Highways, markets and bus stops as centres of life in Africa

All across Africa will be found crowds of people hanging around trading centres, bus termini and market places. Most in the crowd aren’t really traders and travellers; they just find the places a convenient and cheap way to socialize.

Passenger vehicles picking up people along a national highway in Kenya.

Passenger vehicles picking up people along a national highway in Kenya.

Bus parks in both big and small towns are the epicenter of social activity. Economic life revolves around the bus park and the highway. Politicians make stopovers here to address the readily available audiences. The venues are easily tapped for the youth who can be quickly hired for political errands.

Men, young and old alike, spend idle moments around trading centres exchanging gossip and sharing cigarettes, much to the chagrin of the womenfolk. To the first time visitor, the sight of scores of men with apparently nothing to do may arouse feelings of insecurity.

Why is the highway such an attraction?

Spending the day indoors is a very dull preposition for most people without electricity, television, newspapers and jobs. The highway presents a break from the monotony of life. One gets to see people travelling and shopping, vehicles breaking down, couples fighting or thieves doing what they do best. All these provide interesting topics for conversations that could drag for the rest of the week.

Hanging around bus parks and trading centres gives enterprising youth the occasional chance to make a few coins. Travellers may emerge out of a bus with heavy loads that require paid labour.  A politician may arrive with some cash handouts to carry favour with voters.

At an individual level,  sitting on the roadside gives one a feeling of belonging to a wider world. Idling in the house, even with family, can be agonizingly lonesome and isolating. In contrast, spending time with friends at the bus park, even when there is nothing to do, makes an individual feel like they are contributing to all the noisy business around them.

True: watching vehicles driving past is not the same as driving one, but meeting and talking to other people creates a necessary connection with the outside world. Social contact is necessary for the psychological well-being of all human beings. That is why jail is an effective punishment for wrongdoing because it imposes social isolation on the offender.

People hanging around bus parks and highways are seeking social comfort in the presence of other human beings. This is more the case in Africa where social amenities such as sports, theatre, cinema, telephones and the internet are unavailable or expensive for the majority of the rural and urban poor.

In developed societies, social contact is maintained through the workplace, through tourism, sport and entertainment. Each society, therefore, has designed ways of bringing people together based on cultural and economic circumstances prevailing in that land.

So, next time you see idlers on the roadside, just understand that they are being human.

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Why Michuki rules failed

The Michuki rules failed not only because they cannot be sustainably enforced but because the tough measures were driven by factors other than road safety.

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Motoring analysts and traffic police officers say John Michuki never really meant to cut down road accidents in the country.

Instead, the Michuki rules were intended to bring down established bus operators and replace them with a monopoly whose ownership is linked to powerful figures close to President Mwai Kibaki.

At least twenty national bus companies collapsed within two years of the implementation of Michuki rules on 1st February 2004. The financial strain of the arbitrary decree was more than any business could bear. Companies that were servicing loans were forced to divert hundreds of millions of shillings into seat belts and speed governors.

Kenya Bus Services (KBS), which had plied Kenyan roads from 1934, struggled for a year under Michuki rules but finally died. In its place, Citi Hoppa became the new Nairobi bus company but it lacks the technical and managerial capacity of the old Kenya Bus. Citi Hoppa is associated with President Kibaki’s parliamentary Chief Whip, George Thuo.

Unlike KBS which went to every corner of Nairobi, Citi Hoppa prefers operating on a few routes with good roads mostly around Kenyatta Hospital, Ngummo and Kawangware. Far away suburbs such as Dandora and Kayole whose roads are in poor state are largely ignored. After KBS collapsed, rickety matatus rushed to fill the vacuum with negative effects on road safety. With more matatus on the road, criminal gangs have become stronger through extortion rackets. Kayole area is now effectively governed by such gangs.

What exactly were the Michuki rules?

After the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) won the 2002 polls, one of its pledges was to make Kenyan roads safer. The annual death rate from traffic accidents was in excess of 3,000. The transport minister at the time, John Michuki – a key Kibaki ally – proposed the tough measures in his first year of office.

Michuki decreed that all commercial vehicles fit speed governors set at 80 kilometres per hour. On city streets, the speed limit was enforced at 50 kilometres per hour. Seat belts were to be fitted for all seats in buses and matatus.

Standing passengers in city buses were banned. Meanwhile, the passenger capacity of matatus or minivans was reduced from 18 passengers to 13. In addition, crews of buses and matatus had to be vetted by police and receive a Certificate of Good Conduct before employment. Michuki made it mandatory for bus and matatu crews to be in uniform and to have their pictures posted in the vehicle.

Effects of Michuki’s rules

KBS was most affected by the ban on standing passengers. During its 70 year operation, KBS was licensed to carry standing passengers within the capital city. The company’s buses could carry over 100 people a time. After Michuki’s edict, KBS could only carry 48 passengers per bus. The move was a disaster in addition to the unplanned costs of seatbelts and speed governors.

