Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Matatus: Let’s Stop These Cat-and-Mouse Games

The recent matatu crackdown has been a bumbling debacle. Truly, in light of all the recent accidents that have involved matatus, and their belligerent rule flouting, we understand that stern measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of all road users. But then again, crisis can never be considered an excuse for using irrational behaviour to solve the crisis. What we need is level-headedness, particularly from the authorities, to come up with adequate solutions.

The matatu industry has been quite a thorn in the side of many Kenyans for quite some time chiefly because it is so unregulated; fares are arbitrary, matatus change/shorten routes at their own convenience (goodness! Nowadays, matatus, like 111s can no longer pass for Ngong-City Centre matatus because their itinerary has been shortened to Karen – Prestige Plaza), and this basically opens the common mwananchi to exploitation because, like it or not, they eventually have to take a matatu because they cannot be too choosy – lest they spend a whole night in the city centre.

The games of cat-and-mouse between the police and the matatus are not helping us either. On the one hand, it is totally ridiculous for the police to paralyze the transport industry in this manner (when will Kenyans ever realize that “time is money”?), and on the other, it is ridiculous for matatus to flout rules on a regular basis because they risk the lives of their customers just as much as they do their very own. One would wonder why it would actually seem more convenient for matatus to operate outside of the law; it is a foregone conclusion that their services are needed (and that they will never lack customers), so shouldn’t they at least try to invest something into their customer service? The rudeness that characterizes the customer service in this industry is a testament to the poor business ethic that has been allowed to fester in this country.

Fortunately, a few measures can be put in place to fix some of these problems. One of them would be a lessening of police responsibility with regards to policing matatus. Reflecting on the recent flops of Alcoblow and the speed gun (particularly the rather public fiasco involving The World Bank’s Mr. Colin Bruce), it is clear that it is futile, perhaps even dangerous, to render unto the police a task that they are ill-equipped to handle. What is needed is the development of independent service stations that can service and then certify these matatus as being roadworthy, as per a certain number of parameters specified by a governing vehicle authority. This would also achieve the goal of reducing bribery because the inspection certificate issued would also hold the service station liable to explain any problems that would appear to have been overlooked during any inspection period, particularly if that oversight leads to an accident. Because of the nature of the matatu industry, I believe that at least 2 inspections should be scheduled per year to ensure that the vehicles (and subsequently the passengers) are in good condition.

Now, one might wonder how you would force matatus to go for these inspections, seeing as some owners are content just leaving their vehicles at home to avoid the police crackdowns. This is simple: every matatu plying our roads is already a registered vehicle, meaning that all its details and its owner’s particulars are already contained within a (computerized) government database. Using this information, and a randomized scheduling process, these matatu owners can be served with notices requiring them to have their vehicles inspected, certified, and evidence of this certification sent to the relevant government office in charge of these vehicles. Failure to remit this evidence of certification within a set grace period would hence lead to a speedy (hefty) fine and immediate impounding of the vehicle either if it is found on the road, or wherever it is stored (whichever proves to be the best deterrent).

There are more things that need to be fixed, particularly a regulation and demystification of matatu fares (will definitely require stakeholder - government, matatu associations and common wananchi – input) and a stern enforcement of their routes, but let us deal with one crisis at a time. And speaking of other issues that just irk the common mwananchi, it would be wise for the government to conduct a feasibility study to test whether the seat-belts within 14-seater matatus are actually helpful. I hypothesize that they are an encumbrance, of little use, and might actually preclude the chance of an easy escape for passengers if these vehicles were to be involved in accidents; can someone please prove me wrong!

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