Friday, May 06, 2016

Who Will Pull Kenyans From The Rubble Of Their Collapsing State?

As I write this, rescue operations are still ongoing at the site of a collapsed 7-storey building in Huruma where at least 37 people lost their lives, and 136, including a seven month-old baby girl, have been pulled out of the rubble. 70 are still listed as missing.

Sadly, such building collapses are far from a rare occurrence in Kenya. According to one study, between 2006 and 2014, 17 buildings collapsed, killing 84 people and injuring nearly 300. These disasters are all predictably followed by public howls of outrage, government threats of retribution and politicians’ promises of “Never again”. Then it all quietens down, and nothing changes till the next tragedy.

This script is being followed in Huruma, right down to the VIP visits (though the police teargassing of opposition supporters accompanying Raila Odinga to the site was a new twist). Recriminations have already begun in earnest and after initially stressing the futility of finger-pointing and playing the blame game, worried public officials are busy scouting for scapegoats.

Already 5 people, including the building owners and 3 public officials have been arrested but not yet been charged. But even when criminal charges are eventually preferred, history holds out little hope for justice. Two days after the collapse of another 7-storey building in the same neighbourhood which killed 4 people in January last year, Governor Evans Kidero, suspended 18 county officials for failing to enforce the law. It is unclear what followed. No prosecutions appear to have been instituted and at least two, Rose Muema, Chief Officer in charge of Planning, Urban Development and Housing, and Justsus Mwendwa Kathenge, Director of Enforcement and Compliance, appear to have been reinstated once the public outcry passed.

Mr Kathenge is today one of the 3 officials arrested in connection with the latest collapse. He is however, no stranger to our courts. Following yet another building collapse, this time in Embakasi in 2011, which killed another 4 people and injured 14 others, Mr Kathenge and the building owner among others, were charged with manslaughter. However, Mr Kathenge moved to the High Court and obtained orders prohibiting his prosecution.

As with the latest disaster, it is instructive that two years prior, in 2009, the then Nairobi City Council had tried to stop construction of the Embakasi building after finding that it had been illegally erected. However, the developer obtained a court injunction restraining the Council. This is another feature of these tragedies: constant complaints by government officials that the judiciary is standing in the way of enforcement of building codes and of prosecution of negligent officials.

But, like the cases they file, this contention falls apart on closer scrutiny. For example, when stopping Mr Kathenge’s prosecution, Justice Isaac Lenaola said it was “baffling” that the state had not presented any evidence tying him to offences. It seems, as with the half-hearted suspensions 6 years later, there was little will to actually prosecute these cases to the fullest. What is presented as a judicial roadblock to effective executive action is in reality an abuse of the judicial system by an executive that is keen to assuage public anger while shielding its officials from the consequences of their failure to act.

Another Kenyan ritual that follows in the wake of such tragedies is the declaration of knee-jerk and poorly-thought out reactions. President Uhuru Kenyatta set the ball rolling with his illegal order for the arrest of the building owners. He followed this up with what one Twitter wag described as his “let-them-eat-cake moment” when he ordered the immediate eviction of persons living in unsafe residential housing.  Of course, the President did not bother to explain where he proposed to resettle the millions whom this order would render homeless given that an audit by the National Construction Authority that he himself ordered last year found that 58 percent of buildings in the capital were unfit to live in.

Many others have proposed remedies from demolitions to beefing up the capacity to enforce building laws. Few though, are speaking of the need to address the root causes of the economic marginalization that leads people to live in decrepit and dangerous buildings. Even fewer are talking about mitigating the inevitable increases in rent that enforcing building codes would visit on the urban poor. Or of how the massive increases in property prices and rents over the last two decades, driven partly by the laundering of illicit proceeds through the real estate market, are pushing decent housing out of the reach of many city households. As before, the government's tough talk seem designed not to solve the problem, but to get the public to move on by delivering the impression, and not necessarily the reality, of serious action.

It is clear that the dead and injured in Huruma are more than just victims of a collapsed building. They, and indeed all Kenyans, are buried in the rubble of a collapsing state, one built on the shaky foundations of officially sanctioned robbery and impunity. And there is none to pull them out.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Burning Ivory, Burying Elephants: How GoK Undermines The Conservation Cause

Burning ivory is nothing new. Since the President Daniel Arap Moi lit a 20ft pile of tusks at the Nairobi National Park in April 1989, many others around the world have followed suit, some choosing to crush rather than burn. Moi’s successors as President have also maintained a tradition of occasionally staging ivory burns to send a message that ivory has no value beyond the life of an elephant.

Tomorrow, President Uhuru Kenyatta will do him one better, tagging not just the second burn of his Presidency but also the biggest of them all – he will incinerate almost all of Kenya’s ivory stockpile, some 105 tonnes as well as another 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn. This he will do before an assembled audience of other African Heads of State, Hollywood celebrities and, perhaps most importantly, global media. Once again Kenya will shine as a paragon of elephant conservation.

Only it isn’t. In fact, Kenya has kept burning ivory while burying its elephants. While nowadays the conservation community is wont to heap accolades on the Kenyan government for its stated commitment and actions to halt the poaching of our wildlife, just two years ago, they were singing an entirely different tune. Veteran conservationist, Richard Leakey, who last year made a celebrated return to the Kenya Wildlife Service as the Chairman of its Board, had in 2014 warned that poaching was “a national disaster” and that known ringleaders were operating with “outrageous impunity”.

