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February 18, 2019

Matatu Crew And Poachers Are Mere Pawns

Some of the striking matatu operators at Globe Roundabout.Photo/File
Some of the striking matatu operators at Globe Roundabout.Photo/File

The matatu strike looked chaotic, didn’t it? It created massive traffic chaos, something that long-suffering Nairobians needed like a bullet in the head (of which they also get more than they need, and you need roughly zero of that).

But there is method to the madness: it may have looked chaotic, but it is hardly random chaos. It was very much organised chaos. And as with so many things, the story becomes much clearer if you follow the money trail.

 The matatu industry said that they protested over increased parking rates. Compared to the rates for private cars, the new matatu rates did not strike me as that outrageously high.

But more importantly, bringing the capital city to a standstill is hardly the right method to pursue this issue. But then again, this reflects how the overall matatu sector works (it also reflects how, it appears, Kenyan party politics work): Yes, it is efficient in the absence of a truly public transport system, but it is also full of thuggery, homicide (with thanks to a peculiar adopted Kenyan who pointed out to me that there was nothing accidental about the many deaths from deliberate law breaking, deliberate aggressive driving and deliberately badly maintained vehicles), and protection rackets.

 To paraphrase Bill Clinton: it is the money, stupid. For example, matatus owned by police officers: if that is not a conflict of interest, I do not know what is.

And then the issue that the police in Nairobi, in the vast majority of cases, generally do not serve to regulate the traffic, but to shake down drivers. Income-generating activities, to borrow an NGO term.

You will be able to buy your way out of a traffic offense with a bribe, and a police officer will let you pay your way out rather than ensure that you will not break the rule the next time.

Since traffic rules were generally intended to make traffic safe and sane, this non-enforcement creates (insert swear word) that wastes time and nerves on a daily basis.

And of course the money runs up the ranks in the police force – the recent police vettings had a few intriguing insights into the wealth that senior officers acquired.

So what looks like chaos on the surface is, in fact, a well-organised, streamlined money making machine. And nobody who earns from this will let it go easily. Most certainly not those who earn lots from it.

 I was reminded about this again when I saw a photograph of a rhino, still alive, but with its horn cut off. I see photos of poached elephants and rhinos in my Facebook feed almost every day, the numbers that Kenya is losing are terrifying, and in even more lawless countries like Chad and CAR, it is truly open season.

News about animals being lost – a rhino here, yet another elephant there – come out with the the same sad frequency and rising numbers of people dying in traffic accidents. And as with traffic, there is nothing accidental to it: Follow the money, and you will probably quite quickly find far more organised structures.

 On the lowest level are the poachers who will obtain a fragment of the horn’s final value. They may look like slightly random players to you, but as the roadside police officer, they are merely at the bottom of the value chain.

I do not believe for a second that in such an entrepreneurial environment as Kenya, the poachers are the equivalent of pickpockets, grabbing something here and there, and with no links into a wider system. The final value of the horn is far too high to just let this happen randomly.

 A conservationist told me a few months ago that there was a limited number of people behind this business, and ‘we know who they are’. But then again, so often we ‘know who they are’, don’t we?

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