The use of matatus and buses on Kenyan Roads has been a thorn in the side for Government Authorities, particularly the National Transport and Safety Authority, The National Police Service and the passengers. As a result of this, the Late Minister for Security Hon. John Michuki tried to set up the rules and regulations to control the use of matatus in Kenya. Sadly, these regulations were only observed for a short period of time.
One day I boarded a matatu to go to pick up my child from school at Ng’iya Girls High School in Siaya County. It is my policy not to board an overloaded Matatu and I don’t sit on Sambasa, a wooden bench which is used by conductors to offer additional sitting space in matatus. While traveling that day, an elderly woman wanted to board the same matatu which was already at capacity. The conductor requested me to leave my seat for the elderly woman and sit on the Sambasa and I said no.
Learning from Uganda
I reminded the Conductor that Hon. Michuki, the then Minister of Internal Security, sent a team to study how the Uganda Government managed the use of matatus, as they appeared to have a better handle on it than we did in Kenya. In Uganda, the vehicles carry 14 Passengers, there is no Conductor (Manamba). When the team came back they rolled out the same system in Kenya without accounting for the space taken up by the conductor in Kenyan Chapter. Essentially, the Kenyan matatus would then carry 13 and not 14 passengers.
The system also introduced the use of speed governors and compulsory use of seat belts. Despite being one-passenger down from their Ugandan counterparts, this system worked for some time with strict implementation by the traffic police. Hon. Muchuki was moved from his post in the transport sector, and later passed on. As if often the case in Kenya, the system crumbled when the initiator was no longer in the driver’s seat, pun intended.
The old haphazard overcrowding returned in matatus. The police opted to take bribes instead of instilling discipline. If a matatu was caught overcrowded or with passengers without seat belts, they’d just drop a fifty shilling note on the ground and move on. Some even paid in advance and when approaching a roadblock, would flush their hazards and be let through by the police.
During this journey to Ngi’ya girls, when I complained about the overcrowded matatu, the conductor told me to buy my own car. He justified himself by explaining they were in a business, and he had to pay back the loan they had taken out to buy the matatu. As fate would have it, we happened upon a roadblock. When I tried to report this case to the policeman, I saw the conductor press money into the policeman’s hand.
The policeman, now bought by the conductor, asked me to alight from the matatu. I refused and dared him to arrest me if I’d broken any laws. Eventually, they left me alone.
From my observations, I surmise, many matatus are either owned by policemen or work in collaboration with policemen. Because of this, they do not bother to adhere to the traffic rules given by The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), because they know how to jump through those hoops.
Corruption in the Matatu Industry
The corruption in the matatu industry is built from system that tasks those at the bottom to turn around a profit under very strenuous circumstances. Matatu owners buy the vehicles on loan and hand them over to drivers. They then demand a certain amount of money each other in order to service their loans. The drivers end up getting paid almost nothing after this pre-determined amount is removed from the daily revenue. Sometimes the daily collections are not even enough to satisfy the owners.
In order to meet the quarter and make a living, the drivers become reckless, trying to make as many trips as possible in a day to pay their masters and still keep something in their pockets. On top of this, they are also expected to foot the fuel costs, make minor repairs and if arrested, pay fines to the authorities.
It is no wonder they break all the rules. The fact is, all this is difficult to prove and even though the National Transport and Safety Authority has mounted crackdowns that have led to arrests, they have not been able to find sustainable measures to get the industry in check.
Eight Ways to Control the Matatu Menace
I am no authority on the public transport industry, but I have used it for a long time. Taking my various experiences, particularly the episode with the conductor and the police traffic officer into account, I would table the following steps as measures to curb the dysfunctional and sometimes hazardous nature of the matatu industry.
1. Place NTSA Officials at the Bus Stations to ensure that the matatus and buses leave the stations with the correct number of passengers.
2. Stop the use of conductors and let drivers manage the vehicles, as they do in Uganda. Some country buses are practising this method. This means the passengers would be responsible for adhering to laws like maximum seating capacity on the matatus.
3. Make all matatus put a board in the vehicles which shows the list of destinations and the correct fare to each to give uniformity and avoid passengers getting conned. This method works very well in Uganda and Rwanda.
4. Place police officers in civilian dress along the road to randomly check the passenger capacity and offload excess passengers if this capacity is breached.
5. Have secret passengers in matatus whose job is to study how they function and report back to the authorities on loopholes and suggested methods of improvement.
6.Give the traffic police the authority to stop any matatu breaking the rules and impound their Licence.
7. Provide an anonymous helpline for passengers to report vehicles that flaunt the regulations.
8. Allow the NTSA to check all Registrations of Matatus on the road with the Vehicle Registration Department and investigate the practices of all matatus and buses allegedly owned by police officers.
Some of these suggestions may sound farfetched, but as Hon. Muchuki showed us, public transport can be streamlined with a combined interest and effort from citizens, passengers, the authorities and political goodwill from all the stakeholders.
The wayward nature of this industry is not just inconveniencing, it has cost lives that need not have been lost. We need to turn this around.