Don’t blame government for slum inferno, lay it at door of impunity

Monday September 12 2011


On February 2, 2009, the Daily Nation published an article entitled “The fire next time: Slum courts doom”.

The introduction was on Pastor Caleb Basweti of the Rivers of Joy Ministry in the Mukuru Sinai slum near the Kenya Pipeline depot in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.

“The Bible says that God is fire,” the pastor was quoted, “Well, my church is right on top of the pipeline, and I am always aware of the possibility of a fire outbreak.”

By Monday, we had not caught up with the pastor who built his church on top of the pipeline. We don’t know whether he survived the inferno.

Youthful Nation reporters John Ngirachu and Jami Makan had written how residents of the slum were resisting an order to vacate the area adjacent to the pipeline.

The usual motley of local politicians and NGOs got in on the act and even mobilised the slum dwellers to demonstrate against the eviction plans.

When the slum dealers resisted, the government grew cold feet and, in time-honoured fashion, formed a committee to study the issue.

The permanent secretary for Energy, Mr Patrick Nyoike, was one of those at the time contacted by the Nation on the slum built atop a ticking time bomb. “There is always the possibility that a leak can happen,” he concluded.

Well, Mr Nyoike, it has happened as the authorities dithered.

Now we will set up an inquiry to investigate the cause of the raging inferno that yesterday killed more than 100 people in the most gruesome fashion.

Politicians will visit the slum to let loose torrents of crocodile tears for the assembled cameras, but will be the first to urge the slum dealers to resist any attempts to evict them.

You see, the slum dealers are not human beings who deserve peace, security, and decent shelter; they are, first and foremost, a vote bank.

We can expect the usual infantile and provocative theatrics from Makadara MP Mike Sonko if this tragedy spurs the government into action.

The other day we witnessed his neighbour and soulmate, Embakasi MP Ferdinand Waititu, threatening to unleash thugs on Nairobi City Council engineers carrying out a survey on unsafe buildings that in his constituency tend to collapse every now and then.

It is no surprise that the two Nairobi rabble-rousers were quick on the scene of the tragedy.

In the world-famous Kibera slums, Kenya Railways has long sought to clear the area around the railway line that snakes through the hovels, but the residents will hear none of it.

The Kibera residents, represented by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, are notorious for the ng’oa reli mentality. Egged on by politicians, they protest at anything and everything by uprooting the railway line.

One day, God forbid, a train will derail right in the middle of the slum and take with it scores of lives.

The point is that the Sinai pipeline tragedy was not an accident. It is the reward of impunity.

We tend to think of impunity as a culture associated with the high-and-mighty who regularly get away with mass murder and grand larceny.

But the fact is that the culture of impunity extends right to the bottom of the pile.

That is why slum dwellers living atop an oil pipeline can defy all attempts to move them for their own safety.

That is why we regularly build jua kali highrise apartments in total defiance of safety issues.

That is why we can build market stalls almost on top of the railway line.

That is why we reserve the right to establish dirty and insanitary slums wherever we wish and raise a mighty ruckus if the authorities try to clear the place.

Today, let us not blame the government. Let us not point the finger at the ruling classes. In the wake of the Sinai disaster, we must examine our own sense of entitlement, impunity and greed.

Nothing else can explain why adults of sound mind would rush headlong into a race for spilt petrol in total disregard of the obvious dangers.

Nothing else can explain why people in their right senses would insist on living atop an oil pipeline.