For two decades, some city ghosts have found a home by Nairobi River where they operate under the cover of darkness, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction and shattered livelihoods.
So powerful are these ghosts that even after President Uhuru Kenyatta, invoked the powers of his office in October last year and directed security organs to go after the people behind the cyclic fires that have been razing Gikomba area since 2000, not a single arsonist has been apprehended.
His deputy, William Ruto had in 2015 promised that the Government would look for a lasting solution while Nairobi Governor last October promised to provide fire fighting equipment at Kamukunji to deal with Gikomba fires.
But like the smoke from their handiwork, the arsonists responsible for the misery of thousands in Gikomba, have perfected the art of disappearing into thin air, in the dark of night, after lighting the fires.
Yesterday, some of the victims of Thursday’s fire which has claimed 16 people and left 70 others fighting for their lives, were convinced that President Uhuru’s promise last year was as of no use -- as useless as the heavily polluted Nairobi River which never dries up but whose waters can never be used to put out the flame or completely extinguish the fires.
Standing next to a heap of burnt green maize, a trader Jonathan Nzonga stared at an overturned, soot covered mahogany bed and sighed as he tried to come to terms with his losses.
Twice, in 2000 and 3013, this unlucky victim of Gikomba fires has risen from the ashes after his business was burnt down with all his stock.
“I do not know how I am going to do it but I must start all over again. It is painful to lose your stock and a building. I have lost Sh5 million in the three fires and I am not a young man any more...”
Next to him, Martin Agunga is inconsolable. Like most of his colleagues, he cannot comprehend how the fire which started at around 2am on Thursday could not be contained.
“There is a proper road and there were no people to obstruct the fire fighters. Why were they unable to stop the fire before it burned everything?
“I fear that there are people who benefit every time we have such a tragedy. There is always talk of State funds for reconstruction but the millions do not trickle down to us, the real victims,” he added.
The devastating fire, which gutted down workshops, business premises and some residential building has hit hard the 250 members of the Gikomba Riverside Jua Kali Society. This is the hub of artisan and traders who specialise in furniture.
“I have been told the fire started in three places. The first point was near the bridge. In the middle, there was another fire where green maize was stored by the roadside and near the toilet. All the people who died were trapped in their houses,” he said.
The soot covered buildings with shattered window panes are, according to survivors, death traps as there was no escape route when the blaze started and the road between the ramshackle workshops and the stone buildings was turned in to a fiery grave.
Yesterday, Nairobi Police Commandant, Joseph ole Tito said he did not have details whether an arsonist had been arrested. He said investigations were being handled at a lower level. But even as the police hunt for the elusive ghosts of the Gikomba fires, theories abound as to who was setting the fire in this hub of Kenya’s cottage industry.
“We are sitting on 2.5 acres of prime land. There have been attempts in the past by some powerful individuals to take over this land. This is one of the causes of the fires,” Njuguna says.
There is also another dispute: whether the ramshackle structures should be flattened to pave way for Gikomba Light Industries and the question of who really qualifies for space considering that there are thousands of traders operating in the area.
Whatever motivates the arsonists, Njuguna estimates that his members have lost property worth Sh 700 million
Pointing his finger at a pile of smoldering wood, Francis Munyiri, the chairman of New Pumwani Road Association explains: “This fire could not have come at a worse time. There is a logging ban in Kenya and we are being forced to source timber from neighbouring countries. In fact all our timber (mahogany) comes from Congo.”
He adds that hours before the fire broke out, eight trucks had just offloaded timber from Zaire. “The owners had used bank loans to secure the timber. What will they do?” he poses.
As the smoke rises above the city skyline and scavengers scour the disaster scene for any valuables, all the victims can do is stand by and watch, hoping for better tomorrow.
Also, they can dream that one day, the arsonists whose act has claimed lives and livelihoods, will this time be nabbed -- even though Robinson Thuku, Nairobi Central Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD) says that no suspect linked to Gikomba fires has ever been arrested.
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