Matatu is a Kikuyu language coinage for vehicles that charged thirty cents to ferry passengers in the budding post-independence Nairobi City. The first matatu models were of Ford construction as brought out by Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his novel Devil on the Cross. Was it coincidental that matatu drivers would later be termed as those who see or hear no evil? I affirm. The British officers rewarded the ex-service counterparts with the models that would later be replaced by Ford Transit. One of the oldest owners, Kibunja recounts how he ferried his neighbors from Makadara to CBD for matongore matatu.
Post-Independence, Overseas-Transport-Company (OTC), later Kenya Bus Service, was the only legal public transport operator. Due to increase in demand, innovative Kenyans came up with means to utilize the glaring niche, developing from the Peugeots and wobbly Volkswagens to mini vans. The KBS revolted against the new developments with Ronald Ngala threatening to wipe out matatus that were deemed as illegal. 1972 had the government introduce strict measures to curb matatu growth, launching with it matatu crack-down that sent them out of the CBD. They were soon silenced when in 1973, the founding president officially issued a motor licensing decree to the matatus, freeing them from any form of licensing. Kenyatta’s Decree that also recognized matatus as a legal mode of transport followed his meeting with Joseph Mwaura Nderi and four others in 1971 to discuss problems facing matatu operators. He advised the bus owners to sell them in favor of the trending matatus.
The business spread like wildfire and was soon a whole indigenous industry in appreciation for the unrestricted movement of the Africans from the rural to the urban areas with the epitome in Nairobi. Middle-class patriots venturing into the business were deemed to be industrious fellows assisting the new state gets on its knees. The business grew sporadically and was soon attracting the rich in the country. They bought more spacious models from Japan that soon replaced the Ford T ones. The industry quickly became a money-minting set-up with the owners’ hiring drivers that they easily fired whenever they failed to hit the day’s target. Consequently, they hired rogue conductors who filled the matatus beyond the capacity in the hope of higher returns so as to secure their jobs. Kenyatta’s regime required the matatus to ply designated routes.
The aftermath was an increase in accidents and an unmanageable multi-million sector in the economy. Towards the 1980s, matatus had become characteristic of what they are best known for today, all in attempts to satisfy the owners. There was an increase in accident cases in the country. The Matatu Vehicle Owners Association, an organization that wielded enough power to protest against the strict rules introduced by the then President Moi across the 1980s, was formed. The Matatu stakeholders were not happy with the unplanned assent of the Matatu Bill that introduced stiff requirements on their end. The 1984 Act that amended section 96 of Cap. 403 required that all matatus to have PSM cum PSV license, be inspected with regards to construction, equipment and use. Many poor owners were forced out of the industry as the rich managed the shortcomings with ease. Traffic police utilized this opportunity to collect money from the non-compliant fellows.
Consequently, the surviving operators with the help of corrupt officers molded the industry into a commuter-operator conflict zone with increased arrogance witnessed on both fronts. Matatus became hubs for gangs and cartels as well as a politician’s side hustle. The safety struggles by Moi’s regime were continuously fading with cases of accidents snowballing. Passengers complained of loud music, the growing matatu culture that encouraged hooliganism and general negligent operation. With the new government came new stipulations aimed at controlling matatu disorder, Michuki Rules. The regulations, which took effect in February 2004 through Legal Notice 161 of 2003, mandated that all public transportation vehicles, including taxis (“matatus”) and buses, install speed governors, passenger safety belts and have disciplined drivers and conductors. However, the police failed to enforce them and when he died in 2012, he died with the strictness of the rules.
Michuki rules were embraced by the now-defunct Transport License Board which was replaced with National Transport & Safety Authority. TLB was involved in the business of decongesting the CBD and in 2011 issued a legal notice to halt licensing of new 14-seater matatus. It also insisted that matatus must be linked to a SACCO thus kicking out cartels in the sector. In cognizance of UN General Assembly Resolution 64/255 of 2010, Kenya formalized the NTSA as a lead agency in 2012 to aid in the campaign for road safety. From Legal Notice No. 219 of 2013 to the most recent one, Motor Vehicles Inspection Regulations, NTSA has been involved in back-and-forth confrontations with the matatu operators in attempts to bring order and discipline that is viewed as lacking in the industry. The agency is also keen to reduce road accidents. This is in cooperation with its henchmen, National Police Service and County Askaris, all of who claim supremacy over the other when it gets to enforcement at the expense of the death tolls.
