Thursday, June 08, 2017

Mr Michuki is no role-model

In listening to the Libertarians in my universe, I have come to the conclusion that the matatu sector is not made up only of criminal lowlifes. The investors in the sector are legitimate businessmen who do what all businessmen do: minimise costs, maximise profits. For this reason, their behaviour is entirely rational. By trying to transports as many people as they can, for the shortest distance possible at the highest fare they can charge, they are doing exactly what airline and train companies do. No one invests in a sector without wishing to maximise his or her return on investment and to imagine that investors in the matatu sector will not do the same is foolhardy at best, and incredibly naive.

What the sector lacks is not virtuous businessmen - no sector has those - but rules that are enforced fairly in a system designed to maximise benefits for, and minimise risks to, all stakeholders. The situation that obtained in Kenya when the Traffic Act was first enacted no longer exists. The relationships between road-users and the Government have undergone sea-changes over the past thirty years that to rely on a statutory architecture designed in the colonial era serves no purpose in the twenty-first century. It is time to re-think what we understand about traffic and traffic management and design a system that serves our interests as opposed to establishing a regime of minor and major traffic offences that serve as a license to steal from the forces of law and order to the insurers to the road user to the investors in public transport.

Kenya has tinkered with the peripheries of public transport for decades - look at the Road Levy, the Railway Development Levy, the insanely massive investments in railroads and superhighways, numerous amendments to the law and the establishment of more parastatals to manage the sector - without re-thinking some of our most deeply held assumptions about what we can and cannot do in order to make life for all stakeholders easier.

So long as people have jobs to do and places of work to do them in, there will always be a great need for facilities to transport people and goods from place to place safely, efficiently and affordably. For these facilities to be effectively managed, the rules of the game must be designed to encourage safety, efficiency and affordability. In Kenya, though, the motivation has always been to impose top-down solutions on entire swathes of the economy by fiat - backed up by laws, regulations, police, prosecutors and magistrates. The system we have is a test of wills between the Government and the other stakeholders. It is not safe, efficient or affordable. Calls to memorialise John Njoroge Michuki epitomise this State-led model and betray that few Kenyan political leaders appreciate the complexity of what they intend to manage for what they claim is the benefit of the public.

John Michuki was a holdover from colonial times with the paternalistic colonial attitude that insisted that "natives" were inherently malign in their intent and required a firm hand in dealing with them. His approach to public policy implementation was to impose a policy on stakeholders and then enforce it using draconian means. For him, it was irrelevant that policy failures were not just the the fault of non-state actors, but also because of systemic handicaps that had been revealed by decades of  the hollowing out of State institutions and the enervation of State agents. Mr Michuki presided over corrupt institutions but instead of reforming them, he focussed his attention on the low hanging fruit of the matatu sector who could be counted on ;always to perform some outrageous thing that would rile up the very people it served.

The lesson Mr Michuki should have drawn from two seminal events in 2003 - the Walking Nation period when matatus were on strike and the brief flowering of citizens' intervention against corrupt traffic-law enforcement - was not that the matatu sector  was the enemy, but that at that moment he had enough goodwill from stakeholders to reform the sector, rooting out entrenched bad habits and rethinking the public transport model that obtained at that time. He missed the opportunity and we are now saddled by white elephants like the a new railroad and an incompetent road-safety agency.

Mr Michuki should not have public monuments built to him or named after him. It isn't just because he also presided over the unlawful deaths of hundreds of Kenyans on no more than suspicion of violent crimes, but because he established a model that has been adopted by Fred Matiang'i and Cleopa Mailu in how major public policy questions are addressed - top-down and backed by armed police should "stakeholders" rebel.

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