AJUOK: Decongest Nairobi City before major disaster occurs

Devolve national government to counties, the administrative capital to Isiolo, mining to Taita Taveta, fisheries to Kisumu and so on.

In Summary
  • Nairobi would remain commercial capital, functions relocated to grassroots where they are relevant, expertise abounds.
  • Merely expanding residential facilities into the sky without addressing the city’s ‘ground issues’, to match the population growth, makes no sense.
Hawkers sell their wares along a footpath on River Road.
HAWKING MENACE: Hawkers sell their wares along a footpath on River Road.

In one silly moment, as the rains relentlessly and furiously pounded the city on Sunday night, March 24, I looked out of my bedroom window into the darkness and briefly wondered if there had been a biblical warning about a second Noah’s Ark that I had missed.

Hours into the downpour, accompanied by a relentless thunderstorm and the inevitable power blackout, it felt like this one wasn’t going to stop soon.

Social media users were soon posting the obligatory clips of flooding in the city. The Nairobi Expressway looked like a massive river and the usual flooding hotspots ‘delivered’ as expected. The next day, Monday, hours after the rain had finally stopped, a huge burst sewer in the Upper Hill neighbourhood was still spewing raw sewage into the City Centre, and no one attended to it for the entire week!

That same Monday, the Senate Standing Committee on Health toured health facilities within the county on a fact-finding mission. Their first stop was the City Mortuary, now going by the glitzier name, Nairobi Funeral Home. It was Monday evening, but the power blackout caused by the previous night’s power outage continued and the morgue’s management informed the senators the facility’s standby generator had last operated in 2018, a whopping six years back. The stench was overwhelming and the coolers were obviously not working.

For context, the City Mortuary is the first port of call for departed loved ones among the common mwananchi within the metropolis. And it is not just that. No matter where the police come across a body, within Nairobi and the environs, the default setting is to transfer it to the facility. There is no gainsaying, therefore, that it stands out as a critical preservation unit for departed loved ones, which touches families across the country, and not just in Nairobi.

While all this was happening, controversy was still raging after Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja declared that construction of high-rise residential buildings in the posh neighbourhoods of Lavington and Kileleshwa, strongly opposed by residents’ associations, would continue. He justified this by predicting Nairobi would balloon to 10.5 million residents by 2050, and the only place left to expand the city was up! I immediately wondered if he would find drainages, social amenities and health facilities up there, too.

Merely expanding residential facilities into the sky without addressing the city’s ‘ground issues’, to match the population growth, makes no sense. And it is easy to see from all the foregoing issues that the capital city has suffered long years of poor planning, lack of creativity, and more crucially, poor governance. Governor Sakaja doesn’t strike me as much of a thinker, so I would cut him some slack when discussing serious structural issues around the management of a city.

Now, ODM boss Raila Odinga is well known as a divisive figure in Kenyan politics. But a keen look at his election manifestoes and blueprints, as well as utterances related to infrastructure and planning, remain genuinely revolutionary stuff. In 2005, as Roads Minister, he commissioned the construction of Mbagathi Way, now renamed Raila Odinga Way in his honour, using concrete as opposed to the traditional bitumen standard. Opposed by bitumen cartels and condemned as too expensive, the road remains without a single pothole nearly 20 years later, and puts to shame its bitumen counterparts across the nation, built much later, which have had to be repaired every rainy season.

But by far Raila’s most revolutionary idea, had he taken power in 2022 and implemented it, would have been the promise to move the country’s administrative capital to Isiolo, leaving Nairobi as the commercial capital. At face value, the concept would open up the so-called Northern Frontier Districts of Kenya to greater commerce and government, on top of becoming a vital component of the LAPSSET corridor. Development follows government, and this one would have been my favourite, for the bravery and sheer resolve needed to go through with an idea like this.

However, I am certain the underlying concern behind the former Prime Minister’s blueprint was the continued realisation that the long-term sustainability of Nairobi couldn’t be guaranteed anymore. That’s because it’s a heavily populated city where workers burn countless manhours in daily traffic snarl-ups, and floods threaten to overrun estates with no proper drainage systems.

Part of the problem is that the massive government bureaucracy stationed in Nairobi doesn’t even need to be in the city.

Listening to the ODM boss, he has indeed pointed out that it is possible to scale down state ministries domiciled in Nairobi and station them in regions where they would be more relevant. For instance, it makes no sense to have the Ministry of Fisheries in the capital city, instead of Kisumu or Mombasa, where the actual economic activity takes place, and where the technical expertise in the ministry would be deployed at minimal resources. Agriculture could do well situated in Kitale or Meru, just as Mining could comfortably be based in Wundanyi, Taita Taveta; Environment in Narok and Livestock in Marsabit.

Even the Department of Defence doesn’t have to be squeezed between upcoming tall buildings in Hurlingham, yet they have ample space in Gilgil or Isiolo.

Creativity is not particularly a notable feature in government. If it were, it would be clear by now that squeezing the entire government machinery in Nairobi attracts not only the huge government work force to the city, but the private sector, too, driven by the city’s superior working facilities.

With that, good old rural-urban migration invariably sets off in one major direction; to the city. Ultimately, while there is abundant serene space outside the city, and you can see this during the Easter and Christmas breaks when humanity departs Nairobi by the droves.

The population of the city balloons while the space and amenities remain squeezed.

I believe the drafters of the 2010 Constitution did not see devolution as merely an avenue for sharing power with counties and smaller electoral units. The fundamentals revolved taking development to the long-neglected grassroots, essentially lifting the countryside to a prime player in nation-building. This would make it possible to channel both capital and human resources to counties, so the entire country wouldn’t have to look at the city as the go-to place for goods and services.

In the ideal scenario, the national government should have followed suit by decentralising its own bureaucratic structures to the countryside towns, so Nairobi could have some breathing space.

I dare say, even the President can work from the picturesque Sagana State House, enjoying fresh Mount Kenya breeze while lessening the disruptions to traffic that his motorcade causes while moving within the capital.

It might all sound utopian now, but long term, even with Governor Sakaja’s buildings up the sky, a poorly planned city is a disaster not far from happening. We still have to contend with the poor drainage, mounting garbage, incompetent leaders, little space for expansion, zero disaster preparedness and ultimately, good old congestion.

By the time the city contains those 10.5 million people in 2050, it may have been transformed into just another slum, and given how it looked two Sundays ago after that downpour, you shudder to imagine how much worse it would become in the intervening years.

Political commentator 

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