This paper seeks to interrogate the legal framework in place since independence in the effort to curb road accidents while questioning law enforcement authorities’ involvement in the business of curtailing progress for safer rides. It will further demonstrate how the traffic police are creating more blackspots and reducing thinking distance for their collaborators on the Kenyan roads while not ignoring other factors at play. Across the sections, we revisit the bold Michuki rules that aimed at solving the transport service matrix and finally give recommendations in light of the same to the current relevant bodies and stakeholders for consideration.
2.0 Legal framework
In this section, the paper will endeavor to cover legislations regulating the matatu business which includes the Constitution (on consumer rights), the consumer protection Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It will further discuss the various legislations regulating matters to do with traffic and road safety which include; the Traffic Act, the NTSA Act, the County Laws and the UN Conventions on Traffic and Road at the International level.
2.1 Domestic legislation
2.1.1 The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 (COK)
Article 26 of the COKprovides for the right to life which shall be protected at all costs and no one should be deprived of their right to life.
On matters of the matatu business, which is a service-providing business, article 46 of the COKcalls for consumer protection. It provides verbatim that: consumers have right the right to – goods and services of reasonable quality, protection of their health, safety… and to compensation for loss or injury arising from defects in goods or services.
2.1.2 The Consumer Protection Act No. 46 of 2012
The Consumer Protection Act was enacted to provide for consumer protection and for fair, honest and decent advertising subject to the requirement of Article 46(2) of the COK.
Section 5 of the Act grants the consumers the right to quality goods and services while sections 12 and 13prohibit false and unconscionable representation.
2.1.3 The Occupational Safety and Health Act No.15 of 2007
The Occupational Safety and Health Act covers all the necessary health and safety guidelines that should be taken into consideration in all workplaces. The purpose of the Act was to secure the safety, health and welfare of persons at work as well as protect persons other than the persons at work against risks to safety and health. The matatu business is not an exception to the provisions of this Act as it is a workplace providing services to passengers. Further, every matatu has an owner and a driver and conductor who are the employees.
Diving into the provisions of the Act, the Occupier or employer has the duty to ensure safety, health and welfare at work of all persons working at their workplace. Part VI of the Act provides for a series of health provisions at the workplace. These are; cleanliness whereby the workplaces shall be kept in a clean state with dirt and refuse being removed on a regular basis, avoid overcrowding which would cause a risk to the health of persons, ensure ventilation by the circulation of fresh air among others.
2.1.4 The Traffic Act Cap. 403 Laws of Kenya
The Traffic Act encompasses all the necessary requisites of traffic operations in Kenya. It regulates matters such as registration of vehicles, licensing of vehicles, licensing of drivers, designated parking places, and other offences relating to the operation of vehicles on roads. Some of the offences specified by the Act include; over speeding, reckless driving, driving while under the influence of drunks, driving on pedestrian pathways and pavements, causing death by driving or obstruction, driving without due care and attention and parking vehicles containing explosives.
Through the Traffic (Amendment) Act of 2012, the Act now covers a wide range of penalties for various traffic offences so as to deter the occurrence of such offences with an end goal of reducing accident rates and minimizing loss of lives.
In the spirit of Michuki Rules, section 42 of the Actrequires motor vehicles to be driven at a speed specified as the maximum speed for that class of vehicle. In the same spirit, section 55provides for proper maintenance of vehicles. The Public Service Vehicles shall at all-time be maintained in such a condition that the driving of the vehicle shall not be a danger to passengers or other users. Moreover, section 66A provides that a public service driver can only drive for a maximum number of 8 hours in a day.
Further, section 69 of the Actgives the police powers to regulate all traffic and keep order in roads. These are just but a few provisions of the Traffic Act which serves as the mother of all traffic regulations.