While many point to corruption among the law enforcement agencies as the source of this impunity, few eyebrows are raised when it is revealed that decorative ivory is to be found in State House and specifically in the President’s and First Lady’s offices. There were no murmurs of discontent last year when the Presidential Strategic Communication Unit released a photograph of President Kenyatta receiving US Secretary of State, John Kerry, at State House Nairobi, flanked by two elephant tusks.

In an oped in the Guardian, Paula Kahumbu, another strong and necessary voice for elephant conservation, writes that the ivory burn is not “really about burning ivory at all: it’s about saving elephants … eliminate demand for ivory and put value instead on living elephants”.  In other words, any economic value that may be gained now or in the future from the sale of ivory is not worth the extinction of the species.

But this is an argument that the government itself has undermined. When agreeing to the routing of the standard gauge railway through the country’s wildlife sanctuaries, KWS’ Leakey said that although “ideally there should be no transportation in a national park," the plan was a "pragmatic" balance of wildlife and development concerns. In this case, building through the park as opposed populated areas will save money.  The deal cemented the idea that wildlife is fair game when it stands on the path of “development”, a sharp contrast to the rhetoric surrounding tomorrow’s event.

Finally, there is the question of who actually benefits from the conservation of elephants. It is not enough to simply burn ivory to send messages to the outside world. Elephant conservation should not be about preserving them for tourists or burnishing politicians’ credentials or the government’s image. There needs to be a concerted effort to engage Kenyans and especially the communities bearing the cost of living alongside these animals, both in terms of lives and livelihoods, while enjoying few of the benefits. 

In his famous “bunny huggers” speech at the 1997 CITES conference in Harare Leakey linked wildlife conservation to the struggle for “accountability, justice and opportunity”. He noted that Europeans do not seem to have suffered from the extinction of species such as mammoths or woolly rhinoceros. “Will Africans miss the elephant or the rhino if these too disappear?” he asked. As the Kenyan government and the global conservation movement prepare for their moment in the spotlight, it is a question they would do well to ponder.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why The Kenyan Identity Is Wearing Thin

Kenyans do love their sports. In fact, little appears to weld them together more tightly than shared support for a team or an athlete.  In August 2008, barely 6 months after the inter-communal slaughter that followed disputed elections claimed over 1300 lives and brought the country to the brink of civil war, Kenyans were united in cheering the country’s athletes at the Olympic games in China. Today, most weekends echo with war cries as the various soccer tribes meet up to do battle online and at homes and bars countrywide. It is at such times, one can catch a fleeting glimpse of what Kenya truly is.

Last weekend we had another chance to see it. As politicians did their best to polarize and divide the people, the historic win in Singapore by the national rugby sevens team was achieving the opposite. These two events did not cancel out each other. The people were not any less divided over local politics or any less fervent in their support for Shujaa - as the sevens team is sometimes called (mistakenly according to Wikipedia).  Just as 8 years ago there was apparently little contradiction in people cheering runners from communities they were at war with half a year before.

In his recent columns, economist Dr David Ndii has suggested that our national and ethnic identities are locked in an epic, existential conflict, and that “tribe has eaten the nation”. He has portrayed Kenya as a marriage of tribes, each trying to outdo the others. A Kenyan identity, he seems to say, is to be articulated as an antidote to this infighting, failing which, a divorce would be inevitable.

The reality is, however, considerably different. Within what it means to be a Kenyan, there appears to be a seamless integration of polarizing tribal politics with celebrations of national achievement. Being Kenyan appears to demand the ability to inhabit seemingly contradictory spaces and identities almost simultaneously. We can be in both Afraha and Singapore, in Beijing and Kiambaa. We can be the most virulent tribalists while dressed up in national colours.

A Kenyan identity hangs rather more comfortably alongside a tribal one than Dr Ndii suggests and people seem to move in and out of them depending on whichever one they prefer to express at a particular moment, in much the same way they navigate their choice of dress.

Like clothing, the identities we wear are allow us to run with particular crowds. But Dr Ndii is partially mistaken when he posits that identity is "about belonging and believing, as opposed to having or not having." The “belonging” is, in fact, a passport to the “having”. The identity is actually a means to access physical and psychological resources.

Thus we are most Kenyan when we seek the resources that identity offers – be they collective security after a terror attack or to be part of the winning team in a sporting event. We are also most tribal when we seek the resources offered by that identity – most often when demanding our “share of the national cake” or “our turn to eat”.

In truth, our closets are full of multiple, and at times contradictory, identities which we put on and take off depending on who we want to be or seem. The real threat to the national identity thus is not that people have an ethnic one, but that the “Kenyan” costume has been eaten up by moths and offers diminished returns. The fact is our ravenous elites have hollowed out the promise of Kenya and few want to put on its tattered uniform.

Our sportsmen and women have always shown us the way to fix this. We must build up the Kenya brand, not by a vacuous “positivity” as government-types would have us believe, but by actually working towards a Kenya that delivers real victories for its people in their everyday struggles. We must also resist the attempt by elites to disguise both the problem and their own culpability for it by hyping ethnicity to foil accountability.