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Nairobi’s nightmare not crazy matatus but residents on foot

Thursday December 6 2018

public service vehicles

Kenyans walk to Nairobi central business district (CBD) on December 3, 2018 following an order by Mike Sonko restricting public service vehicles from accessing the CBD. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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When morning came on Monday, it was supposed to be the worst day for the Kenyan matatu industry, as the ban on them getting anywhere near the Nairobi central business district imposed by Governor Mike Sonko went into effect.

The chaos was expected, and as the drama unfolded, Sonko could even afford to joke that the ban offered good exercise for unfit Nairobians. By lunch time, it had turned into a world-class disaster — and the biggest public relations coup for matatus.

Hundreds of thousands of commuters flooded the roads, overwhelming flyovers and some streets like locusts.

We know that there are nearly four million people in Nairobi and its environs, but we would never have figured out how what they looked like on foot until Monday.

The resulting mass of humanity created, perhaps, the most memorable photographs of urban Kenya in 30 years — thousands of people who were too many for footbridges, which looked close to collapsing and killing record numbers from the sheer weight.



Even if you are very clever, I am sure you didn’t envisage that you would have a “traffic” jam waiting to get on a footbridge that would be longer than the ones made by cars on the streets.

Nairobi’s bigger nightmare, it turns out, is not its ungovernable matatus; it’s the city residents on foot. The capital is not just built to handle them.

And the matatus have now been revealed to be something more than vehicles driven my mad men — they are Nairobi’s most efficient distribution mechanism of its working population.

I suspect that, this week, many students of urbanisation in Kenya settled on the subject of their master’s theses. But, especially, I think Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich didn’t sleep on Monday night.

He must have been on his calculator, working out how much the matatu industry pays in taxes and figuring that, if they remitted his cut from just a fraction of the multitudes he saw walking that day, then all this talk of Kenya being heavily indebted would disappear in the mountain of surplus that he would have.


By Tuesday, Sonko had thrown in the towel and ended the matatu ban, but Rotich and the students of urbanisation were wiser.

The revelations we saw on Monday come along only once in a lifetime. However, the view we have of matatus also illustrated how often popular knowledge and accepted wisdom can be woefully wrong and hard to argue against until they are busted dramatically by events.

I will take a famous (or is it infamous) example from my own country, Uganda. Like it was, and still is, the case in Kenya and other parts of East Africa, there is a widely held view that Asians dominate the economy and are very wealthy.

In Uganda, this anti-Asian sentiment blew up in August 1972, when dictator Field Marshal Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s South Asian community numbering about 80,000, giving them 90 days to leave.


I use “South Asian” deliberately. In the imagination of many Ugandans, they were all “Indians”. They were not.

Only between 4,000-4,500 went back to India — less than the 6,000 who ended up as refugees in Kenya. About 27,000 were British citizens. Another 23,000 were Ugandans.

Amin spent many weeks afterwards going from town to town, walking the streets and allocating the expropriated Asian businesses and properties — nearly 6,000 of them — to his friends, supporters and military officers.

To do that, he had to ignore some inconvenient signs that had come up outside most of the properties. As the Asians left, bank signs mushroomed outside the properties and their houses in the leafy suburbs that Amin and his cohorts coveted.

There was much confusion, because this was supposed to be “Asian property”. How come now that Bank of Baroda, Grindlays Bank, Barclays Bank and others were claiming to be the owners, the junta entourage and many others in the country asked.


Because, the businesses had taken loans, and many of the beautiful houses were built or bought with mortgages. In the end, it was too late to save the economy.

But perhaps the most eye-opening development from the Amin expropriation of the Asians was an understanding of what leftists dubbed the working of “finance capital”.

In there was the seed of the destruction of the Amin regime. His government immediately went into a wider conflict with global finance, because, ultimately, he had seized assets from the big banks.

If Amin had understood how global capital really worked, he might not have kicked out the Asians. If Governor Sonko knew how exactly matatus played into the wider economy, he might have chosen a different path.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer Roguechiefs .com. [email protected]