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Tragedy revealed our ineptitude

Jan 29, 2006 Management, Sunday Nation

Let me warn you: there will be nothing “sunny” about this column today. It is very difficult to be upbeat and chirpy when confronted with the events surrounding Monday’s collapse of a building under construction at Nairobi’s Nyamakima. I am still lost in a fog of anger and frustration, thinking about the scores of people killed or maimed by this utterly senseless calamity.

Events as they reportedly transpired: a building was being put up in one of the city’s busiest areas. Approval was given for a five-storey construction; the developer was apparently going for seven floors. The construction materials being used were sub-standard; the pace was dangerous; the supervision was being done by charlatans.

The edifice fell on Monday at lunchtime. Scores of construction workers and passers-by were trapped in the rubble. Thousands of Nairobians rushed to the scene, purportedly to help, effectively to gawp with ghoulish fascination and get in the way. The police arrived, as did the fire brigade and other agencies. The crowds kept growing and surging. Rescuers could not get through. Even when they did, they were in disarray: who was in charge, and what should be done? A bus whose brakes had reportedly failed ploughed into the crowd, injuring many rescuers. Politicians arrived, mouthed platitudes about prayers, and left. All the way to nightfall, the area had not been cordoned off.

Order came the following day, in the form of our friends from Israel, America and Britain. These people quickly organised a chain of command, a control centre and a plan of action. They worked systematically from the architectural plans to understand the structure of the building, and used sniffer dogs to pinpoint the location of victims. They set up satellite dishes, computers and fax machines. They allocated duties and responsibilities. Many lives were saved.

In the face of such professionalism, the Kenyan “teams” faded into the background. The media were in awe of the proceedings. The authorities, now seeing the benefits of cordoning, decided to seal off a ridiculously large area, bringing the commerce of a bustling area to a total halt. Amidst the pain of the survivors, another ache was palpable: “We don’t know how to do this”. A senior official tried to suggest that the only thing the foreigners had brought, which we lacked, was equipment. No-one believed him.

Welcome to Kenya’s management deficit. If ever an example was needed of how dangerous the effects of this deficit can be, here it is. The officials who are supposed to regulate, monitor and supervise the building sector are chronically inept and obscenely corrupt. Those who respond to the inevitable disasters are woefully clueless.

It is time to get very, very angry. We cannot carry on in this bumbling and amateurish fashion. Those of us who aspire to take this country to first-world status in our lifetimes should be very worried. We are a million miles away.

Management expertise in this country is focused in the top layers of a small number of private organisations. There, the knowledge and skill-sets are world-class. We look at the achievements of our corporate titans and at our shopping malls and 5-star hotels, and imagine that we are becoming an advanced economy. But it’s only skin-deep. Look beneath, and you will see a great mass of ill-equipped and under-skilled people. Energy, yes; expertise, no.

The problem starts at the top. It was apparent in the faces of the nabobs who arrived at the rescue site. They were clearly under the delusion that the work of a leader is to arrive in a motorcade, mouth sweet nothings and then leave. Not one offered any semblance of leadership or took decisions to alleviate the situation. It is doubtful that any even had the capacity to do this.

Beneath the VIPs we have layers of bureaucrats steeped in hierarchy, rigid structures and brainless paper shuffling. And to top it all, many have imbibed from the poison vat of corruption and are busy spreading the vice. If we don’t have basic equipment, why is that? Could it be because money that should be used in preventing disasters and reacting to them is lost in the Goldenbergs and Anglo Leasing scams with, as is being revealed, the full collusion of the people we installed to lead us to glory?

I repeat: it’s time to get very, very angry. Our problem is this: we never do anything, disaster after disaster. No one is sacked for dereliction of duty. If they are, they are soon reinstated or transferred. No one is sent to jail for causing the deaths of innocents. If they are, they soon cruise out through a side door. No one resigns in the face of criminal negligence, and no one is expected to. Nothing changes, no lessons are learned. Kenyans move on, and forget about the whole thing.

And so buildings will continue to fall, and bombs will keep being planted. Ferries will keep sinking, and trains will be derailed. Buses will continue crashing in exactly the same places for decades. Planes will keep falling out of the sky. Famines will occur annually with complete predictability. The makers of toxic brews will carry on apace. When the death toll is high enough, we will call in our friends, the Israelis, Americans and Britons. And then we will shake our heads in dismay and carry on.

Let’s get serious this time. Is the sight of babies caught in the rubble of this collapse not enough to spur us to action? How can we allow this state of affairs to continue? We have cultivated a breed of well-connected wheeler dealers who break laws and regulations with impunity. We have allowed a species of criminally negligent characters to take root in officialdom. And we have allowed pretend-leaders to occupy high office and produce pretend-policies.

This web of graft and incompetence is keeping us poor and underdeveloped, make no mistake. Our GDP per head is at the level it was for the rest of the world, on average, in the 18th Century. That is not because we lack resources or energy. It is because we have all colluded in setting our standards and expectations so woefully low, that woefully low is all we get.

Without high standards, expertise and skills we are nothing. We will always fail. We will gaze at the work of others with awe. We need massive investment in knowledge and in good management practice in this country. We need to install serious people in high office, and have a serious process for doing so. We need specialised units with specialised skills. Otherwise whether it’s a building collapsing or the economy itself, we will have no way of dealing with it.

We must all hold the culprits collectively accountable to the people of Kenya. Those responsible must pay a heavy price for having the blood of innocents on their hands. An example must be set. We must demand far-reaching changes in the various ministries, councils and regulatory bodies. We must overhaul our approach to regulation and disaster response. So whatever you do, don’t sit back and forget all about it.

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