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Assaulting the poor is unspeakable folly

We are bedevilled by violence in this country. I have asked the question before: where does it all come from? Who teaches us this savagery? From the events of last week, the answer is obvious: our leaders.

The pictures on our TV screens last Saturday were gruesome, to say the least. Hulking bulldozers met flimsy edifices, and flattened them. Women were whipped, beaten and dragged along the ground. Disabled people had their crutches snatched away, and were thrown into the backs of lorries. Goods were crushed and destroyed. There was screaming everywhere.

Was this the work of hard-core criminals? No, those meting out the violence were official employees of the Nairobi City Council. Were they attacking thugs and hoodlums on our behalf? No, they were beating up ordinary members of the public. Their crime? Having kiosks and stalls from which they sell goods and try to make a living. These people were left sitting in the dust, nursing their wounds amidst the debris of twisted mabatis and broken glass.

This was an act both primitive and stupid. Yes, the kiosks are a problem. They proliferate everywhere and cause noise and pollution. They cause traffic congestion. They are a blot on many genteel suburban landscapes. They are even known to harbour criminals. We have all complained about them, even as we buy our milk and bread from them. We know their owners and play with their children, even as we worry about their proliferation.

But none of this means that the kiosk-owners should be beaten senseless and their structures ground into the dust. Is that what they deserved? By and large, these are enterprising people struggling to make a living in extremely difficult circumstances. Having failed to secure meaningful employment, they try to make do by selling vegetables, flowers, and simple groceries. They should have every right to do so. They should have our tolerance and support. Had circumstances been different, it could have been you or me sitting in those dimly lit booths eking out a living by selling cigarettes.

Yes, they are in situ illegally. They should not have licences to open noisy bars and restaurants in residential areas. They should not be allowed to encroach on road reserves. They should not be allowed to cause sanitation and hygiene problems. But the fact that they were allowed to mushroom is a legacy of the corruption and ineptitude of successive governments. We cannot now imagine that the only solution is to send in the bulldozers. That is simply an admission of incompetence. Is the art of dialogue and negotiation really so lost to us?

For the Narc government, the political folly of the act is astonishing. These are the very people who put this government into power. I recall all the kiosk-owners near my home pulling down their shutters en masse in order to attend those now-historic Narc rallies last December. Last week, one lady was ready to be crushed inside her kiosk rather than abandon it to the bulldozers. Several burly askaris had to drag her out kicking and screaming. It should not be lost on the powers-that-be that the sign on her kiosk read ‘Mama Rainbow’. How much more dramatically can a government let down a voter?

The government is now in a ‘lose-lose’ situation. The kiosk owners have vowed to put up the structures again and again. If the government sends in more bulldozers, it will alienate even more voters. If it allows the kiosks to return, it will be allowing illegality to continue. Either way, the government loses. A remarkable shot to the foot, indeed!

Which is why no leader is willing to stand up and admit to giving the order. Who did it? Not the president, I would like to believe. He is on record extolling the poor to find their own work and be enterprising and industrious. His ministers, however, are trying to outdo each other in passing the buck. They see not a tragedy; they see a political opportunity to bring down their rivals. As usual, they find the cloak of politics easier to wear than the yoke of leadership.

New thinking is needed when it comes to our informal sector. Let me introduce you to a man called Hernando de Soto. He is an economist of immense repute, listed by Time magazine as one of the leading Latin American innovators of the twentieth century. His ideas on the development of poor countries have swept across the world. We need to listen to him in Kenya. He tells us that most of the poor of the world already have the assets they need to make a success of capitalism. In Egypt, for instance, the poor have accumulated assets worth fifty-five times all the foreign direct investment ever recorded there – including the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. If the United States were to raise its foreign-aid budget to the level recommended by the United Nations (0.7 per cent of national income), it would take the world’s richest country 150 years to transfer to the world’s poor resources equal to those they already possess!

So the poor are not poor at all, and they do not need the handouts of the rich. The problem, of course, is that they hold these resources in defective forms: houses built on land whose ownership rights are not adequately recorded; unincorporated businesses with undefined liability; industries located where investors and financiers do not tread. And kiosks built on road reserves. De Soto tells us that because the rights to these assets are not documented, they cannot be turned into capital, cannot be used as collateral, cannot be used as a share in an investment. These assets are dead capital.

And so, when we look upon our kiosks and shanties, we see only a problem. We see unsightly structures and destitute people. What we should see are heroes: people who have saved painstakingly to buy wood and steel sheets; people who have created enterprises in places nobody imagined they could be built. These people, de Soto emphasises, are not contributors to the problem of widespread poverty; they are the solution. The answer is not to mow them down or send them packing; it is to give legitimacy to their operations.

For that, we need leaders with imagination. We need managers who see beyond knee-jerk reactions. We need lawyers who can think about new systems of property rights that would confer legal legitimacy to the assets of the poor. We need planners who can envisage parks and special areas where entrepreneurs can sell their wares without encroaching on the rights of others. We need engineers who can devise sanitation systems in our slums. We need firm executive control and accountability for decisions. We need to have our common problems addressed through thought and careful reflection. We do not need leaders whose answer to any problem is to pick up a rungu and look for the nearest unprotected head.

So far, we’re struggling.

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