2.1.5 National Transport and Safety Authority Act No. 33 of 2012
The National Transport and Safety authority Act 2012 establishes the National Transport and Safety Authority which has mandate under section 4(1) to;
- Advice and make recommendations to the Cabinet Secretary on matters relating to road and transport safety
- Implement policies relating to road transport and safety
- Plan, manage and regulate the road transport system
- Ensure the provision of safe, reliable and efficient road transport services
Further the NTSA has been delegated the following functions under section 4(2) of the Act;
- Register and license motor vehicles
- Conduct motor vehicle inspections and certifications
- Regulate public service vehicles
- Advice the government on national policy with regard to public transport system
- Develop and implement road safety strategies
- Facilitate the education of the members of the public on safety
- Conduct research and audits on road safety
- Compile inspection reports relating to traffic accidents
- Establish system and procedures for, and oversee the training, testing and licensing of drivers.
- County Laws
The County laws are a set of rules meant to regulate the general operations of the cities ranging from general nuisance offences, parking offences, solid waste management, hawking to matatu terminus. The Nairobi County laws for example, serve as a perfect traffic legislation as it covers matters to do with parking and matatu terminus. On parking, the county laws specify the following offences; placing a sign post or reserving a parking spot without authority in the county, parking in designated areas without payment of fees, parking on pavements of county gardens, damaging a vehicle clamp or attempting to do so, obstructing an officer in enforcing the by-lays among others.
Moving on to matatu terminus, the laws provide that; an application for parking permit should be made to county and such permit expires on 31st of December of the year it was issued, parking permit should be displayed conspicuously on the matatu, parking a vehicle which is not a matatu at a matatu terminus is an offence, one should not drive more than 10Km/hr into the terminus, importuning passengers on the streets or terminus amounts to an offence, six or more persons waiting to enter a matatu at a terminus or designated stopping place must form a queue just to mention a few.
- International legislation
2.2.1 United nations road safety conventions
Out of the 59 United Nation legal instruments on matters of inland transport seven are dedicated to road safety. These are;
- The 1968 Convention on Road Traffic
- The 1968 Convention on Road Signs and Signals
- The 1958 Agreement concerning the Adoption of Harmonized Technical United Nations Regulations for Wheeled Vehicles, Equipment and Part which can be Fitted and/or be used on Wheeled Vehicles and the Conditions for Reciprocal Recognition of Approvals Granted on Basis of these United Nations Regulations
- The 1997 Agreement concerning the Adoption of Uniform Conditions for Periodical Technical Inspections of Wheeled Vehicles
- The 1998 Agreement concerning the Establishment of Global Technical Regulation for Wheeled Vehicles, Equipment and Parts
- The 1957 Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road and;
- The 1970 European Agreement concerning the work of Crews of Vehicles Engage in International Road Transport.
The conventions served as basis for the enactment of National Legal Framework which would prevent death and injuries caused by road accidents. An illustration, the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic encompasses provisions such as; drivers should at all times be able to control their vehicle, drivers should maintain speed and distance, avoid overtaking or in the case of overtaking do so on the opposite side appropriate to the direction of traffic, avoid us of mobile phones while driving, put on seat belts and shoe extra care to vulnerable road users. Additionally, the convention requires drivers to have permits issued after tests. In the same line, the Convention provides that all vehicles should be registered and a registration certificate issued.
It is heartbreaking that, despite having a series of laws governing the matatu business and traffic and road safety, innocent souls are lost on a daily basis through road accidents due reckless driving, poor conditioning of matatus and the failure by the police to enforce these laws. As Simon Kimutai, the chairman of matatus owners’ associations, puts it; “we are good at drafting good policies and laws, but all of them are turned into cash cows.”
3.0 The no–nonsense minister and his no-nonsense rules (The Michuki rules)
The history of Transport and Roads in Kenya cannot be complete without the mention of John Michuki. Assuming his position as the Minister for Transport and Roads in the Kibaki government, Michuki stood out by instituting new transport rules which sought to bring discipline in the industry as well as reduce the accident rates. Just like Michuki, the rules were also no-nonsense and were subsequently named after him.