KBS buses were low speed, city transport carriers that, even without a speed governor, could not surpass 80 kph. Since the company was already adhering to decades-old city bylaws, KBS management pleaded for an exemption. Michuki rudely dismissed them saying that competition from Citi Hoppa would be, “healthy.”

After Michuki’s rules were effected in February 2004, there was an immediate reduction in road accidents. Kenyans were convinced a new era of road safety was in place. However, the reduction in road accidents was merely cosmetic as explained by a motoring analyst:

“The Michuki rules reduced the number of vehicles on the road while reducing the number of passengers in each vehicle,” explains the motor consultant. Fares doubled as transporters raised money to conform to the rules. “The immediate increase in fares forced people to cut down on travelling, meaning that each passenger was exposed to a lower risk.”

“After February 2004, there were fewer public service vehicles, each vehicle carrying fewer passengers, and each passenger travelling less often. Therefore, even if the percentage rate of accidents remained the same, the actual figures would be lower.”

“Let’s say, for example, that 5 percent of all vehicles will be involved in an accident. 5 percent of 20,000 vehicles will give a lower accident figure than 5 percent of 50,000 vehicles. That is what happened” says the consultant.

Eventually, the high fares in public transport attracted massive investment, what Michuki called “healthy competition.” There was a rapid increase in the numbers of new public transport vehicles, to the extent that the government ran out of registration plates. Intense competition forced operators to reduce prices. By 2006, public transport fares were down to pre-2004 levels. Passengers began travelling more often.

The economic boom of 2006 and the hawking of low interest loans by commercial banks resulted in more Kenyans buying private cars. With more cars, matatus and trucks on the road, and each passenger travelling more frequently, the actual road accident figures began rising.

Motoring analysts blame road accidents on a poor driving culture, badly designed and neglected roads and poor enforcement of existing traffic laws. Kenyan police are notorious for demanding bribes only to turn against the same motoring public by conducting “crackdowns” whose only achievement is inconvenience to travellers.

Last Christmas, the Kenyan Police conducted an ill-planned crackdown on Christmas Eve that paralysed public transport. Needless to say, the sight of stranded families on the roadside did not do much to improve the government’s image.

Michuki rules did not work

An upsurge in road accidents in Kenya has led to calls for the return of John Michuki to the Ministry of Transport. Motoring analysts however say that the Michuki rules did not work because they merely focused on punishing bus and matatu operators.

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Public service vehicles on a Kenyan highway

Scores of people have died on Kenyan roads in recent weeks. Most of the accidents involve minibus taxis, popularly referred to as matatus. Other accidents involve long distance buses and trucks plying the roads between the port city of Mombasa and the interior.

Deaths from road accidents may surpass the 3,000 fatalities a year mark that was the norm before the Michuki rules of 2004. The rules were introduced by Kangema legislator, John Michuki, who was the Transport Minister at the time. The Michuki rules forced all commercial vehicle owners to install speed governors set at 80 kilometres per hour. On city roads, the speed limit was enforced at 50 kilometres per hour.

Carrying of standing passengers in city buses was banned. Meanwhile, the passenger capacity of matatus was reduced from 18 passengers to 13. In addition, crews of buses and matatus had to be vetted by police and receive a Certificate of Good Conduct before getting employment. Ex-convicts and school dropouts were immediately locked out of public transport business.

Michuki made it mandatory for bus and matatu crews to be in uniform and to have their pictures posted in the vehicle. So tough were the rules that matatu conductors could be jailed for rudeness!

After the rules were introduced in February 2004, there was an immediate reduction in road accidents and Kenyans felt that a new era of road safety had set in. However, the shortlived success of the Michuki rules came at a price.

Fares rose by at least 50% as bus and matatu operators raised money for speed governors, seatbelts and uniforms. Public transport operators were subjected stringent inspections and this, inevitably, added to operating expenses. At the same time, the reduction in carrying capacity meant lower income per trip, amidst rising costs occasioned by a tattered road network. In certain routes, fares almost doubled.

At least a third of public transport vehicles went out of business as owners could not afford the rapid implementation sought by the Michuki rules. Others decided to venture into school transport and car-hire business whose operations were not subjected to police harassment.

“In effect, what the Michuki rules did was to reduce the number of vehicles on the road while reducing the number of passengers in each vehicle,” explains a motoring analyst. “The immediate increase in fares forced people to cut down on travelling, meaning that each passenger was exposed to a lower risk.”

“Lets say, for example, that 5% of vehicles will be involved in an accident. What happened after February 2004 was that you had fewer vehicles, each vehicle carrying fewer passengers, and each passenger travelling less often. Therefore, even if the percentage rate of accidents was the same as before, the actual figures would be lower. That is to say, 5% of 30,000 vehicles will produce a lower figure than 5% of 40,000 vehicles.”

“This is what happened with the Michuki rules and Kenyans believed that the accident rate had gone down, which was not the case.”

By 2005, the high fares in the public transport industry had attracted massive private-sector investment. There was a sharp increase in the numbers of new public transport vehicles. Intense competition forced operators to reduce prices. By 2006, public transport fares were down to pre-2004 levels. Passengers began travelling more often.

