A group of boda boda riders wait for customers outside the Bazaar Building on Moi Avenue.

| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

From boda bodas to hawkers: Why fixing Nairobi is a tall order

Nairobi. The capital city of Kenya and the economic hub of East and Central Africa is choking. This time, it is more than the usual garbage.

The famed “green city under the Sun” is in utter disarray. Boda operators, parking boys, street families and hawkers have taken a stranglehold of the capital’s city centre.

They patrol the town with impunity as authorities turn a blind eye to the unfolding menace in the city that has led to a breakdown of social order in the city centre.

Among the group, boda boda operators and hawkers have come into sharp focus because of the potent force they have become, especially among the political class.

Backstreets, alleys, avenues, pavements, non-motorised transport corridors; name them, are now at the mercy of the groups. Laws of public order and decency do not apply to them.

Even the police have run out of options on how to rein in the perennial headache with the two groups having taken the law unto themselves meting out terror on those who dare cross their paths.

From causing death by dangerous riding to theft, assault, robbery with violence, handling of and trafficking in narcotic drugs, murder, kidnapping and abduction, the riders are a law unto themselves.

Hawkers selling their wares on the road outside Savani's bookshop on December 2, 2020. Their number in the city has increased in 2021.

And efforts to have them leave the city centre have always come a cropper.

In March 2019, Interior CS Fred Matiang’i ruled out extending the May 1 deadline for boda bodas to adhere to safety regulations, ordering police to immediately clamp down on rogue operators once the deadline expires. That remained just that: Another warning.

A task force had been formed in late 2018 to come up with regulations to guide the boda boda sector, but the report by the 12-member team is yet to be implemented.

“We made a swoop on four drug dealers in Nairobi. We discovered that each of them, owns an average of seven motorcycles,” said Dr Matiang’i at the time. “That is 28 motorcycles for drug running in the city.”

And in January this year, Inspector General of Police Hilary Mutyambai put unruly boda boda operators on notice, warning them against the emerging culture of impunity and lawlessness that poses a grave risk to public safety and security.

Despite several attempts by the Nairobi County Government to curtail the operations of the two groups in the city, all their directives have fallen on deaf ears as their implementation have only lasted a short time.

The authorities are caught in a catch-22 situation whether to go hammer and tongs on the group and risk losing their votes or turn a blind eye and enjoy their crucial support.

Boda boda riders still operate within the city centre, while hawkers also still conduct their business within the same territory with some coming into the city centre as early as 10am.

Even with the entry of the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), led by a former military man, nothing has changed.

Nonetheless, the NMS director-general, General Mohamed Badi, said his hands were tied on controlling the boda boda riders, as the mandate lies with the National Police Service (NPS) and they only enforce.

Boda boda riders outside Emperor Plaza at the junction of Koinange Street and Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Terminate their journey

However, he said NMS is in talks with the riders to have them terminate their journey at the new bus termini currently under construction.
“Even if our enforcement officers arrest a boda boda rider, they still hand them over to the police to draft the charges. So the duty to control the boda boda lies with NPS and so we cannot interfere with them,” he said.

On hawkers, he said NMS is building separate work areas for the hawkers and mechanics near Utalii College so that it can have a basis to remove them from the middle of town.

“We will also give them provision of some of the stalls to hawkers that will be operated in the different termini,” he said.

But the impunity with which the two groups operate has been largely fueled by the political class who are oftentimes too afraid to antagonize them.

For instance, in 2015, former Kiambu Governor Evans Kidero ordered all boda boda operators out of the city centre. However, they went to court to sue the county government.

The suit filed by City Riders Sacco would be dismissed in February 2016 by High Court judge Joseph Onguto who held that riders have no rights operating within the city centre.

Some half-hearted attempts to drive them out followed but that soon fizzled out as the CBD became a playground for the operators.
In January 2018, the regime of former Governor Mike Sonko revisited the ban issuing fresh orders banning all boda bodas from the city centre, except for those offering courier services.

Starehe MP Charles ‘Jaguar’ Kanyi – whose constituency covers the city centre – quickly rushed to court to have the ban lifted.
In the suit, he argued that the ban was arrived at unilaterally and will curtail the economic rights of many riders who rely on ferrying passengers to and from the CBD. The suit was later dismissed by the High Court in March that year.

But rather than effect the orders, the enforcement officers joined the dance with the operators who bribe them to turn a blind eye on their presence in the city centre.

But why are the two groups so bold to dare the system year in year out?

The boda boda transport sub-sector is dominated by young men who form a key voting bloc, whom politicians may not wish to upset.

1.6 million licences

The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) reported that there were 1,393,390 motorcycles registered in Kenya as at February 2018, while another 1.6 million licences have been issued to such operators since 2019.

The National Crime Research Centre says 38 per cent of boda boda riders are aged between 22 and 26, some 30 per cent are in 18-25 age bracket while 20 percent are aged 34-41.

Boda boda riders outside After 40 Hotel at the junction of Biashara and Muindi Mbingu streets.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

These are the people who move around, attracting crowds with their noisy motorbikes and causing chaos in rallies when needed.
The explosion of the sector has been fueled by a 2008 government policy zero-rating motorcycles below 250cc leading to a drop in motorcycle prices.

With widespread youth unemployment, many youths have been pushed to embrace boda bodas as a source of employment.

And with the ongoing BBI politics and less than two years to the General Election, politicians have begun angling for the vote-rich sub-sector, making any attempts to streamline it a pipe dream.

For instance, when the county’s inspectorate officers impounded several motorbikes from operators who defied the 2018 directive, Jaguar was on the side of the boda boda operators.

The lawmaker vowed to use all means possible to help them going ahead to meet the boda boda riders to chart the way forward.

But it is not only with the first-time MP. Deputy William Ruto has been on the charm offensive dishing out goodies to have the operators in his corner.

The DP has been conducting fundraisers across the width and breadth of the country in support of the boda boda riders and other small scale traders whom he has christened “hustlers” and who he claims are set to play a “significant” role in his government post-2022.

Not to be left behind, President Uhuru Kenyatta in October last year also met the boda bodas, launching an investment scheme for them.
He also warned them not to allow to be used by politicians saying they have the potential to make more money than all the 47 county governments get from the national government, if they become more organised.

During the meeting with the Boda Boda Safety Association of Kenya (BAK), the association promised to back the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) leveraging on its association’s 1.4 million members.

Political analyst Javas Bigambo posits that the boda boda sector, with its numbers, is good for political optics and that all politicians have been eyeing them.

“When you look at their numbers, they are very significant, especially in the informal sector. And if someone wants to move the sector then he or she cannot fail to give attention to them. That is why every person will want to give attention to their concerns,” said Mr Bigambo.

“No government has ever put in place critical policies to transform the sector but they just use them for political optics and convenience.