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Time to focus on Nairobi’s present, not its future

There may not be many freshwater springs left in Nairobi, but hope certainly springs eternal here. We keep hoping for the ‘Nairobi we want’, or even the ‘Nairobi we had.’ Anything but the ‘Nairobi we have.’

Is there reason to be hopeful again? Well, the regular game of musical chairs at the top has completed another round, and we find two new faces sitting in the top seats. Njeru Githae takes over as Minister for Nairobi Metropolitan Development, and Philip Kisia is the city’s new Town Clerk. So what?

In the minister’s case, I am not holding my breath in anticipation. We can only hope that he does not suffer from his predecessor’s affliction of seeing grand visions every day. In the case of the new Clerk, perhaps we can be forgiven some stirrings of excitement. Mr Kisia, after all, is not a politician: he is a professional manager with a record of achievement in a number of organisations, private and public.

We often wonder what might happen if we were led by qualified professionals rather than noisemakers. I guess we may find out. The new Town Clerk has much to do, and a track record of some achievement by his immediate predecessor to build on. We can only wish him well, and perhaps offer some unsolicited advice.

Let me take you back to the year 1993. The computer giant IBM was in some disarray. Having been the world’s dominant technology company, it suffered a loss of $16 billion over the period 1991-93 – which was half the GDP of a country the size of Ireland at the time. When a new chief executive, Lou Gerstner, took over, he said something strange. Asked about his vision for the company, he retorted: “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” What did he mean? Simply, that the context of IBM in 1993 did not require dreaming about the future. What it needed was to deal quickly with the problems of its present. The short run took priority over the long.

I would suggest that Nairobi in 2009 is in a similar position. It does not require dreams and visions; it simply requires concerted action, here and now. When you are knee-deep in mud, it may feel nice to look up at the stars and dream of going there, but your immediate problem is to haul yourself out of the mud. So let us focus on the hard things that our two new leaders should do for us.

First, don’t dream about solving the traffic problem: just solve it now. This requires a quick look at road plans and traffic flows, followed by rapid introduction of the most important new roads. It does not need consultation nor any more cogitation: it just needs to be done! Nairobi has barely had a new road in decades, and that is a scandal. The traffic problem will not be solved by roads alone, however: the powers-that-be will have to look at the too-easy availability of decrepit cars; at charging for the use of key roads at peak hours; and at introducing a properly planned and regulated mass transit system.

Second, give us a city that it is safe to be in, today. Nairobi suffers from regular crime waves that blight the lives of its citizenry. It is the people at the bottom of the pyramid who suffer the most, as they are most exposed to the problem of rampant criminality. Unless we can make this a city that people walk around and do business freely in, we have no future to think about.

Third, arrest environmental degradation now. Nairobi is unrecognisable from the city it was just a couple of decades ago. Sure, we’ve done some recent cleaning up and ‘beautification’ of the centre – but that is just lipstick on the bulldog. A short visit outside the central districts and suburbs can feel like a descent into Hades. Nairobi River remains a weak trickle of sewage and effluent. An awful yellow smog covers the city every morning. Respiratory disease is rampant. Trees are being chopped down with impunity every day. Our new leaders must arrest all these abasements, now.

Lastly, return Nairobi to a rules-based society. This has become the city of ‘anything goes’. People drive where they want, build where they want, dump where they want, and make noise where they want. The rule of law has become a bad joke, and the rule of good behaviour a worse one. Our leaders need a take-no-prisoners approach to this problem: restate the rules clearly, and enforce them strictly.

In short, our new leaders have no need to dream about Singapore or Vancouver, nor do they need to visit them. They do not need to spend any time constructing vivid visions or melodramatic missions. They simply need to isolate a small set of high-impact actions – and execute them. A whole generation of city-dwellers is waiting to thank them.

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