On October 4th,2003 the Ministry of Transport and Roads led by Michuki published the regulations vide a Kenya Gazette Notice, Legal Notice No. 161 of 2003. The aims of the regulations were mainly to reduce the rate of accidents caused by over speeding as well as; enhancing safety of commuters, ensuring responsibility, accountability, and competence of drivers and conductors eliminating illegal drivers, conductors and criminals who had polluted the industry; and facilitate identification of vehicles and restrict their operation to authorized routes.
The regulation encompassed a series of rules which in a nutshell included; Installation of seat-belts in every sitting position failure to which the owner of the vehicle would be guilty of an offence and liable of a fine of five hundred shillings in respect of every seat which was not fitted with a seat-belt, installation of speed governors which in any load condition would make the vehicle to stop if it exceeded the national speed limit of 80Km/hr, limit of the number of passengers to only fit the capacity of each category determined by the law. For example, matatus would only carry up to 13 in exclusion of the driver, indication of the route in which each vehicle operated, special budges and uniforms for drivers and conductors, compulsory testing for PSV drivers after every 2 years, yellow bands paintings on matatus and taxis, and fitting/display of driver’s shoulder length photographs in every taxicab and matatus.
In addition to the regulations, thousands of unroadworthy vehicles and their crocked drivers were eliminated countrywide from the roads during this period ending the chaos that had dominated the industry. Similarly, the police had also become no-nonsense in their duties and strictly saw it that all the regulations were adhered to. These led to a positive impact in the reduction of accidents. Statistics and reports carried out showed an immediate and rapid reduction of road accidents following the implementation of the Michuki rules.An illustration; the Mutugi and Maingi report showed a fall in all road accidents by 20 percent between 2003 and 2004. Likewise, the Chitere and Kibua report showed a reduction of accidents by 73 percent between the months of February-July 2004 as compared to the same period in the year 2003.
All seemed good until Michuki left office. The rules seemed to have lost impact as Kenya went back to square one. One would say that they died together with the man.
4.0 Aerial view of the cemetery
Road-traffic accidents have informed most of the call for formulation and enforcement of stringent guidelines imposed on matatu operators. In 1988, the then-President Moi instructed the Minister of Transport and Communications to announce such measures that were aimed at curbing the growing trend after an incident that left 31 Kenyans lifeless. The chief culprit identified was the ease of attaining a driving license through shady means, thus admitting unqualified drivers and unroadworthy vehicles to ferry human beings. In that year alone, over 1,500 casualties were recorded. Parallel research conducted between 1985 to 1986 revealed that traffic-related fatalities imposed a growing burden on the public health department.
NTSA in its policy framework, reported that Kenya loses about 3,000 lives annually in road-traffic deaths and double as a result of the injuries sustained. This was estimated to cost the nation 5% of its GDP. The accusations were laid on road safety management and coordination challenges in implementing strategies that lack mainstreaming. It is as ugly as the WHO in 2016 estimating fatalities in that year to be over 13,000. In that same year, 2,000 lives were lost. In collaborative research with the Global Road Safety Facility, it was discovered that the most vulnerable road users were innocent pedestrians followed by four-wheeler motorists. That also, a death ratio of three men to a woman was established. Others adversely affected are cyclists and tuk-tuk riders.
In a sobering reveal, 2022 had the number of road traffic deaths escalate to 3.8% from 2021 to attain an all-time high since independence. Some 4,432 lives were lost while over 6,000 were seriously injured. CS Murkomen revealed that road carnage claimed more lives than the Covid-19 pandemic. He emphatically attributed the pervasive menace of recklessness on the road and thereafter dismissed the notion that these were road accidents. Notably, the first quarter of 2023 has claimed slightly over 1,000 lives with again a negligible decrease from the corresponding period in 2021. The distribution of fatalities captured 362 pedestrians, 302 motorcyclists, 184 passengers, 101 pillion passengers, 104 drivers and 19 pedal cyclists. 83% percent are men while a tenth were incidents in Nairobi.
