'Wake up Kenya'

Aftershocks from an earthquake in central Africa were still being felt in Kenya on December 5 last year when a leading academic warned of a looming “tragedy”. Many buildings in the city were being erected without “proper structural analysis”, said Professor Norbert Opiyo-Aketch of the University of Nairobi. 

At the same time, Kenyan civil engineer, George Kiplagat, revealed that the local construction industry was “rife with bogus engineers and architects” who bribe municipal officials and erect structures that don’t comply with safety standards.

As the tremors from the earthquake subsided, Opiyo-Aketch told the Mail & Guardian: “I think this event has said, ‘wake up, Africa! Let us put our house in order. Let us educate people about what to do in the event of a disaster.’”

But the government dismissed the warnings as “pure sensation”.
No attempt was made to bolster Nairobi’s emergency services. A draft policy on disaster preparedness lay undisturbed on a government official’s desk. Government spokesperson Alfred Mutua insisted that Nairobi was “ready to deal with any emergency”.

This week, however, the pretence collapsed ... along with a five-storey building that had been under construction in the city centre. The structure crashed down on more than 200 people, mostly casual labourers, leaving at least 13 dead and more than 100 injured. Desperate efforts were made to rescue people trapped beneath the rubble, but hopes of further rescues have dimmed. The voices of those who had up until Wednesday been pleading for help have fallen silent. The death toll was expected to rise significantly.

Chaos, confusion and lack of coordination characterised the aftermath of the calamity.

Instead of saving lives, police and soldiers wasted time trying to control thousands of onlookers, beating them back with truncheons. Rescuers painstakingly fought their way through the crowds—only to find that equipment necessary to free those trapped was not available.

Cranes, jackhammers and high-powered drills arrived—courtesy of private companies—more than three hours after the building had fallen. Shortly afterwards, the Kenya Red Cross announced that victims were in danger of “suffocating” under the rubble. But there was no oxygen available. Once again, private enterprise stepped up to donate supplies and paramedics fed oxygen and glucose to victims via plastic tubing.

As bodies were pulled from the wreckage, including two babies aged five and seven months, hospitals announced they’d run out of blood supplies.

Then, the blame game began.

“It’s clear that poor building materials have been used. How could the city council have approved the construction, without the necessary inspections?” asked opposition leader, Uhuru Kenyatta of the Kenya African National Union, blaming “corruption at City Hall” for the tragedy.

While the police prepared to question the owner of the building and a contractor, a worker who had survived the incident, Jonas Kiptanui, told the M&G: “We have been working in two shifts for 24 hours a day for the past two weeks. The boss was rushing us; he wanted business to move in so he could start collecting the rent.”

The government promised a “speedy inquest” but survivors and grieving relatives felt that the dead and maimed had been as much victims of an unscrupulous contractor as of state incompetence.

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