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.