Media ought to play a more effective watchdog

In June 2016, a residential building collapsed in Huruma Estate, Nairobi. A few weeks earlier, another building had collapsed in the same area, killing 52 tenants and injuring many others. [Photo: Willis Awandu/Standard, Standard]

That the media is the society’s watchdog is an oft-used maxim meant to demonstrate and reinforce the importance of the media and journalism in society. In essence, the media is supposed to safeguard the public against (often political) excesses, corruption, bad and unaccountable leadership.

In the Kenyan political environment where the Opposition is emasculated, the media have played a critical role by providing information that helps people hold their leadership to account. Thus the people still have hope in the media given the failing leadership that is often transactional and not transformational.

According to political scholar Joseph Nye, while transactional leaders often seek to exchange one thing for another, transformational leaders appeal to people’s needs, and provide an “inspiring vision of goals that overcomes self-interest and unites groups around common purposes”.

The arguments above are offered to illustrate the media’s role in holding people and organisations responsible for the construction sector to account for their (in)actions, commissions and omissions. This relates specifically to the Monday night collapse of a block of flats in Kware, Nairobi.

Some people (the exact number is not clear yet) lost their lives and many were rendered homeless. Sadly, this is not the first time this is happening in Nairobi, or indeed Kenya. It is reported that more than 30 buildings have collapsed in different parts of the country in the last 11 years, killing and injuring several people. In one of the worst cases, a six-storey building collapsed in Huruma in April 2016 killing 52 people.

This happened despite the fact that the body that regulates the construction industry, the National Construction Authority (NCA), claimed in 2015 that only 42 per cent of buildings were safe. Worse, 70 per cent of the residential buildings in Nairobi, according to the Nairobi Deputy Governor Jonathan Mueke who visited the Huruma scene, were built without the necessary approvals.

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Then the Government and others demanded action, that the deadly buildings be brought down. Since then, nothing. Then, another tragedy. After the Kware incident, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero said the structure was built in 2007 without official approval. “It was one of the buildings that was marked for demolition, but because of issues of security we had not demolished it,” he is reported to have said.

As one witness to the tragedy put it, these are empty threats. “Every time they tell us they are demolishing substandard houses. They demolish one or two and move on. We never get to hear from them until a tragedy like this occurs,” Francis Mwangi, who lives near the collapsed building, said.

The callousness with which such matters are treated is worrying in a rapidly growing metropolis. A 2017 World Bank report titled African cities: Opening doors to the world, posits that people often “settle in relatively central informal settlements that are densely populated, ill served by urban infrastructure, and, by many measures, unlivable”.

Another 2017 report also by the World Bank report on urbanisation, the environment and green urban development, entitled Greening Africa’s cities: Enhancing the relationship between urbanization, environmental assets and ecosystem services, says that even though Africa is rapidly urbanising, “the degradation of natural assets and ecosystems within…cities carries tangible economic, fiscal and social costs…lack of adequate understanding of the natural environment and the extent of urban environmental degradation in Africa, its economic and human cost, and the complex interplay between urban development, natural asset decline, and the value of ecosystem services provision is becoming increasingly problematic.

“National and city governments are unable to make well-informed cost-effective urban planning, land use, budgetary and investment decisions regarding the development of urban areas, and lack the tools to mitigate negative environmental externalities…There is a significant risk that African cities may become locked into a “grow dirty now, clean up later” development path which is potentially costly, inefficient …”

Such description fits Nairobi today. Looking at most estates, particularly those in the lowly places such as Eastlands (and its many estates like Umoja, Dandora, and the once-beautiful and well-planned Buruburu), Huruma, Kibera and Kawangware, it is clear that Nairobi is suffering serious challenges occasioned by poor planning and management, neglect and corruption.

That the city needs proper planning is a no-brainer. And this starts with making sure building and planning laws are respected by all irrespective of their positions in society, political influence or economic status. Innocent people have been punished because of the pressure exerted on the city by increasing population, and decreasing housing and infrastructural development.

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Often, people move to Nairobi believing that it offers better opportunities – education, health, employment, life, etc. It’s only when they land in Nairobi that they discover the misery, the desperation that the city offers, with thousands jostling for limited opportunities. Their story might not see the light of day particularly in a media obsessed with political statements and fighting, and celebrities.

When the President, County Government officials and others visited Huruma and demanded action, the media seem to have applauded them, gave them the space and airtime to make demands and promises.

Since then, the media seem to have gone to sleep while the cartels are at busy at work, perhaps in cahoots with the building industry mafia, and City Hall (corrupt, uncaring and irresponsible) mandarins, putting up projects without the necessary approvals.

These observations and arguments beg several questions, particularly for the media that claim to be the society’s watchdog. How accurate are the figures? Why have the media been unable to do follow up stories to determine the quality of the buildings, and whether they have been demolished?

The media need to respond to these questions urgently to demonstrate they are capable of playing a greater and effective watchdog role particularly because we have a leeching and an uncaring transactional leadership.

The wretched of the earth deserve better. And the media can play a greater role by highlighting their issues, covering their misery and putting pressure on the government, and county and city managers to do better.

The writer lectures at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi.

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