Kenya: City Hall's Dreaded Vehicles of Terror

Old. Rusty. Rugged. Frail. Rickety. This description aptly sums up Nairobi City County's inspectorate and enforcement vehicles.

These jalopies with craggy frames and whose windows are 'secured' with old wire mesh are harbingers of terror to most hawkers, street families and petty offenders in the capital city.

The sight of any of these hoary vehicles sends hawkers scampering with their wares.

Avoiding the nightmare of being bundled into these vehicles, which patrol the capital city looking for their next unwilling passenger, has become a matter of life and death for the small-scale traders.

Besides hawkers, the enforcement officers target pedestrians who break city by-laws such as the one that forbids talking on the phone while crossing a road.

Tales of horror

Ms Joyce Wanjiku, a clothes hawker in Nairobi's Central Business District, has many tales of horror to tell about the vehicles.

Ms Wanjiku says they fear being bundled into the vehicles that are manned by about five enforcement officers, popularly known as 'Kanjo', who are now under the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS).

These 'Kanjo' vehicles rule the roost around the city centre. They can use any lane, move in the wrong direction or on pavements in pursuit of their targets.

They crisscross the CBD - from Tom Mboya Street, Moi Avenue, River Road, Latema Road, Luthuli Avenue and others, ready to pounce on their prey.

Plainclothes officers have been co-opted into the daily cat-and-mouse game with hawkers and street families around the city. They pounce unexpectedly, leaving their targets with no choice but to be guests of the wobbly vehicles.

"Transport fee"

Once inside the vehicle, the captives risk being taken to Central Police Station and subsequently to City Hall courts if they don't part with either Sh500 or Sh1,000 "transport fee", a euphemism for a bribe.

Those who fail to part with cash are driven around the city centre until the pickup is full. They are then driven to Central Police Station.

"I have been arrested several times by the kanjos. Most of the times I am forced to part with the 'transport fee' for fear of being taken to court, where the fines are even higher," explains Ms Wanjiku.

And true to her word, she quickly disappears into thin air with her wares halfway through the interview on Mfangano Street.

As if in perfect choreography, the street empties of the hawkers in a split second after getting wind that plainclothes askaris have been spotted nearby.

Another hawkers tells us that sometimes a bribe does not work, as the officers could be under strict instructions from their bosses to hit a certain target in terms of arrests.

"If the instructions are to take a certain number of hawkers to either Central Police Station or Kamukunji Police Station, then you are doomed," she avers.

Once in court, each charge or count attracts a Sh1,500 fine, and depending on the number of charges preferred on a person, one can end up paying as much as Sh6,000.

To avoid paying the hefty fines, the hawkers opt to pay the 'transport fee'.

Not to be outdone, the hawkers have employed their undercover informers, whose work is to monitor the movements of the plainclothes officers.

"Those who monitor the officers are paid at the end of each day. We contribute something small for them," reveals another hawker.

Never replaced

But why the old jalopies, years after county governments replaced municipal councils?

Former Nairobi City Council Clerk Philip Kisia says during his three-year tenure at the city council, purchasing new vehicles was not a priority as the council used to get only Sh2.9 billion from the national government to run its services.

"We used the value model and every plan was only funded if it was going to add value to the people of Nairobi. Buying new inspectorate vehicles was not a priority then with the limited resources," said Mr Kisia.

He, however, fails to understand why the new devolved unit, which gets almost six times what the council used to get, has not reformed the department.

"The resources seem to have been directed to buying big vehicles for the governor, the deputy and the county executive members, yet these do not add value. A governor does not need 10 vehicles at his disposal," he points out.

Baba Dogo MCA Geoffrey Majiwa, who served briefly as Nairobi Mayor, sees it all as a deliberate move to have the vehicles break down so that they enter into a leasing agreement for kickbacks.

"Leasing has good kickbacks and that is why no new vehicles are bought. And if they are bought, they are not maintained. Ask yourself why the county government has very big garages with equipment yet none is functional," he says.

Mr Kisia says when he took over as City Hall Clerk, most of the 430 vehicles at the disposal of the council were unserviceable or not properly maintained, yet some required minor repairs that would have cost as little as Sh30,000 or Sh50,000. These vehicles, he said, would remain grounded for years.

"I will not be shocked that the vehicles are intentionally left in a state of disrepair so as to get into leasing and in leasing, you know what happens - money exchanges hands under the table," he states.

When the NMS took over four Nairobi County government's functions in March last year, the national government agency found more than 150 grounded vehicles but in its first 100 days, the Major General Mohamed Badi-led entity repaired 83 grounded City Hall vehicles at a cost of Sh22 million. The county had, however, said the repairs needed more than Sh200 million.

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