It is a cold and cloudy Wednesday at 6.40am, when I board a matatu and take a front passenger seat, with a good view of what is happening around.
I say a good morning to the driver, who with a smile assures me of how his night was fantastic and he’s optimistic of a brighter day.
As he turns the 33-seater from Umoja to town, I realise there is heavy traffic, following the heavy downpour the previous night.
His conductor crosses the road and heads straight to a traffic officer on the other lane and pulls him aside for a chat.
Meanwhile, the driver speeds on the wrong lane to beat the traffic and takes a wrong turn to connect to a route that will not leave him stuck in the jam.
As we head towards the traffic officer, I see him take something from the conductor and allow the driver to pass without any interrogation.
We connect to Sonko Road, which links Buru Buru and Outering roads, and two youth follow us, running to the conductor’s door. They are given Sh100 and they alight.
The driver navigates his way to some backstreet lanes that lead to Eastleigh.
Soon he drives to Kariokor route, down to River Bank roundabout. Here, there seems to be a little bit of traffic, and all matatus that had come from Jogoo Road traffic are stuck back to back, sandwiching personal cars.
As I peep outside at the roundabout, I spot a beehive of activities between six traffic police officers and some youths.
The driver notices my curiosity and tells me the officers, two in khaki bottoms and four in navy blue attires, are in business before they embark on their duties.
Three middle-aged, well-built youth, all with bling blings, walk from one matatu to another, collecting Sh500 for these officers.
MOA chairman Simon Kimutai inspects implementation of new rules by matatu operators to ease traffic in the CBD. /FILE
They deliberately hold the matatus in traffic to allow these youth, whom the driver describes as ‘untouchable’, to collect the money, after which they are signalled to let them go.
After we make our way to town, at OTC all the way to Temple road, a contingent of officers stops each vehicle coming down from Landhis Road or Eastleigh.
If you escape one officer here, three others are waiting for you, so no vehicle goes unnoticed.
The officers collect between Sh200 and Sh500 for every squad until around 10am, when rush hour is over.
This is one example of the extortion by cartels that is driving matatu owners to their knees and draining it of Sh50 billion every year.
This is a story of a ruthless cartel that has seen many investors quit to pursue other avenues that are perhaps more accommodative.
The matatu sector loses about Sh50 billion every year to a network that Matatu Owners Association chairman Simon Kimutai calls an “extortion machine”.
Kimutai told the Star the network is well-coordinated between organised criminal gangs, rogue traffic police officers, county askaris, route marshals and touts.
He said the well-known country bus terminus, for instance, no longer belongs to the county but to cartels.
They are so powerful that they are the ones who determine what should be paid at what time.
Kimutai said there is a complicated system that has been put in place to strategically perfect this vice.
NO ENTRY RULES
The matatu sector plays a key role in bridging the gap in public transport sector in the country, with about 120,000 matatus and mini-buses employing about 3 million people.
The sector has significantly evolved from a quick and easy response to unmet travel demand during the 1950s to a dominant mode of transport.
The industry operated illegally in the city until 1973, when President Jomo Kenyatta issued a decree officially recognising matatus as a legal mode of public transport, without any form of licensing. This was aimed at improving public transport and creating more jobs in the informal sector.
The founding President had the notion that the industry was useful to the common man and that the owners, who were at that time largely owner drivers, were examples of hardworking entrepreneurs dedicated to contributing to the development of the economy.
This conceptualisation of the industry partly contributed to the ineffective governance of the sector, which eventually attracted informal governance systems, including criminal gangs managing routes and termini.
Due to escalating indiscipline cases that have overshadowed the sector, most of the policy interventions have concentrated on the indiscipline and lack of organisation, with the sector proving resilient to all policy responses.
Moving matatus out of town has always sparked sharp criticism, with concerns of how the business will be affected. Other interventions include increasing traffic lights, traffic marshals and route marshals, but all this has not helped.
The industry has had four key turning points. Firstly, the 1973 Presidential Decree, which officially recognised the matatu industry and okayed them to freely operate.
The second turning point is the famous Michuki rules, which came into effect in February 2004 and required all the matatus and buses to install speed governors, passenger safety belts, operate in clearly defined routes, to carry a specified number of passengers and their drivers and conductors be disciplined and to have a clean security record.
Thirdly came the CBD Decongestion, which was gazetted in the legal notice of 2003. This required that matatus be barred from operating with CBDs, but it was not, however, implemented.
Lastly, there came the sacco company requirement, and announcement of 14-seater requirement.
