Kenya, and especially its capital, Nairobi, has a love-hate relationship with matatus, the privately owned, colorful, loud deathtraps that form the backbone of what passes for the country’s public transport system.
Just how dependent the city is on them was dramatically demonstrated at the beginning of December when the county Governor, Mike Sonko, tried to ban them from Nairobi’s central business district (CBD). What followed was days of commuter chaos, as thousands were forced to trek to work. The public outcry that followed led to the directive being binned after only one day.
Matatus are the unholy offspring of local attempts at entrepreneuring around colonial design, and post-colonial state failure. From its founding over a century ago, Nairobi’s transport menu reflected the segregation of city itself. In the article Politics, policy and paratransit Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University and Winnie Mitullah of Nairobi University point out that “European settlers and officials ‘planned’ the city of Nairobi around personalized transport which facilitated physical segregation in terms of mobility.” By 1928, just over two decades after it became the official capital of Kenya, the city had 5,000 cars “making it the city with the highest per capita private automobile ownership in the world.” Europeans and Asians drove. And even when the Nairobi Town Bus was inaugurated in the next decade, it was largely for their benefit.
The was little planning in place for how native Kenyans would move around. As a result, the majority of poor Africans have always walked. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that the Kenya Bus Services, which had an exclusive franchise of carrying fare paying passengers in and around Nairobi, expanded this service to cater to “the Eastern parts of the city [where Africans lived] using vehicles built on lorry chassis” according to the paper The Metamorphosis of Kenya Bus Services Limited in the Provision of Urban Transport in Nairobi by Tom Opiyo of the Department of Civil Engineering.
It was to fill this void that matatus emerged in the 1950s, providing a way for Africans to ferry goods and people from the rural areas surrounding the city to the African quarter within it. The lifting of the racist restrictions on Africans living in Nairobi following independence in 1963 sparked a massive influx into the capital and a corresponding explosion in the number of the illegal “dilapidated pirate taxis often pursued by the police” in the words of Kenda Mutongi, author of the book Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi. Within a decade, and despite the depredations of the state, the matatus had become firmly established and in 1973, then President Jomo Kenyatta freed them from licensing restrictions “allowing the owners to explore the limits of laissez-faire capitalism,” as Mutongi writes.
From these humble beginnings, the matatu industry has grown into a behemoth, generating revenues of, according to some estimates, $2 billion annually and employing over 350,000 Kenyans. Mutongi identifies it as, “the only major business in Kenya that has continued to be almost entirely locally owned and controlled.”
More than just transport, matatus are also a cultural phenomenon, one that embodies and celebrates the creativity, determination, verve, chaos, frustration and corruption that have been the lot of Kenyans for the last 50 years. It is why we love to hate them—the cool, bad boys of the street constantly thumbing their noses at the corrupt authorities and social conventions. As Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina said, “Matatus are Nairobi and Nairobi is matatus.”
Many of the bad things associated with matatus follow patterns that were laid down from the very start. Their initial illegal status and subsequent freeing from legal requirements imposed by the Transport Licensing Board mean matatus have always had an ambiguous regard—even disdain—for law and rules. The situation is not helped by the fact that many of the very people setting and enforcing the legislation, from senior police officers to government ministers to legislators, are also matatu owners, giving rise to conflicts of interests, something a former Minister for Transport once openly admitted when asked about the inability to enforce regulations. His shocking answer, as detailed by Sundiata Kaajja in the book The Great Nation of Africa: A Vision for the 'Motherland was: “I own a Matatu and I therefore cannot shoot myself in the foot.”
The sector has also generated massive opportunities for corruption for the police who, according to some estimates, take nearly 10 percent of all matatu revenues. It has also become a lucrative source of income for organized crime syndicates running extortion and protection rackets.
Further, true to their roots as transporters of workers from their homes on the outskirts of the city to their places of employment in downtown Nairobi, nearly all matatu journeys terminate in the area, turning the central business district into a huge bus park for the city’s 30,000 matatus. This is a major contributing factor for the interminable congestion and traffic jams that the city experiences.
Episodic government attempts to “tame” the industry range from the farcical—like targeting the gharish and wonderful paint jobs on the matatus as a sign of rebellion—to the ineffective. They have always been more informed by securing special interests rather than the general welfare. And the prescriptions have nearly always involved an attempt to restrict the access of matatus into the CBDs. For example, the famous 2004 “Michuki Rules,” which many credited with bringing a little bit of sanity into the sector, were not without the stench of scandal—especially surrounding the supply of the seatbelts and speed governors the rules mandated.
The rules were formulated by then Minister for Transport, John Michuki and required that all public transport vehicles fit seat belts and speed governors set at 80 kilometers per hour. They banned standing passengers and reduced the passenger capacity of matatus to 12. Additionally, crews of buses and matatus had to be vetted by police, wear uniform and have their pictures posted in the vehicles which were also required to replace their artwork with a single yellow line. However, the haste with which shiploads of containers with seatbelts and speed governors arrived in the country aroused great suspicions. A court found that Michuki had indeed gone “out of his way to prescribe brands of speed governors and to name dealers from whom these were to be obtained.”
Such conflicts of interest are one of the main reasons why matatus continue to be a menace when the ingenuity they represent could possibly be put to the service of a homegrown solution to the city’s public transport crisis. The current Governor of Nairobi is himself a matatu owner and went to court to fight against a ban on matatus accessing the CBD twelve years ago.
This latest stand-off with the sector is unlikely to result in any significant changes to the way matatus are operated and managed unless these conflicts are addressed. For now, Nairobi’s destructive infatuation with matatus is set to continue.