In Nairobi, Kenya puts brakes on its runaway success

They have names like "Uprising" and "Da Art of Music." They careen at breakneck speeds down Nairobi's streets, blaring music, often causing alarm. There are 6,000 of them in Nairobi alone, all of them with limited insurance.

They are Kenya's matatus, a rambunctious fleet of 24,000 privately owned minibuses driven mainly by young men barely past their teens. They troll for passengers along arbitrarily established routes, having long ago edged out public transport.

They often are held up as an example of the sort of private enterprise Kenya needs to pick itself up after decades of mismanagement and corruption, much in the way Kenya itself was held aloft by some in colonial times as a model for other governments throughout Africa.

But the industry, itself often cited for corruption, is now struggling with the federal government over new licensing regulations. Lawmakers say they seek to finally get a handle on a business long out of control.

Critics say the industry already pays more than its share of fees - some $4,500 per vehicle per year, counting insurance - and that the new moves are aimed less at safety and improved management than at filling empty government coffers.

"They just want to grab some money," says Titus Kitonga, a pharmacist and regular matatu customer who has to shout over the music throbbing from two gigantic speakers in "The House of Pain," a Nissan minibus spraypainted deep purple with an official capacity of 25 passengers and an actual one of 50 plus.

The matatu's occupants, at least those who can make out what he has said, agree with Mr. Kitonga. "The matatus are there because the government could not provide the service," says Paul Maina, a student in his late teens. "Now the government wants to eat so they say: 'Aha! Let us get into the matatu business.' "

THE government denies its intention is to dip into the estimated $86 million the matatu industry generates annually, or to mess with its employees, roughly 40,000 in number, by replacing them with city-council workers.

Instead, Transport Ministry officials say that by requiring all vehicles to register with the Transport Licensing Board, Kenyan authorities are only seeking to regulate a business that has spiraled entirely out of control - with mafia-style cartels extorting money not only from matatu owners, but also from drivers and touts - young men who hang onto one side of the matatu and call out for customers.

"The question is: Who are these people that make up these cartels? And the money they take, where does it go? It is untaxed and they don't use it to fix the roads," says Francis ole Sompisha, the chairman of the Transport Licensing Board (TLB).

Matatu owners say the government should use tax money it already collects from them to repair Kenya's virtually impassable roads.

"We pay taxes on our license, we pay for every road-license inspection, we pay to register the vehicle. Between taxes and insurance, we pay 314,000 shillings ($4,500) every year just to put one vehicle on the road and none of us, not a single one, has any idea where that money is going," says Tony Mwangi, a member of Lopha Travelers, a Nairobi-based association of matatu owners.

"The roads are so bad we are destroying the vehicles and having to buy spare parts all the time," Mr. Mwangi adds. "That is another 15 percent in value-added taxes for the government."

The government has yet to persuade the International Monetary Fund to resume loans - suspended two years ago on grounds of official corruption. It says that the mere existence of cartels, restricted groups of wealthy matatu owners who regulate access to key routes, points to a fundamental problem in the sector. "We are just trying to bring some sanity into this matatu business," says Mr. ole Sopisha of the TLB.

Matatu owners admit that to access any given route they must agree to pay as much as 150,000 shillings, more than $2,000, to the cartels. Still, they believe that the existence of middlemen is preferable to any form of government interference.

"At least it works," says Mwangi of Lopha Travelers.

With the threat of a nationwide strike by matatu operators hanging over the government's head, talks to settle the dispute are bound to come to a crisis over the TLB's resolve to replace traffic controllers at matatu terminals with city-council employees.

Joseph Kihara, a tout who is certain to lose his job if the new TLB regulations are imposed July 1, believes the government will back down.

"Can you imagine someone comes to you and says: 'Now, you bring your own matatu that you bought with your own money, and we will manage it, and get money from it.' That ... cannot fit."

The government also intends to screen drivers by making it mandatory for them to acquire a certificate of good conduct behind the wheel, a move Dickson Mwungai, a member of parliament from the opposition says will only increase corruption.

"The drivers will end up paying the police under the table for that certificate," he says. However, he adds, "there is a need to clean up the business. We don't appreciate the 'tout culture' as it is being exhibited. [In crowded vehicles] touts molest young girls, even ladies. It's a question of moral levels."

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