The news that the National Youth Service (NYS) is reviving its commuter bus service to rescue residents in densely populated city estates from the jaws of matatu cartels is welcome indeed.
It is more so because at this time of rains, such residents are at the mercy of merciless sharks in the matatu industry, who only see distressed people as a major chance to rip them off. When it rains, fares shoot up even 100 per cent. Children are ignored and left stranded, to arrive home by the grace of God. Anybody intervening in this scenario can only be a godsend.
The NYS service, already in operation, will offer fares that are scraping the bottom of the barrel. Since it is not in competition to make profit, it will afford to be compassionate, and ensure it serves all equally, irrespective of the time, place, hour, or age.
And as expected, the matatu owners are breathing fire, even threatening to sabotage the new service. This is really disingenuous. That they are fighting the new service merely because it threatens their capacity to rip off customers show the mindset that rules the matatu sector.
However, there is just one problem, and with it comes a sense of déjà vu. We have been here before.
In 1986, to much acclaim and in response to growing chaos in the matatu sector, retired President Moi launched the Nyayo Bus Service. It became a major player in commuter transport in Nairobi, easing the transport problems in the city substantially, and stabilising prices.
Its service offering kept matatu chaos in check because there was an alternative that picked up the slack in matatu transport considerably.
However, the bus service eventually imploded, brought down by a toxic mix of corruption, inefficiency, and sheer mismanagement. Eventually it went off the road, and its buses were either auctioned off secondhand to other operators, or as scrap!
Have any lessons been learnt? For instance, what training was given to the operators of the new service as they take to the roads? Were they trained in proper collection and management of fares?
Who will be supervising this activity seeing as the Auditor General only comes in to do postmortems? What arrangements have been put in place for maintenance of the buses? The government says this is a short term measure. Really? Is it fair to bring assistance to some people only to withdraw it when it has changed their lives for the better?
The bottomline is that government does not do business well at all. Without wanting to blunt the enthusiasm and good spiritedness that has informed the new initiative, it is important for Kenyans to think of sustainable long term solutions to the problems of commuter transport in our large and growing cities and towns of Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu and Nakuru. More towns will join this league in the near future.
The new NYS initiative seeks to solve a problem that has bedevilled the commuter transport sector in Kenya — the chaos in the matatu industry.
The government must start with the template used by late Minister of Transport John Michuki, who, before he was shifted from that docket, was well on his way to sorting it out.
Matatus must be standardised. All these garish colours, music, rough and rowdy touts wearing all manner of costumes must go. Simply. The Government must return the matatu sector to speed governors that are enforced, retrain all drivers and, together with touts, put them on a register where they can be de-registered if found guilty of misconduct.
Matatu saccos must become enforcers of discipline, not simply a conduit to collect money for cartels. Safety belts must return to the sector. Matatus must, by law, be made to carry even children at the risk of sanctions.
The 14-seater matatu was supposed to have left the scene — it has refused to go away simply for lack of enforcement. The policy which was driving Kenya towards amalgamation of saccos to then bid for routes so that commuter transport can then be scheduled and supported by Government if necessary must be reinstated.
If Kenya is to accomplish its Vision 2030 dream of a society enjoying a high standard of living with a modern economy, commuter transport in our cities must be streamlined. Developed countries spend billions on commuter transport and support those systems even when they operate at a loss.
This is because a modern, efficient, reliable and affordable commuter transport system is a key plank of a modern economy. Kenya will not be the first country to become a modern economy with a chaotic commuter transport system epitomised by the matatu sector.
So, while the NYS initiative is laudable and will offer short term relief, it is but a painkiller. The disease remains in the body, and a major surgery must at some point be carried out, however long the country agonises over it and delays it. It is time the Government bit the bullet!