5.0 Traffic police and other causes of road traffic deaths
The horse sense to answer the question of what causes road accidents would be to get the same from the horse’s mouth. The sitting Cabinet Secretary was quoted in December 2022, calling out on recklessness as the bedrock in the venture to end unwarranted for accidents. Perhaps the question of interest becomes whose recklessness? Not blinking an eye to the other foregoing factors like natural calamities. As this is a matter between life and death, no cause is fit for the periphery and others for the umbra.
To save lives, every cause has to be questioned solely. Risk factors that cause accidents can be attributed to human behavior, road conditions, environmental factors, and vehicular issues. Human factors include drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, passengers, and pedals. Immediate causes of accidents include over speeding, fatigue, improper overtaking, negligence, inexperience, and illness. Road factors that lead to accidents include slippery surfaces, dust, and poor road conditions. Environmental factors such as weather and animals can also cause accidents. Vehicular factors include mechanical defects and features that contribute to accidents.
The journey begins with a wealthy tycoon or a Migori-Homabay-Kisumu business owners association purchasing a vehicle for this business. Whether purchased locally, brand new or used, or imported, the motor has to go through the hands of enforcement authorities. The used ones are subjected to transfer or title and renewals therein. It is of interest that there exists a Kenyan standard set by KEBS for any vehicle to operate. The inspection’s objective is focused on having only road-worthy vehicles in the game as provided by the Traffic Act. It is therefore correct to assume that all vehicles have gone through the Kenya Government Vehicle Inspection Centre and that the brakes, steering, engine et al, have all been checked. After exhausting all the applicable fees, the vehicle is released to the Sacco for operation.
The vehicle is thrown into the complex web of the matatu industry equation, hoping that the driver is up to scratch, the roads are safe, and all road users are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to safety measures. However, there’s always a fly in the ointment – the unpredictable traffic police equation. It’s uncertain who will be behind the wheel or who will be responsible for managing the number of passengers on board. On top of that, there’s the constant threat of bribe-seeking officers lurking around every corner. The safety of the roads and weather are also up in the air, but the biggest monkey on its back is the mental state of the driver and their willingness to play ball with the authorities. At the end of the day, the matatu serves the owner and any mishap that results in getting pulled off the road due to noncompliance could be a costly mistake.
The mental well-being of the driver is crucial in ensuring a safe journey. It encompasses aspects such as stress, fatigue management, avoidance of drug abuse, peace of mind, and possession of skills and experience required to navigate the vehicle. These factors must align positively to guarantee the safety of passengers. One of the primary contributors to drivers’ mental stress is job insecurity, where many drivers lack formal training and rely on the goodwill of owners or connections in the SACCO. They are under immense pressure to meet the owner’s target, regardless of the challenging circumstances they face. Inevitably, this pressure leads to dangerous driving habits such as overloading, speeding, overtaking recklessly, and bribing traffic officers. Drivers often hire conductors who exhibit traits of toughness to help them navigate these situations. The cumulative effect of these factors is a precarious situation where the safety of human transport becomes a matter of chance, a gamble between life and death with every journey.
On the other hand, road agencies are yet another key to ensuring road safety. The 2007 Roads Act brought with it, high hopes for better road networks, but it is a case easier said than done. It is no surprise that some lawyers can make a killing for suing a road maintenance agency, with the defendant often being caught red-handed. In the case of Ahmednasir Maalim Abdullahi v Kenya National Highways Authority, the plaintiff won the case where he faulted KenHA for his damaged car before it was overturned by the appellant court for lack of evidence. The issue of road conditions in Kenya is like walking on thin ice, with several blackspots known to the public. It requires high driving knowledge to navigate and a well-serviced vehicle to manage unaddressed road conditions. There are more than 160 known blackspots that openly guarantee death to unsuspecting players. What has the government done?
The issue of law enforcers becoming lawbreakers is one of the chief culprits. Traffic police sometimes turn a blind eye to overloaded and unworthy vehicles, allowing private cars to operate as PSVs, and even accepting bribes from drivers. Some of the drivers are not even formally trained, having only learned on the street. The inspecting bodies are also creating a farce in their job, pretending that the vehicles are safe when they are not. The number of accidents occurring in Kenya is too high to believe that these vehicles are truly fitted with anti-rolling bars, and the crashes are often fatal. In a serious accident in Kenya, it’s often difficult to tell whether the skin was not part of the metal before the misfortune, leaving the passengers twisted like pretzels.
