry of its social menace and lawlessness is set to fail miserably, as those edicts are a carry-over of the infamous ''Michuki Rules'', will not last and will not be followed by both crew and passengers.
In the several months to come, possibly about four months from now, I am willing to hedge my meagre saving that I will again be writing on this column, reminding all and sundry that Matiang’i's efforts were nothing but a knee-jerk reactionary venture, hacking back to an equally reactionary time of one Transport Minister, the late John Njoroge Michuki and they were bound to go nowhere.
Inexorably, the line ministry that is supposed to deal with the transport and infrastructure issues to matatus belong is all quiet. James Macharia, CS Transport and Infrastructure, has distinguished himself for being lacklustre for all the time he has worked for the government. The former NIC Bank boss left no imprints at the Ministry of Health, where scandals and strikes were the order of the day.
Instead of being sacked, he was transferred to the current docket even before the dual presidential elections of 2017. When President Uhuru Kenyatta named his partial cabinet secretaries in January, 2018, before returning all of them, Macharia was one of the first CSs to be named.
Why is the government suddenly concerned about the recklessness of the matatu industry? Because a night bus bound for Western Kenya, driven by a 72-year-old man, rolled somewhere past in Kericho County and killed about 55 people on October 10. Had the accident not happened, it is pretty obvious it would not have occurred to the government that the taming of the matatu madness was overdue.
For the 14 days, since November 12 that Matiang’i has breathed fire and brimstone and taunted the matatu to try him by failing to implement what he considers tough and corrective measures to streamline the rambunctious industry, I have been boarding matatus to various destinations in and out of Nairobi County to find out to what extent the threats have worked. I can report, matatus have had to abide by the rules.
And what are these rules? To have a first aid kit that contains three items: a packet of sedatives (in this case painkillers), a pair of scissors and a razor blade. They are also required to have a waste paper basket, erase the multi-coloured graffiti that adorn the inside of many a funky matatu, remove window tints, fit seats with seatbelts, fit vehicle with a speed governor and set aside one seat for the conductor.
But how many motor vehicle accidents have been caused by matatus in the last 10 months? What were the causes of the accidents? Was it the driver’s incompetence, negligence and recklessness, or even drunkenness or being high on weed? Was it because the gearbox was leaking? Or was it because there wasn’t a first aid kit, or the matatu had too many roof and side body graffiti?
The numerous matatu drivers and conductors I spoke with, told me they have been here before: nothing new, and nothing out of the ordinary. ''When Michuki become the Transport minister in (Mwai) Kibaki’s government, he wanted to show that he was the toughest minister. Well, he did, but for how long? In the long run we had the last laugh,'' said one driver on the Kwambira-Limuru route. ''The government is just harassing matatu because it’s the richest industry, with billions of shillings at stake, and therefore it is not interested in making the industry better, but squeezing money out of it, especially now that it’s so broke.''
The driver told me the government had reshuffled senior police officers around the country so that Matiang’i can have an easy time forcing the rules through.
At the road block erected by Kabete Police Station on Waiyaki Way, I saw a policeman being bribed by a Nissan matatu driver, who came out of his driver’s seat and went behind the vehicle. Dusk was setting in so the policeman presumed he would ''hide'' behind the setting sun. I asked the driver about what had transpired. ''Polisi ni wale wale'' (Police officers will always be police officers), meaning they will always be ready to receive and solicit bribes.
''The biggest problem in the matatu industry or indeed the transport industry are the police officers and their corruption networks that find their roots at Vigilance House (Police Headquarters), where the masterminds sit and control the corruption maze,'' said a police officer who is my friend. ''This is a game of musical chairs by the government to ostensibly shuffle police officers around stations in the hope that they will not be bribed or even solicit for bribes in the short run or in the fullness of time.''
''Is the government ready to firmly deal with and tear down these corruption networks at Vigilance House?'' posed my cop friend.
On Waiyaki Way, with my matatu conductor friend last week one early morning, he received a call. When he finished talking, he smiled sheepishly. His cop friend from Kikuyu Police Station had called him to warn him about an impending crackdown and a sting operation at the Kabete Police Station roadblock to be spearheaded by the Inspector General, Joseph Boinet, accompanied by the media. ''He was telling me not to carry excess passengers and to ask my passengers to belt up and.'' We both laughed loudly.
''How many roadblocks are there between Kabete Police Station and Mai Mahiu, for example? Majority of these buses and Nissan shuttles going to the countryside pass through these road blocks. The bus that killed the 55 people too passed through these road blocks – wasn’t there a single police officer who had the sense to stop the bus, interrogate the driver and inspect the bus? The traffic policeman’s work on the road is to receive and solicit for bribes, and if by bad luck the vehicle he has taken a bribe from causes an accident, the passengers are quickly blamed for boarding a defective bus, or matatu,'' my friend went on a rant.
Does, the government know of the existence of these ''toll stations'' scattered all over the country in the name of manning the roads, and which are used to extort Public Service Vehicles, leaving them to play dice with passengers lives? Yes. But it will never decisively deal with the issue of rogue police officers for reasons known to itself.
It is said that some of the funkiest matatus on routes going to Kikuyu, Kitengela, Limuru, Ongata Rongai, Ngong-Karen, are owned by senior police officers and officers in NIS (National Intelligence Service) and in the military. ''Their matatus are untouchable, they break and bend traffic rules with great impunity, but who would dare touch them?'' Asked my cop buddy rhetorically.
''The Langata police station officers watch as the Ongata Rongai bound matatus drive on the opposite side of the road on broad daylight. If you want to be transferred to Wajir County, to be recording crime reports in the OB (Occurrence Book) at the reception of a police station located in the bundus, joke with those matatus.''
The greatest problem posed by matatus is not that they have painted graffiti inside and outside of the vehicles, or that they are not carrying painkillers in the first aid kit, but counter-culture. And until and unless the government deals with this sub-culture, whose sub-text is impunity and lawlessness, the it should not pretend or lie to Kenyans that it is confronting the matatu menace.
Mr Kahura is a senior writer for 'The Elephant', a Nairobi-based publication. Twitter: @KahuraDauti