A new, vicious cartel has invaded matatu (public commuter vehicles) routes across the country and is extorting money from operators with impunity.
The group, believed to comprise remnants of the outlawed Mungiki sect, operates with the full knowledge of the police and the Transport Licensing Board (TLB), matatu owners claim.
Although the law allows only the TLB to regulate matatu routes, the cartel has been collecting an average of Sh400 from 14-seater matatus and Sh600 from mini-buses every day.
The cartel is active in most routes in Central Province, Mombasa, Nakuru and Machakos. Those who refuse to pay are attacked.
Says Mr Simon Kimutai, the chairman of the Matatu Owners Association: “Matatu operators are losing millions of shillings every day to cartels. We have complained many times to the police and other relevant authorities but nothing has been done.
A matatu owner on the Dandora route in Nairobi said police were aware of the cartels, but had done nothing to remove them or protect operators who refused to yield to the gangs’ demands.
However, police spokesman Jasper Ombati said he was not aware of the re-emergence of the cartels.
“Cartels are outlawed. We will carry out independent investigations and officers who have allowed the cartels to operate in their areas will be held responsible,” he said.
Mr Ombati said the police headquarters had issued firm instructions to officers in the field and those allowing cartels to operate will have themselves to blame.
Matatu operators said the cartels collected the fees between 7am and 9am. Those who pay are issued with printed receipts which are verified in the evening to ensure that only compliant matatu crew are allowed to operate.
The cartels are split into three groups Ė one collects money at termini in the city centre and in other town centres, the other targets vehicles along the routes and the third one waits in the estates. Money has to be paid out in each of the three stages.
The gangs operate in secrecy on some routes, but in others, they collect the money in full public view and with the knowledge of the police.
Police officers sent to dismantle the cartels instead harass matatu drivers and conductors.
Vehicle owners, drivers and conductors have been suffering in silence as nobody wants to stick out his neck for fear of being attacked
Nation reporters saw members of a cartel collecting money brazenly in several routes in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.
TLB chairman Hassan ole Kamwaro acknowledged that dangerous cartels had returned to the roads and they were making a killing.
“I’m aware that cartels have returned to some routes and they have been collecting illegal money from PSV vehicles. This is an issue of great concern to us,” he said.
The board had received information that the cartels were especially active on Jogoo, Langata and Mombasa roads and in Eastleigh and Route 44, he said.
Vehicles on the Nairobi-Kiambu-Githiga and Nairobi-Ruiru-Githunguri routes are ambushed at Pangani and Ngara area on Park Road as they leave Nairobi. Drivers on the routes said they encounter three different cartels on the way and each group demands Sh200.
The cartel on this route collects an average of Sh40,000 a day from matatus plying routes 100, 121 and 120.
New matatu owners on route 145, Nairobi-Ruiru, are forced to pay between Sh15,000 and Sh20,000 for their matatu to be allowed on the road and another Sh150 daily collection.
Gangs are stationed at Ruiru Town and at bus station in Nairobi to ensure that only those with receipts showing they have paid up operate.
Asked why the cartels were being allowed, Mr Kamwaro said: “TLB has to rely on the police to carry out the crackdowns.
“We are planning to employ our own officers whom we will have total control over,” he said.
The cartels pose a major security threat to the multi-billion matatu industry, which the 2005 Economic Survey said had grown by 54 per cent compared to the previous year due to reforms initiated by former Transport minister John Michuki.
Some 4,405 new matatus were bought last year, compared to 2,854 in 2003.
It is this increase that has made the cartels even more active as they make more money.