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Nairobi City Council – hope or despair?

Aug 23, 2009 Management, Sunday Nation

These days, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about the Nairobi City Council. There are reasons to do both.

Let’s get the crying over with first. Was it possible to watch the recently concluded mayoral election in Nairobi and not burst into tears, even if you’re a grown man? For this process stretches even the word ‘farce’ into new territory.

Before every such election, all the key contenders have to take ‘their’ councillors into a retreat hideaway, where their mobile phones are confiscated on arrival and they are not allowed contact with the outside world. Do we ever stop to wonder why? Simply because no councillor seems to be truly loyal to any one candidate, and can be paid to change his vote. So mayoral candidates are forced to lock their supporters into some resort at great expense and cut them off.

That is not the end, of course. These people will still find ways to open themselves up to inducement, so no candidate can be confident of his support up to the point of voting. This time, the ODM side came up with a jolly wheeze: many councillors came in with their right hands bandaged, claiming that they would need help in casting their votes. So that their votes can be scrutinised by their minders. Such strokes of genius…

What principled politicians we have, eh Kenyans? Of course, mere bribe-driven vote shifting is not the end of it: we also have chair throwing, name calling, nose punching and general affray in each and every mayoral election. And yet, these people do not impose themselves on us at gunpoint; we vote them in. When the city is run by malevolent goons and mercenaries, what are we saying about ourselves, and for how long do we intend to continue saying it? Why would a decent, respectable, professional Kenyan ever want to be part of this baying mob?

Enough of the crying. The rays of hope come with the new Town Clerk, Philip Kisia. This man comes with a respectable record of achievement in the private sector, so our hopes run high.

Mr Kisia made one very important announcement recently: that the notorious city council askaris are to be tamed. In case you don’t know why this matters, these are the thugs who go around the city wantonly arresting businesspeople for breaking mysterious city by-laws. Many an entrepreneur has found himself in the back of some truck surrounded by real lawbreakers, riding around town for the whole day. That, says the Town Clerk, is behind us. No businessperson will now be arrested for breaking a by-law; a notice to comply will be given.

Hallelujah. It is about time someone recognised that people who set up in business are not the enemies of this country – they are its saviours. It is not the crude enforcers of archaic rules who drive the engine of this country; it is the people whose initiative they are out to suffocate. It is hard enough to sustain a successful business in this country, what with crazy power prices, water scarcity and a growing culture of violent robbery, without a self-important official turning up to enforce some obscure, irrelevant colonial hangover of a by-law. As it is, there seem to be laws preventing people from painting their own premises, trimming their own trees or harvesting their own rainwater.

But there is another side to this. Businesspeople, too, have the duty to conduct their affairs responsibly. A certain number of by-laws are a very important part of doing business. And many of our businesses have been guilty of taking these responsibilities very lightly.

No business should be allowed to operate without adequate fire protection. None should get away with providing their workers with horrible, unsanitary working conditions. Not a single one should be allowed to expose workers to fatal danger.

Proper regulation of business is a two-way street, and there has to be movement in both directions. If the council is now serious about sensible enforcement, then businesses must respond with diligent compliance. However, let Mr Kisia introduce a vital missing ingredient: dialogue. Regulation is not just “do this or else”. It is time a proper consultative debate was held about the council’s outmoded by-laws, and business premise regulation was hauled into the 21st century. The best laws are the ones that make sense to both sides.

So Nairobians can only wish the new Town Clerk well as he endeavours to create a modern, extortion-free metropolis. Can he do it, or will he also fail where so many have failed? He may soon find himself in the hands of those ugly characters we encountered at the beginning of this column: the councillors. For them, City Hall is a place for enrichment through participation in the right committees. They will resist every attempt to introduce change. But Nairobi residents will applaud every attempt to modernise this ailing city.

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