Trams and underground rail may be no more than just pipe dreams for a cash strapped Nairobi City County, but a public bus system is not only within reach, it can be made possible even in a few short months. -- #FrontrowThere is a fundamental assumption made by all who claim that a state-funded, a state-owned or a state-managed public transport system is the answer to the traffic problems of Nairobi: that the genie of a liberalised public transport sector can be put back in the bottle of a nationalised public transport system. Evidently they have great faith in the powers of national and local governments to see through the nationalisation of public transport. They have not reckoned with the power of the liberalised sector not only to resist the gambit but also to revise it extensively or, more likely, to defeat it decisively.
For a brief period, before the City Council of Nairobi lost its mind, municipal services were the envy of many. Streets were swept, rubbish was regularly collected, drains were unblocked and public transport was efficient, affordable and reliable. But between the appointment of a series of commission to run the City and the liberalisation of the public transport sector, city fathers lost their minds, corruption became a defining feature of municipal administration and the national government engaged in active sabotage of its own programmes, such as the establishment of the Nyayo Bus Corporation to compete against the Kenya Bus Service, the company that offered bus services in the City of Nairobi with the blessings and support of the City Council with the approval of the Ministry of Local Government.
The aftermath of liberalisation policies saw the introduction of thousands of buses, minibuses and vans offering public transport services in cut-throat competitive conditions. Both the Nyayo Bus Corporation and the Kenya Bus Service went out of business, the former being looted for all it was worth and the latter unable to offer cut-rate fares in competition with the surging matatu sector. An entire economic ecosystem is built around matatus and the blithe assumption that "a few short months" are all that are needed to re-nationalise public transport simply ignores the facts on the ground.
First, no matter what we think of matatu crews, they are in employment in one form or the other. Drivers, conductors and touts form the bulk of the employees of the matatu sector. Re-nationalisation of the sector almost certainly means that the vast majority must find alternative employment. Second, some form of compensation must be paid to all those whose buses, minibuses or vans will be pulled off the road on one pretext or another. If not, many individuals will face bankruptcy or insolvency and many financial institutions will have to manage bad debts for years on end. Third, the ecosystem supported by and reliant on the matatu system will have to reorganise. Importers of both chassis and used or second-hand vehicles, importers of new and used spare parts, mechanics, car-park yards, body fabricators, vehicle interior designers, insurance agents and brokers and finance institutions will have to find other recipients of their services. These "stakeholders" are important components of the economy and their needs must be addressed in any campaign to re-nationalise the public transport sector.
We already have a public transport system. What we don't have is a state-funded or state-managed one. We should keep it that way. What we need is a well-managed system. If there are standards, they must be applied, implemented and enforced fairly and firmly. If there are laws, they must be enforced without fer or favour. If there are offenders operating in the system, they must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We already have the experience of what happens when a corrupt government runs a bus company. There is no guarantee that the county government of Nairobi City is corrupt-free enough to be trusted with a monopoly in the public transport sector in Nairobi. Its recent pronouncements and clarifications don't imbue one with confidence either. Until someone puyblishes a comprehensive paper on what it means to have "a public bus system", let us treat #Frontrow's proposals like the wishes children make while blowing out candles on cakes.