With more vehicles on the road, and each passenger travelling more frequently, the actual road accident figures began rising.

Motoring analysts say that road accidents in Kenya are caused by a poor driving culture, badly designed and neglected roads and poor enforcement of existing traffic laws. Kenyan police are notorious for demanding bribes from motorists.

As matatu operators often say, why bother maintaining your vehicle when its cheaper to bribe the cops?

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.

Commuters stranded as Eastlands matatus strike again

Thousands of commuters from Nairobi’s Eastlands were stranded today as matatus went on strike.

There were conflicting reports concerning the cause of the latest matatu strike. Police say that matatu operators fear for the safety of their vehicles following renewed threats from the Mungiki to extort money from their business. On the other hand, some matatu operators say the strike is to protest the relocation of their vehicles from the city centre to the new Muthurwa terminus. Matatu operators wonder why they are being blocked from accessing the city centre while City Hoppa, KBS and Double M buses are moving freely.

By mid-morning, rumours started spreading that buses from the three companies may be attacked. Consequently, there was a heavy presence of police and paramilitary GSU officers on major streets of Nairobi to counter any attack.

Commuters were forced to walk long distances to access public transport. The alternative is to board  Double M buses from Muthurwa, and thereby incur additional costs at a time of high inflation fuelled by rising oil and food prices.

The government has been heavily criticized for its decision to bar public transport vehicles from Eastlands from getting into town.

Kenyans taxed in police crackdown

The Kenyan government has been criticized for using traffic crackdowns on commuter transport to collect hundreds of millions in the form of road fines.

According to public transport drivers, traffic police are arresting and fining them for such things as dusty windshields, faded bodywork and even frayed shirt collars!

The Kenya Police is in the midst of its notorious, “crackdowns” following public pressure to curb rampant road accidents on Kenyan roads. Road safety in Kenya is seriously compromised by poor enforcement of traffic laws, corruption and a crumbling road network. “Its not as though we don’t have enough traffic laws, but the laws are enforced arbitrarily,” says motoring writer Gavin Bennett. “The police can stop you for not having enough air pressure in your tyres while an overloaded bus belching black smoke is waved past you.”

The crackdowns are worsened by the tendency of the police to have them in the morning, during the commuter rush to work. Its common to find hundreds of passengers stranded at major intersections after being forced out of buses and matatus. Of course, the bus operators rarely refund the remainder of the fare to passengers when their vehicles are arrested. However, the effectiveness of the police crackdowns is in doubt as the “offending” vehicles can be seen back on the road in a matter of hours.

Passengers have been hauled into police cells for not wearing seatbelts in public transport vehicles. On any given day, Kenyan courts will be filled with thousands of commuters who will be fined anything between Kshs300 and Kshs500 (US$4.8 – $8). Just before the court hearings, police prosecutors will “advise” the incarcerated commuters to, plead guilty, pay the fine and go home. If you plead “not guilty,” the case could drag on indefinitely with little possibility of an acquittal.

Traffic crackdowns on commuter transport do not happen in the evenings because Kenyan law does not allow police to detain people over-night for traffic offences. For the same reason, crackdowns are rarely done during weekends or public holidays because courts do not open on those days. However, weekday mornings are ideal because justice can be dispensed by mid-afternoon.

By its own admission, the Kenya government collects almost Kshs500 million each year from minor traffic offences. Public transport operators say its a scam to increase government revenue. And from the conduct of the Kenya police and the judiciary, these allegations may just be correct.

Ongoing police crackdowns on passenger transport vehicles across Kenya is worsening an inefficient commuter transport system, resulting in delays and short tempers.

Bus, truck operators irked by new tax

Theres anger and consternation in the transport sector, as the Kenya government placed harsher taxes in a bid to boost revenues hit by political violence early this year.

Commuters look for buses in Nairobi\'s Tom Mboya street.

Matatus on Nairobi’s Tom Mboya street. A new tax will result in higher inspection fees for matatu and truck owners.

Inspection fees for public transport vehicles and trucks will now be pegged on weight and carrying capacity, according to a report in the East African Standard. Previously, the inspection fee was a standard Shs1,000 (US$16). Now, a 14-seater minivan (or matatu) is expected to pay Shs11,000 ($180) as an annual inspection fee. Trucks will pay Shs1,500 per tonne. This means a 26-wheel truck with a carrying capacity of 40 tonnes will have to pay Shs60,000 ($984).

Majority of matatus are owned by small scale operators living in slums and who cannot pay Shs11,000 at short notice. Commercial truckers will simply pass the costs to their clients, with possible consequences on the prices of consumer goods.

The tax is described as an “advance tax,” meaning it has to be paid before the inspection officer begins to look at your vehicle. Passenger and commercial vehicles in Kenya must be inspected at least once a year.

Matatu and truck owners say they government has ambushed them with the tax. There was little publicity about the changes and most transporters had not budgeted for the new tax.