Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Criminals and outlaws

Under ordinary circumstances, bending the rules or breaking the law is the exception and not the rule. If you're driving down a one-way street, it is not normal to make a three-point turn into oncoming traffic. If certain steps must be completed before a public tender is awarded, it is not normal for the giver of the tender to skip any or all the steps before awarding the tender. If one is disposing of rubbish, it is not normal to dispose of the rubbish outside the bin or into a water body. In Kenya, these are not ordinary circumstance; bending the rules and breaking the law are not exceptional acts but habitual ones.

The best depiction of the normalisation of the abnormal in Kenya is by the matatu industry. Public transport is rarely the most profitable venture in Kenya. It directly and indirectly employs hundreds of thousands of Kenyans crews, touts, mechanics, petrol station service providers, spare parts suppliers, bankers, lawyers, insurers and accountants. Matatus account for billions of shillings in investment, credit creation and value creation. These billions have turned the industry into an ecosystem. (In an ecosystem, there are predators, prey and scavengers.)

Once upon a time, the City Council of Nairobi operated the Kenya Bus Service, KBS. It is the KBS that had a monopoly of certain parts of the Nairobi Business District, especially the Central Bus Station off of Tom Mboya Street, the Ambassadeur Bus Stage along Moi Avenue and the KENCOM Bus Stage along City Hall Way. It operated other termini at Pumwani, Kangemi, Kawangware, Umoja and Dandora. It didn't enjoy a monopoly on public transport, but it had the best real estate in order to operate effectively.

Matatus, on the other hand, were confined to that zone known as "Commercial", bordered by Tom Mboya Street, Ronald Ngala Street, Ring Road, Kirinyaga Road and Murang'a Road. While the KBS operated a large fleet of scheduled, standard-sized buses that followed numbered routes, matatu owners tended to own one or two minibuses of varying designs and sizes that followed no schedule (and sometimes no set routes). "Commercial" was where you boarded your matatu if you cared little for the stodginess of the KBS, wanted to alight at non-designated places, enjoyed sub-woofer amplified dancehall, and didn't care if the matatu was overloaded or speeding. 

The Government of Kenya mirrored the public transport sector; some civil servants were the stodgy, play-by-the-rules KBS while others were the flashy and flamboyant matatu scofflaws, and this was starkly reflected in public institutions as well. And just as with the demise of the KBS and the takeover of the transport sector by the matatus, so too have the scofflaws captured the institutions of government, academia, the business sector and the civil society (including faith communities). The matatu culture pervades every part of our civic lives. It is almost expected of one to bend the rules or break the law because it is almost expected that little will be done about it. The offenders we punish the harshest are the ones least likely to affect the legitimacy of the Government we have; the offenders likely to receive the protection of the State and the adulation of the people are the ones who have turned our Government into a mirror of the matatu industry.

Chicken thieves, purse snatchers, burglars, armed robbers and murderers are quite often criminals. The corrupt in the highest echelons of the Government are almost always outlaws. You need to know the difference between criminals and outlaws if you are to understand the matatu-ness at the heart of our Government.

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