Traffic crackdowns worsening road chaos

Commuter crackdowns by Kenya’s traffic police are worsening road chaos, further endangering lives instead of reducing one of the world’s highest road fatalities.

A matatu picking passengers on Tom Mboya street, Nairobi

A matatu cruising for passengers on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi. Picture by the Nairobi Chronicle.

Private minibus, or matatu, operators in Nairobi say they are forced to bribe traffic police for such infringements as wearing faded shirts or fraying seat covers. “It doesn’t matter whether your vehicle is in good shape or not, if a police officer wants to find something wrong, he will,” says a matatu driver.

As a consequence, matatu and bus operators see no reason to maintain and run their vehicles properly because, either way, you still have to bribe your way through numerous police roadblocks. The state of roads in Kenya doesn’t help in enhancing road safety in public transport.

A bus driver on the Western Kenya route says he has to bribe the police for cracks on his front windshield. “The road to Kisumu is very bad, with stones flying all over the place,” says the driver, “it doesn’t make sense for me to buy a new windshield for Shs60,000 (US$940) because the glass will break the same day. Its far cheaper to give a few hundred shillings each trip.”

As a result of extensive police crackdowns, the little order there existed in Kenya’s public transport sector has completely broken down.

In a bid to avoid traffic police, buses and matatus are forced to use the back streets and little-known rural roads where passengers are exposed to the risk of car-jacking. At the same time, the lengthy diversions on rutted roads forces public transport operators to increase fares at a time when Kenyans are experiencing high inflation.

Other times, the buses drop off passengers far from their destinations for fear of getting impounded by police.

When the crackdowns become severe, inter-city transport within Kenya is disrupted completely, with losses of billions of shillings to the national economy.

On the Nairobi – Mombasa highway, bus drivers are pushed into hiding their vehicles in the bush because of traffic crackdowns. Often, the buses hide for hours in the deep wilderness where stranded passengers cannot get restaurants, telephone networks or even sanitary facilities. “We must do this because when the police stop us, they will look for the tiniest excuse to either jail us or demand bribes,” says Salim, a long-time bus driver on the highway.

Transport within Nairobi has also been negatively affected by commuter crackdowns. The decision of the government to force public transport vehicles from the city centre to Muthurwa has introduced new levels of chaos in the sector. The Ambassador terminus in the heart of Nairobi is a case in point.

One year ago at Ambassador, there existed orderly queues of commuters waiting for buses to Dandora, Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Embakasi and Buruburu. Since early this year when the government unilaterally decided to move the buses to Muthurwa, the operations at Ambassador became illegal. With most city commuters unwilling to walk all the way to Muthurwa, the Ambassador stage has become a transport “black market.”

The orderliness that was the hallmark of the place has been replaced by chaos. Bus companies, anxious to fill up their vehicles quickly before they are caught, have employed touts to woo passengers into their vehicles. Ambassador now resembles a rural bazaar with hordes of young men shouting themselves hoarse in order to earn a commission for every bus that gets filled up. Goons have been hired to ward off competition from other bus companies.

Kenya’s police say their objective is to reduce the rate of road accidents in the country and to instill order and comfort in public transport. From the looks of it, the actions of the police seem to be doing the exact opposite. Maybe Kenya’s government should consider empowering the public transport industry to regulate itself like it used to in the past.

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