The Untouchables in the Kenya Matatu industry


It is around 5pm. Many Nairobians are in a hurry to catch the next matatu or bus home after a long day in a city life thats so damned daily.

But at the intersection of Ronald Ngala and Uyoma Roads, there is no order. Matatus plying the Githurai 45 and 44 routes are literally picking passengers from the middle of the road, in utter disregard of traffic rules.

The minibuses have blocked the two roads, paralyzing free flow of traffic. It is a chaotic scene, maybe wrongly interpreted from Charles Darwins perspective on survival of the fittest.

Craziness in the CBD

There is a cocktail of nonstop hooting and whistle-blowing by touts banging on the sides of the buses. All this craziness, brought right in the middle of the capital city and seat of power, is in the name of picking passengers.

Pedestrians have a rough time passing through this maze. Drivers have blocked the only zebra crossing available. One has to carefully maneuver and squeeze through the little spaces separating the matatus. It is a scene repeated every evening on rush hour.

Worse still, drivers do not care about the agony they put other road users through – be it pedestrians, other motorists or traders whose shops are obstructed by matatus partially parked on the pavement.

The impunity gives a glimpse into why in the recent few months many accidents have occurred on Thika Road, courtesy of matatus plying the Githurai 45 route.

About an hour later, a stones throw away from the OTC bus stop, the same madness replays itself among matatu crew operating the Kayole route. As they pick passengers at the convergence of Landhies and Race Course, the matatus block the two key roads that lead traffic in and out of the city.

The daily trouble caused by rogue drivers and touts on these routes has a spillover effect on other roads and streets where gridlocks build up, disrupting traffic flow in many parts of the city where police are unable to control or contain the situation. Welcome to the world of the untouchable matatus.

Police officers are given something (money) to look the other way as chaos reign. In fact, personally I dont pass near Ronald Ngala Post Office because it is very easy to be knocked down, said a matatu Sacco official as she admitted they are unable to enforce order.

Untouchables league

A majority of residents interviewed agree that the Githurai and Kayole matatus have been the cause of disorder in the city, but police have been reluctant at revoking their licences for repeated acts of hooliganism that had been checked following the introduction of the Michuki Rules in 2003.

Joseph Muriu, a regular commuter, says the reason why action is not being taken is because the matatus are owned by senior police officers, government officials or well-connected individuals.

Matatus plying the Ongata Rongai route are also said to be playing in the Untouchables league as well as Embassava and the new kid on the block, Umoinner.

Already, Central OCPD Patrick Oduma has blamed Umoinner for the traffic troubles in the city. Oduma has further questioned the background of individuals owning matatus belonging to the Sacco.

The Nairobian established that it is difficult, especially in Githurai and Ongata Rongai, to streamline the industry due to the existence of many Saccos and companies competing for the piece of the cake.

At Ronald Ngala, which is not a designated bus stop, there are more than ten Saccos and companies. There is also individual ownership. Tracing the physical address of these Saccos and companies can elicit stress since some do not have known offices.

The writer managed to locate the offices of Super Highway 45 Sacco after being misled by a driver working for the same corporative. You know some of them (drivers) even don’t know where the office is, apologized an official who did not wish to be identified.

˜Police not Sacco members

She however defended her Sacco claiming theres is a well-organized business where indiscipline is the rule of the game.

Errant drivers and touts are not tolerated because we have a well-documented record, she said.

At the Forward Travellers whose only competitors are Pin Point and Prime, a senior official distanced the Sacco from the chaos in the city insisting that crew members are aware of the consequences of indiscipline.

Police officers are not our members and, therefore, the talk of the untouchables is far-fetched. The matatus are owned by ordinary members whose vehicles are normally impounded like the rest. If you doubt me, compile an inventory from Kayole, Buru Buru, Makongeni, Central, Nairobi Area and Pangani police stations, said Peter Kiige, the Forward Travellers chairman.

This year alone, we have more than 400 cases before the courts which our lawyers Njengwa Mwangi and Ratemo Advocates are holding. They have attracted an accumulated amount of bond of about Sh5 million. We never bribe the police and we never bribe the courts, that is the procedure and we can prove through our legal department, he said.

The Sacco has a fleet of 400 vehicles but lacks a permanent bus terminus. It abandoned the Muthurwa market saying it is in a dilapidated state.

The biggest challenge is that of bus stops. We only have three termini at Bus Station, Machakos and Muthurwa which is pathetic. For example, from the City Stadium to Kenyatta National Hospital there is no stage, even for the disabled people, Kiige said.

Officials at the Embasava Sacco were cautious on the matter as they heavily disassociated themselves with the untouchables tag. John Ongaro (chairman), Alfred Bichanga (secretary) and Lukas Kyule (treasurer) pointed an accusing finger at rivals.

Junior military officers

They said theirs is one of the best organised Sacco and that vehicles are not above the law. The officials said they have junior military officers as members, but not police officers. Police officers are not our members, not to my knowledge, maybe through proxy. Besides, our vehicles are normally impounded at Nairobi Area, said Ongaro.

Bichange blamed the never-ending gridlocks in the city on the concentration of handcarts, trollies, boda boda, tuk-tuks and lack of enough designated zebra crossings.

People just cross from any spot slowing down traffic flow, he said.

Lucy Mathenge, the secretary general of Orokise Sacco, admitted that a senior officer owned a fleet of 15 matatus on the Ongata route. The chief inspector is said to be working in Machakos.

Yes, there is lawlessness, we can’t deny. It is true some of the matatus not in our Sacco are owned by police, KRA and airports officials. In Ongata Rongai some Saccos are briefcase companies. They have no office and cause trouble, she said.

The Mungiki lie

Like Githurai the route has many Saccos and one of them was three weeks ago involved in a near fatal accident as the frenzied matatu driver attempted to overlap on Magadi Road. Wacuka wants each route to have at least two Saccos for sanity to prevail.

We don’t have a terminus. In fact, we have gone to court to restrain the Kenya Railways from ejecting us from where we currently operate from. At the moment, self-regulation is difficult because as soon as some Saccos obtain the TLB, they start bending the rules, she said.

Her Sacco has a fleet of 284 vehicles. Chris Muia, the chairman of the Umoinner Sacco rubbished claims that police officers and Mungiki followers were members.

On the police, that is a lie, on mungiki that is a very big lie, he said.

We have complied (with the law) and worked very hard. Some people are jealous of our achievements. In fact, they call us Illuminati (in reference to association with the secret society). Our competitors are not happy with what we are doing. We are the face of change and want to do big things to transform the matatu industry, said Muia.

While regretting the recent Mutindwa accident that left at least ten people dead after one of their matatus was crashed by a train, Muia said they are pushing to have drivers retrained at the National Youth Service (NYS) and have frequent eye check-ups.

We want even to employ graduates because there is a lot of money, but first of all, we want to change the image of the industry. We are not untouchables, we are focused, organised and compliant. I think that is where the confusion lies, he said.

-The Nairobian



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