In Nairobi, a sprawling, rapidly growing city of over 3 million, commuters rely heavily on nimble private van services, or matatus. Yet the Kenyan government intends to ban this indispensable backbone of the city’s transportation network, presumably to channel commuters into state-approved taxis and buses that have proved inadequate to the challenging task of getting Kenyans where they need to go in a bustling, polycentric city. Dayo Olopade, author of The Bright Continent, a forthcoming celebration of indigenous African entrepreneurship, offers a defense of the matatus and a report on the efforts of matatu drivers to fight back against the government. She acknowledges that the matatus often run afoul of traffic regulations. It’s worth adding, as Michael Munger has observed regarding Chile’s old system of private buses, that it is not the mere existence of private jitney vans that has causes traffic problems. Rather, it is a broader tangle of issues, ranging from weak states that can’t enforce traffic regulations, the lack of a market for curb rights, etc. There is a case for bringing order to Nairobi’s streets — but I seriously doubt that’s the reason the matatus are being banned.
by Reihan Salam