Stephen Maina, Michael Githae and Davies Ochieng’ all have two things in common. First, they are in the taxi business. Second, they are all suspected of murder.
Davies Ochieng’ is the cab driver who picked up Mildred Odira, a Foresight Company employee, from her Kariobangi South home at dawn on January 29. He was to take the ailing Odira to Uhai Neema Hospital.
What happened from the moment she stepped into the car are obscure, but her lifeless body would be found abandoned near Allsops on Thika Road.
The role of Michael Githae, who owns a car-hire company, in disposing of Mary Wambui’s body is one of the trails being followed by detectives investigating the killing. Wambui was murdered at the apartment of her husband’s secret lover Judy Wangui at Fourways Junction Estate on Kiambu Road.
On the night of January 26, Githae, in a confession to police, claims he, accompanied by Wangui, transported the body of Wambui in his car to Mugutha, where they dumped it at a dam. The duo later drove to Gitambaya, where they discarded the murder weapons in a thicket.
In an insidious plot that lasted more than six hours and covered more than 85 kilometres of road, the nocturnal pair would then proceed to Githunguri before heading to Kwa Maiko, in the heart of Kiambu County, where they abandoned the victim’s car.
Meanwhile, Stephen Maina has been in police custody for more than a week now after a Makadara Court granted investigators 14 days to gather evidence. Maina and six others are being investigated for their role in the mysterious death of Dandora-based human rights activist Caroline Mwatha.
While a post-mortem report last week showed Mwatha bled to death after a botched abortion, detectives are investigating possible foul play and Maina is one of the prime suspects.
The unresolved murder of lawyer Willie Kimani, his client and a taxi driver, whose bodies were found floating in River Athi at the Ol Donyo Sabuk bridge, 30 kilometres east of Thika, in July 2016, has become the yardstick of intriguing storylines of a taxi ride turned tragic.
Cab usage has soared over the last five years. For many Kenyans, a cab is a faster, convenient and safer means to move around. In areas not covered by public transport and especially at night, taxis come in handy.
Yet recent events have shone a light on their supposed safety, exposing a darker, more sinister side. From being harassed, robbed and assaulted, hailing a taxi is ironically now riskier than taking a matatu to your destination.
But what is more unsettling is the growing trend of cab drivers abetting crime or being caught up in complex murder mysteries.
The process of vetting drivers by cab companies, though, is what should worry users. Drivers who have had previous experiences with taxi-hailing cabs confided to the Saturday Nation that companies conduct very minimal background checks on drivers before registering them on their platforms.
To be activated, candidates are required to submit only their driving licence, national identity card, NTSA license and a certificate of good conduct.
“If you can submit these documents in time, approval takes a matter of days,” says Kamau Gatune, a Kimathi Street-based cab driver. “Some drivers even use underhand methods to obtain clearance from the police,” he notes.
Simple. Speedy. Direct. The résumé of a cab driver candidate in Kenya is nothing complex, the scrutiny nothing rigorous. And therein lies the rub.
Interestingly, Little Cab and Uber do not engage the issuing authorities, such as the police, in verifying the authenticity of the documents. Instead, they work with security firms who validate them on their behalf.
In states such as California in the US, Uber screens a driver’s records of up to seven years, to establish if the person has been involved in any driving offences, felonies, violent crimes, sexual violence or child abuse.
This lack of thoroughness in scrutinising a candidate’s criminal history bears on the safety of customers, points out Enock Makanga, a security professional and chairperson of the Protective and Safety Association of Kenya (Prosak).
In the wake of crimes involving their drivers and customers, taxi services in Kenya have had to change tack.
Uber, for instance, has partnered with Security Group Africa (SGA), a local security firm, to secure drivers in case of distress.
A security officer with SGA who spoke to the Saturday Nation said the platform has rescue teams, including armed police officers, in all areas served by Uber.
“When a driver calls to report an incident, our control room contacts the nearest rescue team to offer assistance. Our priority, though, is usually the driver, not the passenger,” explained the officer, who did not wish to be named.
Security emergencies have risen steadily over the past few months, he revealed, with incidents now occurring daily.
“Most of the drivers call after they have been car-jacked and robbed. The number of those who call during active incidents is now higher than before,” he said.
Curiously, a driver can only raise the alarm by making a call to the service, which is difficult once the driver is taken hostage.
Like most cab services, Taxify has an SOS button, which alerts a rescue team during security emergencies.
Yet even with these safety features in place, most clients lament that cab services are sluggish to act on reports of harassment or security concerns, which often prompts customers to turn to social media to share their terrifying experiences.
A case in point is the July 2018 incident involving Wankio Nyainda, who was assaulted by a Taxify driver. Dispute? Fare. Nyainda’s traumatic experience went viral on social media. The barrage of vitriol targeted at Taxify prompted the company to apologise and offer Nyainda rides worth Sh3,000 as compensation. She rejected the offer.
Taxify drivers have been mentioned negatively multiple times, in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Abuja, Nigeria. The latter incident took place on Monday this week.