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.
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