In October 2010, the Transport minister directed that by January 2011, operators had to belong to a sacco to ensure self-regulation; efficient operation as per the requirement of the legal notice of 2003, aiming to cushion individual matatu owners from cartels, and eventually eliminate the cartels from the sector.
An illustration of the state of matatu sector. /VICTOR NDULA
While it is acknowledged that the rapid increase of matatus is linked to the 1973 Presidential Decree, a major policy question is why the decree has never been followed by adequate policy response, which recognises their unique mode of operation.
This is believed to be the reason why until now, there are no entry rules in the matatu business.
Kimutai said as long as you can take a loan, buy a car and make a deal with a sacco, you are good to go, a situation that has left many operators in the game of money laundering.
The cartels are said to be in several categories. For instance, there is the police, the route managers, protectors, squad guys, touts and the route marshals.
Kenya Bus Services MD Edwins Mukabanah told the Star PSV owners who do not bow to this cartel network are pushed out of business, while those who are lucky are forced off lucrative routes.
He said as a result, many investors have opted out with no other way to repay their loans, while others are held hostage to the network.
Some Nairobi sacco chairmen told the Star these rogue police officers take at least Sh200 for every vehicle they stop, with their seniors demanding between Sh500 and Sh1,000.
It is said illegal gangs and route cartels make the deepest cuts, with each group collecting nothing less than Sh200 for every squad a given matatu plies on a given route. This they call “protection fee”.
These claims are backed by Mukabanah, who said some of the saccos are forced to part within between Sh20,000 to Sh250,000 per week for their vehicles to operate on certain routes.
“This money is systematically divided from the junior officers to the head of traffic in that area, so that if your car is impounded, it gets an easy way out,” he said.
Mukabanah said most drivers end up preferring to deal with the juniors because dealing with the seniors means the more money you have to give out before you are cleared.
He said the officers are so daring that if this money is not submitted on time, they call chairmen of respective saccos, threatening to punish them.
“Every time there is a change of guard in office bearers, saccos are expected to submit between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000 as an appeasement to the new boss,” Mukabana said.
“Our crews are under siege. They have been held hostage by these cartels, and matatu owners are left with leftovers to spend on maintaining the buses. That is why many quit,” he said.
Mukabana said it is shocking that the matatus that comply with all the rules are the most targeted, as the rest cut deals to operate with impunity.
MILLIONS LOST PER DAY
Kimutai said almost Sh50 million is lost on matatus operating in town, while buses going to Western region at the Machakos country bus lose about Sh30 million a day.
This extortion has been so normalised that new vehicle owners often have no qualms about paying a “fee” to join a route or be allowed to pick up passengers from a designated terminus.
The Star independently established that if you are a newcomer in the business, you have to surrender your car to the route managers and route marshals, who use it for a certain agreed time before you start earning your money. The gang will then determine which driver and crew will be in charge of the new arrival.
“This network is so strong that the crews are usually caught up in the web, cooperating to save their lives, as those who fail to comply are harassed out of business or even killed,” Kimutai told the Star.
Touts hang on to a matatu during a demonstration. /FILE
Mukabana said these cartels have disrupted order in the public transport system, encouraging lawlessness and providing protection to law-breaking crew at the various termini and bus stops, as traffic police officers watch helplessly.
He said any policeman who tries to get in the way will either be killed or reported to their seniors, who will then force a transfer on them to remote areas as a punishment.
“The problem is that these traffic police officers own over 50 per cent of these matatus, and thus of course you cannot get in the way of your boss,” one sacco chairman said.
Matau Welfare Association chairman Dickson Mbugua said traffic police officers who crack the whip on the rogue matatu operators are mostly transferred to hardship regions.
He said public servants venture into the matatu industry as a way of cleaning the money earned through corruption. “They set high targets for the drivers and violate the law,” Mbugua said.
NTSA director general Francis Meja told the Star the authority has received numerous complaints from matatu owners and operators about criminal gangs demanding money.
“Since this is not a regulation issue, we have always passed the matter to the police, who to some extent have shown laxity in cracking down on these criminal elements,” he said.
Meja said they have evidence these gangs demand between Sh500 and Sh1,000 from every matatu daily, depending on the route.
He said lucrative routes like Rongai, Langata, Karen, Kileleshwa, Buru Buru and Umoja operators give out Sh1,000, while other routes part with Sh500.
“These are people who do not have stake in the matatu industry but strategically position themselves to demand money. That is why as an authority we refer the matter to the police because these are criminals,” Meja said.
The NTSA boss said at the country bus terminus, these cartels demand between 10 to 15 per cent of daily collection from the matatus. He said sometimes, they demand to forcibly drive the matatus and bring in illegal vehicles to operate, especially in the morning and evening hours.