Boda boda: Two-faced crime spinner or economy driver?

A boda boda demonstration in Nakuru on May 2, 2015. It is unclear how many boda bodas are operating in the country as most of them are unregistered. But according to NTSA, they could be over 600,000. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH |

What you need to know:

  • The boda boda public transport sector is evolving into a potent force.
  • Two weeks ago, Nairobi Police boss Benson Kibui outlawed the carrying of more than one passenger on boda boda.

It was a chaotic spectacle of man and machine that was hard to ignore. Like a herd of charging buffalos, hundreds of public transport motorcycle riders, popularly known as boda boda, had taken over Keroka town and brought it to a standstill — blocking the main road to all other traffic, forcing panicked traders to close their businesses, dislodging pedestrians from footpaths and creating a racket with their shouting and hooting.

The arrest of a boda boda rider by the police for an alleged traffic offence had apparently inspired the unity of hundreds of his colleagues to abandon their routine of ferrying passengers to various parts of Nyamira and Kisii counties to protest the purported harassment by law enforcers.

But of note was not the mere fact that the riders, mostly young men in their teens and mid-20s, were protesting. It was their numbers, unity of purpose and ease of movement on their motorbikes — combining to paralyse all other activities — that instilled fear in some bystanders.

To others, the boda boda protests were a regular part of life. The scene in Keroka could be replicated in most parts of rural Kenya.


Six years after then Finance Minister Amos Kimunya zero-rated all motorcycles below 250cc in a populist move to provide employment to the youth and a convenient means of transport, the boda boda public transport sector is evolving into a potent force that could spin out of control if left unchecked.

Many previously unemployed youths have taken advantage of poor road networks and lack of vehicles to earn their daily bread by transporting people and goods on the motorbikes.

With “armies” of young men organised through informal associations — complete with a chain of command for easy mobilisation — boda bodas appear to thrive on lawlessness, despite attempts to tame them. The latest are the new regulations by the National Transport and Safety Authority to restore order.   

The lure of the big number of organised young men with motorcycles has also attracted politicians during campaigns or various events and could play a bigger part in future elections.

Some riders have also turned into vigilantes, drawing parallels with outlawed groups like the Mungiki that started out by providing protection and weeding out criminals. 

As a further indication of the chaos in the sector, Mr Michael Odhiambo, a rider in Satellite, Nairobi, says many operators have no insurance cover or licences and prefer to resolve accidents without involving the police. 

According to him, most of the times a boda boda is involved in an accident, the rider calls his colleagues for back-up to expedite resolution of the incident.

“If, for example, you hit someone, most of the time they will demand for money. That is when you call for back-up and say, tumvuruge mpaka akubali (Let’s harass him till he submits),” he says.

Though rarely reported, cases of motorists being harassed by boda bodas after an accident with one of them are common. Often the motorists are forced to pay for damages to the boda bodas even when they are not at fault. Others are forced to part with vehicle parts like side mirrors or lamps when they can’t pay.

In August 2013, an officer driving a police Land Cruiser while on patrol in Kisumu was rushed to hospital with head injuries after being attacked by angry boda boda operators who accused him of causing an accident involving one of them.

The riders were angry after the officer insisted on waiting for traffic police to come to the scene. They attacked him. He drove from the scene but was cornered, dragged out of the vehicle on Oginga Odinga Street and pelted with stones.


The incident sparked riots for several days as police engaged in running battles with the operators.

Although the police admit an increasing number of crimes are committed by boda bodas, they insist this involves only a few operators.

“You cannot entirely blame the boda boda industry. It has created jobs, and it would be worse if they were not there at all. These youth would have nothing to do and would fall into crime,” Ms Zipporah Mboroki, the police spokesperson, told Sunday Nation.

She added: “Some motorcycles have been donated by members of parliament for job creation. It would be a big mistake to take away jobs from our youth.”

A number of boda boda operators have been spotted wearing promotional reflector jackets on which are inscribed the names of politicians who bought them. It is also common for political motorcades to be accompanied by boda boda outriders donning T-shirts with political messages

But some incidents involving boda bodas acting like vigilantes are worrying. On April 6, for example, four suspects were beaten to death by boda boda operators in Kakamega town on suspicion of stealing a motorcycle and attacking and injuring the rider.

