The Cambridge dictionary defines impunity as “freedom from punishment or from the unpleasant results of something that has been done.” No term better defines the story of Kenya’s blatant abuse of the environment.
In May 2016, local media headlined a story reporting how an MP was constructing a shopping mall on land which blocked the Mutuini-Ngong River, thereby causing extensive flooding in residential areas. The media reported that the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) had issued a cease and desist order which the MP had trashed. The building was constructed and let out to tenants.
In another incident, a politician desiring the support of a particular community in the Rift Valley is said to have arranged for members of the said community to be allocated land in the Mau Forest. One must recall that the forest is one of the remaining water towers that feed the water sources in the Rift Valley and environs. Several years ago, settlers had been allowed into the same Mau Forest leading to extensive degradation which is openly visible even on a casual visit to the area. Pragmatic politics agreed to allow these settlers, who had already been issued with titles, to stay on the land, subject to agreements on responsible land use and a commitment not to expand further into the forest. Everyone recognises that this water tower is so vulnerable that any additional settlements would cause untold suffering on Kenyans. But the politician considered his political fortunes more important than the rest of us. His philosophy, like many of his ilk, was “mtado?” These incidents are replicated all over Kenya.
During the last heavy rains, parts of Westlands in Nairobi were impassable as commercial developments had blocked waterways forcing the river to look for new courses to the inconvenience and chagrin of residents and road users. But the impunity philosophy reigns supreme and we all watched helplessly as these acts against the interests of society as a whole continued unabated. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to watch the evictions in the Mau two weeks ago and this week’s bulldozers in Kileleshwa which brought down my favourite coffee house on the basis that it was constructed on a riparian reserve. Having lived in Kenya, I assumed these were one-off events for the cameras and we would soon revert to business as usual. With the bludgeoning of several other hitherto untouchables, it appears that Nema and other concerned entities have found their bearing and are proceeding undeterred to deal with this menace of impunity against the environment.
Like other skeptical Kenyans, I am only cautiously hopeful, having experienced a history of acute disappointment. But I pray that I will be disabused of my skepticism. That should not be difficult. Environmental abuse has one unique quality, unlike corruption and other such ills, its presence and impact is indisputable. When it comes to corruption, the boundaries between truth, fantasy, propaganda and falsehoods are blurred. However, on environmental abuse, construction in forests or riparian reserves requires no in-depth investigation. It is in our face. Even if we do not know who the culprits are, we can see and deal with the effects. Consequently, we will know when Nema and other agencies are playing gallery politics by what they will touch and what they will avoid. Having smelt blood, I have heard Kenyans demand that owners of condemned buildings and persons who approved the illegal developments should be arrested. While that is a legitimate concern, I do not believe it should be the focus for Government and may lead to unnecessary distractions.
The bulldozing of these entities sends the most critical anti-impunity message. Even without following the culprits, I can guarantee you that if this campaign is sustained no developer will dare construct a building on questionable property. To kill our skepticism, what we want to see is an unwavering, non-discriminatory application of the law. It may be that if we succeed in this area, the message it will send on the cost of impunity will start us on the road to redemption in other spheres. We owe that to the generations that follow us.
-The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya