The renewed enforcement of the “Michuki Rules” for public service vehicles (PSVs) is a welcome development. The only problem is that the government is not being honest about why the rules went into limbo. The answer is simple: As long as you don’t tackle corruption among traffic police, the rules will never work. Matatu impunity and police corruption are two sides of the same coin. You can’t deal with one in isolation from the other. Do Cabinet Secretaries Fred Matiang’i and James Macharia even know the extent of police officers’ role as major matatu stakeholders, as owners and not just as enforcers?
This column has argued in the past that a lasting solution to the PSV problem cannot be found in exclusion of the freeloaders who leech on the transport sector and the billions it generates. The list is quite long. First are the cartels who “allocate” matatu routes, and the self-appointed “enforcers” along the routes and at the terminuses who are just plain thugs. There are also the insurance shylocks. At the top of this food chain, of course, are the notoriously corrupt traffic police. This department has to be drastically remade.
Also, there should be an appreciation by the authorities that mere “rules” will never tame matatus when everything else remains constant. The PSV crews will simply bribe their way through them. The only beneficiaries will be the traffic police and the new-fangled National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA). In fact, these two are the ones rubbing their greedy hands in glee over the resurrected Michuki Rules, because of the anticipated lucrative pickings. From the matatus, of course.
For the government, it is time to rethink the folly of leaving public transport in the hands of disorderly private players. As long as this situation prevails, we will remain at the mercy of matatu cartels. It is a shame that a city of Nairobi’s size does not have a State-supervised mass transit system. Incidentally, Daniel arap Moi had the right idea when he introduced the Nyayo buses in Nairobi in the 1980s. Unfortunately, his regime was too incompetent to manage anything, and the plan for a regulated public bus service for the capital city gradually died.
As a country, we have sunk into enormous debt through overpriced glamour projects like the SGR when we should have prioritised basics such as commuter transit networks for Nairobi and Mombasa. The bonus would have been huge. The other problem in our general environment is plain ineptitude. When you don’t regulate with flexibility and intelligence, and you just focus on loading rules and more rules — plus abnormally punitive fines — you actively discourage private investment of the good sort in the transport sector.
Any rational investor will ask himself: Why bother investing in a matatu or a bus when a traffic violation is penalised so heavily as to make the whole venture unviable? Some would rather look to something else like real estate, where the returns are higher and life is less stressful. Indeed, I have heard utterances out there to the effect that, with our nearly empty public coffers, these outsize fines that accompany Michuki Rules Round Two have been fixed with a specific need in mind.
Round One of the Michuki Rules came into effect in 2003 through the celebrated John Michuki, who passed on in 2012. He was a remarkably determined man who was perhaps the only official overseer the rowdy matatu people came to grudgingly and forever respect. Unfortunately, his resolve to permanently clean up the PSV sector was interrupted when he was unwisely transferred from the Transport ministry. His successors no longer kept their eye on the ball. That is when the rot set it. Enforcement of the Michuki Rules began to lapse. In no time, the PSV cartels and their traffic police henchmen were back to their ways.
This government is talking tough that there will be no relenting on the rules. The cynical matatu crowd has heard all this before. They know after the initial razzmatazz it will be back to business as usual. They will just bide their time. Wasn’t it the same government that started the commotion about riparian buildings demolitions? And also the much-hyped lifestyle audits to nab corrupt fat cats? Where have the two undertakings reached?
I was laughing when watching police spokesman Charles Owino on TV saying recently: “We are going to have a very big crackdown on people bribing our police officers.” Say that again? Are they forced at gunpoint to take bribes? The official story being put out is that matatus that comply with the Michuki Rules will have no trouble with the police. The matatu guys who interact with the police every day know better. They will tell you a bribe-seeking traffic police officer will not fail to find a problem with a brand-new PSV that has just left the showroom.