Jomo’s cure for public transport

MUSA RADOLI  @PeopleDailyKe

In 1973, the Founding Father of the Nation Mzee Jomo Kenyatta issued a decree recognising matatus as a legal form of business. Before the decree, beginning early 1950s, matatus were operating illegally.

Jomo saw them as a blessing to the Kenyan economy as they created jobs and contributed to the growth of a young Republic.The birth of the matatu sector was occasioned by an increase in movement of people. Soon after independence, there was major rural-urban migration as people sought employment.

After Mzee’s decree, however, matatus did not require a Transport Licensing Board (TLB) and Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licences or insurance as is required today.

It was not until 1984 that a basic regulatory framework was constructed for matatus, when licening and inspections were mandated during retired President Daniel Arap Moi’s regime.

In major towns like Nairobi, as the population exploded, so did the demand for public transport soar. By late 1960 and early 1970s, the only public transport company operating in the city was Kenya Bus Service (KBS).

Private transport providers charged 30 cents to any place within Nairobi. This helped the poor African workers, who trekked by foot to work from Eastlands’ estates. The name matatu was derived from the kikuyu phrase “ mang’otore matatu” (30 cents) which took root and spread all over the country.

Nairobi city veterans who spoke to People Daily said the emergence of competitors to challenge KBS monopoly did not go down well with barons of the then city council of Nairobi who had vested interests in the bus company.

“I was an owner of a Peugeot 404 pick-up matatu and of course the “Kanjos” (city council) started fighting us. But  because they also wanted our votes to get into City Hall they had to compromise,” says mzee Titus Kinyua who hails from Eastlands Jerusalem estate.

Mzee Kinyua says in many rural areas Private Bus Companies held the monopoly and no matatus ever ventured there until sometimes in the 1970s. Private bus owners operating in the rural areas once ganged up and went to Kenyatta to complain that matatus were denying them business.

To which the President responded, “If the matatus are taking away your business, why not sell the buses and buy matatus?”

“Currently, the industry employs thousands of people in different capacities,” says Matatu Owners Association chairman Simon Kimutai Kimutai traces creation of saccos to the 1990s which controlled various routes. 

Going back to the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s the archetypal form of any matatu in Kenya was a gaily decorated Japanese Toyota, Nissan or Mazda van which took over from Toyota, Peugeot 404s and 504s. Pick-ups, popularly known as “face me” were fitted with benches to transport people from one point to the other. By the 90s, larger, bus-sized vehicles were also adopted into the industry.

In the early 2000s, struggle over control of matatu routes by informal groups led to violence. Screaming media headlines frequently highlighted the fact that matatu were unsafe.

These included a 2002 article carried by one of the daily newspapers titled “riding in Kenya’s matatus is [a] death-defying experience” and another from 1999 proclaiming that the “menace of deadly matatus [is] to be curbed.” Mistreatment of passengers has been reported and included verbal and physical abuse, theft, hijacking, sexual harassment, beatings, and rape.

Kimutai concedes that it was the late former transport minister John Michuki who brought some sanity into the sector.

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