What the briber does to the bribed is to reduce the thinking distance that is crucial in navigating vehicles. Or rather the thinking distance does not exist afterwards. I wish I had the opportunity to question my John Saga driver his exact feelings about the bribing bit. I can answer, it increases arrogance and recklessness. Certainly, that five strides towards the driver’s window, fake sturn face and silly greeting of Mkubwa kazi iko aje? can reduce road traffic deaths if it were meant for handcuffing passengers sitting on the sambaza, the conductor who allowed them in and the driver who guided overloaded vehicle. Those officers see no evil and hear no evil. I suspect they have not experienced the discomfort in a rusty vehicle, the apprehension that comes with it when it starts to overspeed and so forth. They mostly act right while seeking promotion or when a higher authority is on the lookout. But sometimes, it’s the higher authority or another one, that commands the chain.
6.0 Recommendations – A letter to Murkomen
Having assessed the major causes of road accidents in Kenya, this paper recommends as follows;
- Mounting of Traffic safety cameras on the roads to monitor the speeding of vehicles and also to curb the police from collecting bribes. It will also help notify the authorities of road accidents immediately after they occur.
- Creation of a specialized traffic cop’s body which is well-trained and remunerated. This will improve efficiency in the enforcement of traffic rules since the body will be only trained on traffic matters.
- Reconstruction of unworthy roads. This will help minimize such accidents caused by poor road conditions. This reconstruction should also include putting up traffic lights and signposts on dangerous spots or the so-called black spots.
- A national general public service vehicle inspection is to be held. This should be followed by the removal of all unroadworthy or crooked vehicles from the road.
- Enactment of a law proving for drivers to have drug test stickers mounted on the windscreen. Further, the drug test should have been done within a one-year limit.
- All public service vehicles have panic buttons that will help the driver send real-time alerts in case of an emergency such as brake failure. Panic buttons also help the driver to cool down in emergency situations.
- PSV Saccos to provide details of all their drivers indicating the specific vehicles assigned to them to avoid situations where we have drivers causing accidents and running away unidentified. The same should also apply to conductors.
- Separation of pedestrian walks from the main roads. This would include building blocks to prevent situations where vehicles lose control and hit pedestrians on the pathways.
- Dual carriage on all highways to reduce traffic jams and the urge for overtaking which when done recklessly results in collisions and car crashes.
I could not help but imagine a case where all the people who died as a result of road accidents had risen against those who lead to the deaths. The prosecutor would call out the case file name Corpse v Cops and Matatu drivers. But all that remains to be an imagination. Once they enter the grave, they cannot claim justice. The question that arises at this instance is, how many people will we continue sending to the grave due to road accidents? 3,000 every year or even more? It is clear that road accident has become a chronic disease whose cure has to be found or at least a vaccine to prevent its spread. The party animals in the name of drivers who have decided to turn matatus into a night club drinking while driving and putting on loud music should be penalized or lose their licenses once and for all. On the same line having all the crooked vehicles removed would serve as a prevention if not the cure. We cannot continue having rusted metal sheets on our roads in the name of matatus. What of the tax collectors who are busy collecting revenues on the roads instead of checking whether people are complying with traffic rules? The traffic cops are busy collecting kshs. 50 and kshs. 100 notes from the drivers to pardon over speeding, overloading and other non-compliance with the traffic rules. And out of a simple exchange of kshs. 50 note souls are lost. As the people are given the power to enforce the law, the police are in a better position to ensure that traffic rules are adhered to creating safety on the roads. Truth be told, if the police became no-nonsense, we would not be having problems on our roads, but they cannot because they are oiled by this money. As this paper rests, it is time to wake up, the laws are not in our books for their beauty they are there to be followed. It is time to create a safe spot on our roads.
Evance Ochieng Ouma – third year law student at the University of Nairobi and a writer. Email: email@example.com
Victoria Mumo Titus – third year law student at the University of Nairobi and a passionate researcher and writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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