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Leadership is about preventing disasters, not reacting to them

Sep 18, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

I am so very tired of writing about disasters. And I am sure you are so very tired of reading about them.

It was a bad week. First a ferry sank off Zanzibar. Several hundred people, including little children, were thrown into the sea. More than two hundred are believed to have died.

Next, fuel spilled out of a pipeline in Nairobi, flowed into storm drains, ignited and blew up a slum. A hundred-odd people were burned to death, and many others are still in hospital with horrific injuries.

Disasters happen all over the globe, and will continue to do so. What makes thinking people most angry about these ones is one simple fact: they were easily preventable. They were neither caused by human error, nor acts of nature. They were caused by a lethal combination of corruption and regulation failure. And that is why we must stay angry until something is done.

The Tanzanian ferry was grossly overloaded. They always are. At least a couple of hundred people more than the ferry could carry piled in. They were unregistered. This was not a freak occurrence; the last capsizing off Zanzibar was as recent as 2009.

The Nairobi slum fire was not a bolt from the blue. The Sinai slum was built right on a major pipeline. It was flagged as a huge danger years ago, by journalists as well as environmentalists. Nothing was done. Everyone looked away. So now, let’s all look away from those charred skeletons and deformed bodies.

Many people carry responsibility for this. The common people of that slum were scooping fuel out of drains, knowing what has happened to others who have tried this in the past. Ordinary slum-dwellers resolutely refused to vacate for years past until they were compensated.

The Kenya Pipeline Company tells us this the spill was simply caused by high pressure in the pipeline. High pressure? Yes, so what? If you don’t have a system that manages high pressure for such a volatile product, what do you have? And environmental regulator NEMA lays the blame at the feet of the pipeline operator. Do tell, NEMA, where were you before the event?

Our leaders rushed to lament and wail with the bereaved, and to call the events “unimaginable.” They looked sombre and declared days of mourning. Now I have to ask: is there going to be a time when they act BEFORE a disaster, rather than offer empty condolences after? Leaders drive past dangerous slums, overloaded buses and ferries, and people failing to follow rules and regulations, every single day. When are they ever going to stop and do something?

Why did that slum continue in that place? Because of all the vested interests involved. There are local politicians who masquerade as saviours of the poor, while counting the votes. There are landlords who make big money out of land that should rightly belong to the state.

There are always vested interests that want to propagate bad situations. That is why we have something called a state – which regulates and enforces. Around these parts, that state is on perpetual holiday. Those who ought to be regulating are captive, and no one is stepping in to end this shame.

Are drowned and burned bodies not enough to shame you into action, leaders? Will you now do the thing we appoint you to do – which is to lead, rather than to campaign and manipulate? We are reducing large swathes of people to living like rats, and now they are dying like them.

More than mere mourning, we need immediate action. Arrests, overhauls, reviews and enforcements. Someone needs to take charge. Leaders, you owe it to the dead you failed to lead.

Or will that slum still be there next year?

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