A week before, two suspects were cornered in a church compound in the same town and lynched by the motorcycle riders on suspicion of being criminals.

The thriving sector has also been blamed for accidents caused by unlicensed riders while an increasing number of criminals are now using boda bodas to access and escape from crime scenes.

For instance, at 10 am last Tuesday morning, Mr Anthony Mwaniki, a businessman-cum-mobile money agent for multiple financial institutions, withdrew Sh2.2 million from a bank in Changamwe.

According to Mombasa police boss Robert Kitur, Mr Mwaniki was confronted by three men, one armed with a pistol — who took the cash and escaped in a boda boda.

As they were escaping, they shot Ms Wilfridah Auma Onyango in the right thigh while Mr Sabastian Mulamba was shot in the right hand. Both were taken to the Coast General Hospital.

And on Thursday evening, Mr James Karanja Maina, an auditor with Nakumatt Supermarket in Nairobi, was gunned down in cold blood by three criminals on a motorbike as he left his place of work in the evening.


Recently, an Eldoret-based journalist and owner of regional paper The Mirror Weekly was killed by assailants on a motorcycle as he was walking home at Pioneer Estate. In an operation apparently carried out by hitmen, the killers only took his phone, leaving behind other valuables.

Last month, Bungoma County Commissioner Maalim Mohamed revealed that they were liaising with their counterparts from Uganda after an escalation of cross-border robberies at the border of the two countries that was threatening diplomatic relationships. The robberies, he said, were aided by motorcycle operators who helped thieves steal in both countries.

And in February, a girl was admitted to Nairobi Women’s Hospital after being defiled by a boda boda operator in Molo. The woman claimed the police did not do anything when she reported the matter.

A similar incident was reported in Kisumu last year where a woman was gang-raped.

What is worrying is that attempts to end the lawlessness have not been successful. In February last year, then Inspector-General of Police outlawed the operation of boda bodas between 6 pm and 6 am.

And last August, the National Transport Safety Authority (NTSA) said it was working on a law that would ban all boda bodas from major shopping centres and towns.

Two weeks ago, Nairobi Police boss Benson Kibui outlawed the carrying of more than one passenger on boda boda after public outrage over a trending YouTube video showing a motorist being robbed on Mombasa Road by two thugs on motorcycles.

Mr Steve Okumu, a boda boda operator in Kawangware informal settlement, Nairobi, said most riders probably earn only Sh500 a day and have to pay the rest of the money to the “real owners” of the motorcycles. 

It is unclear how many boda bodas are operating in the country as most of them are unregistered. But according to NTSA, there could be more than 600,000. However, a police source who spoke in confidence, said the figures were grossly under-reported and could be more than a million.

NTSA admits that this high number of unregistered boda bodas in operation could be a contributing factor to the run-away crime but accuses the police of laxity in clamping down on them.

“We are aware of that but when something turns into a security issue, it is beyond us and turns into a police matter. Ask them what they are doing about it,” said Mr Francis Meja, NTSA Director-General.

The police spokesperson said some rules used to restore order to the matatu sector should be applied to boda bodas.

“The easiest way would have been if they were organised into saccos and made to operate from specific stages like matatus; but we have no powers over creation of saccos,” responded spokesperson Mboroki.


Prof Edwin Gimode of Kenyatta University, who has researched the rise of criminal gangs, says unless the situation is changed, the country is sitting on a time bomb.

“Crime has just become exponential. Criminal minds and the political class have seen a gap and are using it as a conduit to achieve their goals,” he said.

The scholar says that continuous use of boda bodas by politicians could be the weakest link in a peaceful election process come 2017 as some previous members of gangs have switched to operating boda bodas and are easily usable by politicians.

“Where gangs were walking, they can now move faster and easily without much investment, if you consider the price of a motorcycle,” he said.

He compares the evolving boda boda monster to the rise of Mungiki that started by openly extorting people, purported to offer security and operated with impunity by staging open violent protests closing roads for hours just like boda bodas are doing today.