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.

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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.

Eastlands matatus back in town

A controversial decision to send all Eastlands matatus to the new Muthurwa terminus appears to be hitting a wall, as matatu operators get court orders allowing them back into the central business district.

A matatu picking passengers on Tom Mboya street, Nairobi

An Embakasi matatu picking up passengers from Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street.

Matatus from Embakasi, Maringo, Buruburu and Outering were the first to obtain court orders temporarily allowing them to operate into the city. Lately, Kayole buses have also won similar orders and are now back to their former terminus at OTC. Indeed, many people from Eastlands no longer have to walk to Muthurwa to catch public transport. If anything, the court orders seem to have given matatu operators the leeway to collect passengers from virtually any street corner.

Double M, Kenya Bus and Citti Hoppa buses continue operating within the city centre because other routes that they ply, such as Kawangware and Ngummo, are legally allowed through the city. However, buses from the three companies operating to Eastlands routes often sneak into town through the industrial area or Majengo estates. Once in town, police don’t bother with them.

The Muthurwa terminus hasn’t been left deserted though. Matatus to Industrial Area, Umoja, LungaLunga, Komarock and Njiru/Ruai still operate from Muthurwa. From recent developments, its just a matter of time before they too go to court and are allowed into town.

Meanwhile, the Nairobi City Council and the Transport Licensing Board (TLB) have said that they will no longer recognize Eastlands routes ending within the city centre. Since the TLB is the legal body authorized to register matatus, the move is seen as an attempt to beat legal challenges launched by matatus against moving to Muthurwa.

Early this year, the Nairobi City Council and the Ministry of Local Government ordered that all Eastlands matatus move their operations to the Muthurwa terminus. Local Government minister at the time, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta (now Deputy Prime Minister) said the decision was meant to ease traffic congestion in the city. However, commuters and matatu operators criticized the move as inconsiderate and ill-planned. Not only were commuters forced to walk longer distances, but the Muthurwa terminus is still under construction with piles of soil everywhere.

Matatu operators claimed that the move was a ploy by Uhuru to convince hawkers to move from the city streets and into the Muthurwa hawkers market. What better way to do it, asked the matatu operators, than to create a captive market. If that really was the government’s intention, then it worked like magic. No sooner than matatus were forced into Muthurwa than all hawkers left city streets for their new market.

Nairobi is increasingly suffering from traffic congestion due to slow expansion of city streets. Many roads in Nairobi were planned and built by British colonialists back in the 1950s and 60s. By opening the Muthurwa terminus, the City Council hopes to move matatus from other parts of Nairobi to parking bays previously occupied by Eastlands matatus. For instance, South B route 11 will begin operating from the Central Bus Station. However, with continued resistance from Eastlands matatus, the City Council may have to wait a little longer to implement its plans to end the chaos currently on the streets of Nairobi.