You probably heard of the gas explosion that happened in a settlement in the Embakasi area of Nairobi on Thursday this week. It happened not far from my “residence” or the estate I have called home for almost two decades. In fact, a number of people within the “gated community”, including one close friend, were hurt by the heat wave resulting from the explosion. Three people died and more than 300 were injured.
Before you ask, my estate is one of the best planned estates in Africa. It is probably one of the few whose details you can find on “Wikipedia”, the online encyclopedia. This is how Wikipedia describes it:
“Nyayo Estate is the second largest residential neighbourhood in Africa after Gwarimpa Estate in Nigeria. Nyayo has a total of six phases, with over 4,700 units of semi-detached three bedroom maisonettes and apartments; complemented with nursery and primary schools, and shopping centres. Nyayo Estate is considered the safest and cleanest estate to live in Kenya, due to its strict adherence to residency guidelines.”
As usual, after the explosion, all the state authorities that should take responsibility for the disaster were busy looking for something and someone to blame. They were issuing statements as if they had just landed from Jupiter. After going round and round looking for the elusive devil, they eventually arrested a hapless, poor, watchman. Yes, the poor guy who guards the business place responsible for the explosion!
The scenario above (I wish it was merely a scenario!) plays out in many countries in Africa.
Just about two weeks ago, our counterpart in West Africa, Nigeria, suffered an almost similar explosion in Bodija area in the City of Ibadan caused by “illegally” stored explosives. Further research on the issue shows that storage of explosives in residential areas in Nigeria is a “common” practice.
I am almost certain that in both cases, there will eventually be zero accountability and life will go on as the next catastrophe beckons. That is, unless citizens forcefully demand accountability.
In Kenya, this situation is made worse by the callous attitude with which senior government leaders treat the rule of law. Kenya’s president has, for a month now, waged a vicious political battle to kill the independence of the judicial arm of the state so that it becomes partial in its rulings in favour of government “projects”.
It is this callous attitude towards important national questions that led the authorities to arrest the watchman after the Embakasi tragedy. We are all waiting to see what he will be charged with.
I have talked over and over in my reflections about the state in Africa and its weakness as the pillar of continental integration. I have lamented the fact that the “panafrican” activist space has attracted some people who have been part of the state infrastructure and are part of the monumental failure in modernising the state and making it functional. Such individuals cannot help panafricanism. They can only shout useless slogans.
In many parts of Africa, and Kenya in particular, planning for cities has been thrown out of the window. The urbanization that is often celebrated is nothing but villagisation of urban spaces. There is a lot of suffering in these urban villages that are also called informal settlements.
However, there is logic to the madness driven by the need for cheap labour for industries. It is all part of the profit logic that dehumanizes whole communities. Though one could argue that it is not all doom and gloom, settlements are incubators of poverty and helplessness.
The problem is not the settlers. It is the general failure of the state not only to plan, but also to resolve the quagmire of massive poverty, which coexists comfortably with massive looting and misuse of public resources. The settlers are hapless victims of this tragic mismanagement.
During campaigns for political office, the proceeds of massive looting are openly displayed. Kenyan politicians use expensive choppers with which they mesmerize the poor in both urban and rural constituencies. This is the nation’s wealth that should go into planning cities, providing services and creating jobs so as to reduce poverty. However, it goes into buying and sustaining power to enable looting. It is a truly vicious cycle.
It will continue to be challenging to achieve panafricanist goals in this situation. Serious panafricanists must seek a radical cure for the open wound that is the state in Africa!
Do not hesitate to debate me on this issue!
Morris Odhiambo, Vice-Chairman, Diplomacy Scholars Association of Kenya (DIPSAK) and Coordinator, Missing Voices Coalition (MVC) in Kenya.