Boda boda crackdown Nairobi

Police officers inspect impounded motorbikes at Nairobi's Central Police Station  on March 8, 2022. To insure all boda bodas would require that all riders acquire valid licences.

| Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

How impunity blackmails state in election years 

What you need to know:

  • On Saturday, the government suspended the nationwide crackdown except in the Nairobi city centre.
  • On Wednesday, the government also halted an ongoing multi-agency crackdown on rogue drivers.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a crackdown on boda boda operators on March 8 following a sexual assault on a female motorist in Nairobi by a mob, hopes were high that finally the sector would be streamlined.

But the onslaught lasted only a few days before the government beat a hasty retreat, saying the operation will be restricted to Nairobi.

“To effectively coordinate the implementation of the exercise with minimum disruptions to the services offered by the compliant boda boda operators, the government has suspended the operation,” police spokesperson Bruno Shioso said in a statement. 

On Wednesday, the government also halted an ongoing multi-agency crackdown on rogue drivers and un-roadworthy motor vehicles that began about three weeks ago.

This was after public service vehicles (PSV) operators threatened to go on strike if the operation was not suspended.

Hours before the strike was to start, the government caved in to the demands of PSV associations following a meeting between the National Police Service, NTSA and Federation of Public Transport Operators.

But behind the government’s swift retreats lies a nightmare in fixing social ills in an election year.

Kenya is in the middle of election campaigns and every politician is in overdrive trying not to upset any voting bloc. In the case of boda bodas, the sector has a membership of more than one million.

Sustaining a crackdown on a sector made up of a majority of voters proved a baggage too heavy to handle.

Ideally, for an outgoing President with nothing to lose, this would have been the best chance to lead from the front and crack the whip on rogue operators, but the swift walk-back showed how difficult a task it is for the authorities.

So close is the relationship between politics and boda bodas that the President warned against politicising the issue, saying he knew some people would try to politicise the issue and claim the government was hurting small-business people.

True to the President’s words, ODM leader Raila Odinga was first to ask him to find other ways of regulating boda bodas and dealing with criminals in the industry.

“I have told the President that punishment should be on individual criminals, not everyone in that sector,” Mr Odinga said at a political rally in Kisumu on Friday.

Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro also urged the government to deal with the criminals and spare law-abiding riders.

Parking boys, hawkers, street families and boda bodas are hard to punish as the government and law enforcers find it difficult to balance between protecting votes and curing such societal problems.

Among the groups, boda boda operators have come into sharp focus because they have become potent forces, especially among the political class.

They operate with impunity, leading to a breakdown in social order, especially in Nairobi.

Backstreets, alleys, avenues, pavements, non-motorised transport corridors, name them, are now their domain. The 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 new headache. They have become a law unto themselves meting out terror on those who dare cross their path.

The explosion of the sector was fuelled by a 2008 government policy that exempted motorcycles below 250cc from value-added tax, leading to a drop in prices.

Jobless youths

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

Riders have been cited for causing death by dangerous driving, general theft, assault, robbery with violence, handling and trafficking dangerous drugs, murder and kidnapping.

Rather than continue being a relief to millions of jobless youths, the sector that largely employs both educated and semi-schooled youths has been dogged by crime, indiscipline and reckless driving.

A 2018 report from the National Crime Research Centre highlighted the sector, saying they were involved in 52 percent of robberies with violence and 66 percent of breaches of public order, and were used in the distribution and sale of 49 percent of banned substances, including drugs.

But this did not end the love-love relationship between boda boda operators and politicians.

The impunity with which they operate has been largely fuelled by the political class, who treat them with kid gloves lest they upset a critical voting bloc and campaign tool.

Every election year, it is common to see boda boda riders in long queues, accompanying politicians to or from political rallies.

They act as the go-to mobilisers to marshal support and help put on a show when a politician is campaigning or holding an event.

In 2018, the administration of Mike Sonko banned boda bodas from the Nairobi city centre but this was met with resistance from Starehe MP Charles ‘Jaguar’ Kanyi, whose constituency includes the city centre. He quickly rushed to court to have the ban lifted.

Even though government officials say there is a risk the industry could be taken over by militarised gangs if immediate action is not taken to rein it in, nothing has been done.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i at one time suggested that no government could do away with a sector that employs millions of people.

Official data from 2018 shows that at least 1.4 million motorcycles were registered, the majority of which were used for public transport. Nearly 17,000 motorcycles are registered each month.

This is the dilemma that the authorities are grappling with, a tough balancing act that has left boda boda riders to operate freely, with the government unable to do anything to punish those who break the law.

Dr Matiang’i said that previous attempts to regulate the sector were hijacked by politicians, who complicated the process.

“I formed a task force in an attempt to clean up the sector for the good of everyone. But some politicians hijacked the recommendations and started spending negative energy on it,” the CS said.

The 12-member team had been formed in late 2018 to come up with regulations to guide the sector but its report is yet to be implemented.

In March 2019, Dr Matiang’i gave boda boda operators a two-month deadline to start observing safety regulations, ordering police to immediately clamp down on rogue operators once the deadline expired. That remained just that – another warning.

In January 2021, Inspector-General of Police Hilary Mutyambai put unruly boda boda operators on notice, warning them against the emerging culture of impunity and lawlessness that posed a grave risk to public safety and security.

Despite several attempts by the Nairobi County government to curtail the operations of boda bodas and hawkers in the city, all their directives have fallen on deaf ears as enforcement only lasted a short time before everything returned to normal.

Even with the entry of the military-led Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), nothing has been achieved. In fact, the situation continues to worsen.

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

Boda boda operators have become emboldened, knowing they have the political class by “their balls”.

Here is why. The boda boda transport sub-sector is dominated by young males who form a majority of voters and many politicians rarely want to upset the voting bloc.

The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) reported that 1.3 million motorcycles were registered as of February 2018, and 1.6 million licences have been issued to such operators since 2019.

Dishing out goodies

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

The statistics make politicians’ mouths water and in every election, most politicians would go to any length to have the big number of organised young men with motorcycles that can move around, attract crowds through their noise and cause chaos in their corner.

With their ubiquity, the riders have morphed into a potent force, a politician’s dream propagation tool.

With their ability to reach even the remotest parts of the country, they are now at the centre of the fight for the country’s political soul as their influence can no longer be ignored by politicians.

Deputy President William Ruto has been on a charm offensive, dishing out goodies to get the boda boda operators into his corner.

He has also conducted several fundraisers across the width and breadth of the country to support the 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 if he is elected.

Not to be left behind and let his deputy run away with the crucial voting bloc, President Kenyatta in October 2020 also met boda boda operators, launching an investment scheme for them.

“Even the boda boda today are victims of a weaponised fight by a rogue state that had lost touch with the citizens,” said Dr Ruto during UDA’s convention at Kasarani on Tuesday.

The boda boda sector, with its numbers, is good for political optics and politicians have been leveraging riders for political expediency, said political analyst Javas Bigambo.

The sector, he says, is significant to Kenya’s economy, and politicians want to use them for public relations, seeking to appear to have their interests at heart.

“If they had their interest at heart, they would have pushed for regulation of the sector by putting in place critical policies to transform it. That has not been the case. They are just using them as props or tools for political expediency,” he said.


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