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Is hijacking the new ‘culture’ in matatus?

A majority of people in Nairobi use matatus to commute in, out and within the city. Photo/FILE

A majority of people in Nairobi use matatus to commute in, out and within the city. Photo/FILE

NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 18 – As a vast majority of Nairobi residents use matatus to commute to and from the city, the safety of this mode of transport is of utmost necessity.

But hardly a day goes by without reports of a hijacking or rampant pick pocketing on what is commonly known as a ‘Ma3’ or ‘Nganya.’ Accidents are also the order of the day.

In a city grappling with terrorism and escalating cases of hijackings, is it safe for a person to travel using Public Service Vehicles? Or is it the only means of transport for the majority?

I decided to take a trip to Githurai, boarding the infamous Githurai 45 buses.

As I approached the bus terminus, I could see it was chaotic; noisy bus conductors soliciting passengers, loud music and pushing and shoving for space in the newest matatu.

No security check is conducted as I board one of the buses plying the route, but the crew is quick to tell me how much I will pay. “Hii ni mpya na swag yake iko juu (It is a new one with greater swag!,” one of the conductors tells me.

True to his word, inside is a sticker that reads; “Hii Swag ni Wazimu, Itabidi Uchukue Mortgage. (This swag is crazy, you may need to take a loan).

I can see one or two police officers manning the area which gives me assurance that everything is alright.

Other than the loud music, I also notice the heavily tinted windows and coloured lighting which may serve as a perfect environment for hijackers and terrorists to operate.

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More stickers adorn the inside of the matatu with some reading; ‘Normal Life is boring’, ‘Born a Criminal.’

Posters of Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi are there too. With allegations that matatu crews are involved in the carjacking cartels, a number of questions run through my mind.

Could this don’t-care culture have something to do with the rampant cases of carjacking where thugs commandeer matatus and rob passengers before fleeing? Is this just an addition to the ‘matatu culture’ in Kenya?

Nairobi County Commander Benson Kibui acknowledges the rise in such incidents although he assures that his officers have heightened operations to catch up with the criminals. Police are in control, he says, but challenges drivers and conductors of Public Service Vehicles to obey the law.

“I can assure the Nairobi populace that we are doing everything to ensure these cases don’t happen,” he guarantees. Kibui says some matatu crews have been scheming with criminals who they pick passengers at selected stages to avoid the security checks at the boarding points.

Those who hop onto the matatus along the way proceed to commandeer the vehicle which they drive to isolated places and rob passengers.

“We have now resorted to detaining the drivers and conductors pending investigations because it is their role to ensure the safety of the passengers,” he says.

Members of the public should demand being frisked by the matatu crews before boarding any Public Service Vehicle for their safety.

“Security starts with you. Everybody should be frisked to ensure you are safe. Police and the bus companies must work together to ensure the safety of commuters,” he said.

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The police boss says that some hot spots where carjacking mainly occur are the City Stadium roundabout, Church Army stage on Jogoo Road, Kipande Road, and the turnoff to the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication on Mombasa Road, Baba Dogo area, and the Kangundo/Outer Ring road junction.

Boniface Njuguna a manager with Runa Sacco observes the problem as being beyond the matatu crews’ behaviour.

He believes that hijackers and pickpockets always come up with a strategic plan prior to the execution.

Now that most of the matatus do not have security measures, though having invested heavily in music, most hijackers have taken advantage of this.

They operate in groups where most of them ensure they are the first to board their target bus in a bid to take strategic positions. Two will sit besides the driver, another set in the middle and the rest are picked along the way. These are normally armed with attacking tools which may include a gun.

In the case of a Githurai 44 bus that was hijacked on January 29, the gang took control after it slowed down at Ruaraka, along the Thika Superhighway.

One of the hijackers who masqueraded as a passenger started it off before the rest of the gang emerged and took control of the bus.

“This was a serious situation but police messed… How do you follow the bus and you have radio calls to alert the rest of your officers,” Njuguna who had a colleague in the bus posed.

He however agrees that police were very fast to respond.

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“This irritated them and that’s when they threw one of the passengers out of the speeding bus,” he lamented. “Now that these cases are escalating, police need to come up with ways to curb this, ‘tunaumia sana’ (we are suffering).”

During the incident, two people were killed and 20 others injured after the thugs robbed all passengers on board. Police have since arrested two suspects and arraigned them before court with 12 counts of robbery with violence.

“These days you cannot predict, ‘ni bizna imepangwa poa’ (it is a well planned ‘business’) …it is happening during the day and night,” an UmmoInner bus driver who wished not to be named said.

He recommends that a law requiring all public service vehicles to have metal detectors as a precaution be put in place.

“You cannot tell who is a criminal they just board the bus as a normal passenger (ni mtu kama raia wowote),” he points out. “Another one was hijacked as it was coming from Umoja estate.”

Daniel Waweru a resident of Githurai says most of these gangs are youthful.

“These are form four leavers who have no hopes of joining college. The ‘bad boy’ behaviour starts in these estate secondary schools.

We know them; some are our colleagues whom we used to go to school with. The manager of our school (in Githurai) only cared about our school fees…we used to go with phones, nobody cared.”

Despite enormous efforts by the police to maintain order within the sector, the matatu crews always have their way.

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David Ngugi a driver on the Waiyaki Way route says police are not to blame.

“Unless they are spoon-fed with these traffic regulations, even the very basic, they cannot change. It’s a culture which is deep rooted within their nerves; to do opposite of what is expected,” he laments.

The Chairman of the National Transport and Safety Authority Lee Kinyanjui proposes that CCTV cameras be installed in all buses as a security measure.

Admitting that traffic laws that ensure safety of commuters may have not been fully enforced, Kinyanjui says matatu crews should make sure they check those boarding their vehicles.

He however expresses optimism that the problem may not persist for long. “We are going to adopt the cashless system of paying your fare,” he stated.

“This way, no one will be able to conceal his identity.”

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