opinionBy Njonjo Kihuria
Even as the political temperatures rose a notch higher this week with the signing of the various pre-election pacts, Kenya once again became a walking nation as the public service sector put their vehicles off the road in protest to the new traffic rules.
The matatu crew were protesting the huge fines and stiff prison terms prescribed by the law on infringement of its various sections. Understandably, the fines are out of reach of many Kenyan drivers and it is obvious that if the law is strictly adhered to, many a driver, tout, rider and commuter will find themselves behind bars.
Be that as it may, the matatu industry is a disorganised sector; a disjointed movement that always fire-fights. Were it a proactive industry, the sector would have sought to halt the high fines and tough jail terms at the early stages of the amendment process.
Rarely will a section of society manage to change a law that has been passed by Parliament and ultimately signed into law by the President.
And even if such a segment of society existed, it would be a group made of sterner stuff such as teachers who can persist for months even on the threat of their salaries being withdrawn.
The matatu industry is made up of owners who have to pay punitive monthly loan installments for the vehicles and crews that are paid on a daily basis and who also fleece owners in order to get their daily kilo of meat and pint of alcoholic drink.
No wonder the then minister for Transport and the man who introduced discipline on Kenyan roads, the late John Michuki said of them, "Those are mercenaries; people who work solely for money and are even prepared to kill for it". Michuki said this in 2004 during the implementation of the acclaimed Michuki traffic rules that transformed the matatu sector for a while.
What Michuki did not tell Kenyans was that there was another group of death merchants who worked in cohorts with the matatu crews in making money over the dead bodies of Kenyans - the traffic police.
The traffic police officers collect thousands of shillings on the road every day, live in modern rented premises, while the other officers stay in dilapidated police quarters. They drive new cars and own fleets of matatus, while their colleagues in other police departments can only dream of owning motor bikes.
For the short time that Michuki remained in Transport, law and order reigned on our roads but as soon as the minister was transferred to another ministry, the stringent rules he had set and ensured their enforcement by the police were relaxed and gradually, it was free for all again.
Drivers and touts went back to their old wayward ways; overloading their vehicles, driving recklessly, casting away their uniform and being rude to passengers.
The seat belts were neglected to the point of filth and passengers could no longer wear them and the police went back to bribe taking even as most public transport vehicles lapsed to road unworthiness.
Today, most PSVs on our roads are unserviceable, but they daily pass police check points where they are stopped but no traffic police officer comments on the condition of the vehicle or even reprimand passengers for not wearing seat belts.
In fact the worst ramshackle will easily get through the police check as long as the driver passes the small PSV license (which had moments earlier been passed to him by the conductor) to the traffic officer who in turn goes to the front of the vehicle pretending to check whether all the 'windscreen' licenses are in order.
The officer, who flips through the small booklet as he looks at the windscreen, then promptly walks back to hand it to the driver and waves the matatu off.
Some PSV drivers have also taken to drinking while driving which makes the situation even more hazardous. But most worrying is the pathetic condition of most PSV especially the short distance ones and the uncaring attitude of their owners, crew and police.
While I am not opposed to the new rules, I do not believe that they are the panacea to the indiscipline on our roads and most road accidents could be avoided were the Michuki rules strictly enforced.
Rumour has it that already the police are asking for higher bribes of up to Sh3,000 (instead of fifty), but I bet that once the bribe taker realises that the bribe giver can only give so much, the two parties will come to a compromise. The matatu crew will give an agreed standard bribe and life will continue. The carnage on our roads will as a consequence also continue.
Amos Kimunya has been a lackluster Transport minister and all he seems to have done is create a wider corruption platform for the traffic police or whoever will enforce the new rules.