Graft and the city: How side deals have bogged down Nairobi from its infancy

Ofafa Jericho estate in Nairobi soon after it was built in 1963. The estate was at the centre of a corruption scandal between the city mayor and contractors. [File, Standard]
A tarpaulin for a sick cow, an occasional bottle of brandy to soothe an ailing wife and a lorry full of sand was enough to buy the city engineer’s consent.

These gifts by a Nairobi municipal contractor, sweetened with free flow of liquor, ushered the city engineer into the dark world of cartels which would claim the life of a colleague and destroy the careers of many.

The horrors of this dalliance between the city engineer and contractor Stone and Chanan Singh, who was contracted by the Nairobi City Council to build houses, were later exposed by a commission of inquiry.

Nairobi started its journey as a city on a wrong footing. After barely a year into its new status, it was so mired in corruption that in 1955, three commissioners had to be flown from London to unravel the complex web of graft.

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Largest development

Singh had won a tender to construct Ofafa and Mbotela estates meant to accommodate 65,000 people in a period of five years.

At stake was the largest housing development ever planned in British colonial Africa, which as David Anderson states in his book, Histories of the Hanged, was an investment of £10 million (about Sh1.3 billion).

The housing project was known as Donholm Triangle Housing, and was to cover Mbotela and the Donholm Neighbourhood Scheme also known as the Ofafa estate.

The ambitious project almost collapsed at one point after 13 councillors rejected it, slightly losing to their 14 counterparts. The feeling was that the colonial government was using a colossal amount of money to cater for native housing.

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But when it was approved, corrupt city fathers led by their mayor Israel Somen and his deputy turned it into a cash cow.

It is against this background that Sir Alan Rose, a London based barrister, arrived in the country on December 13, 1955 to a cold reception from the city council which was knee-deep in corruption.

The inquiry began on December 19, 1955 and would listen to 90 witnesses in 66 public sessions which lasted up to March 27, 1956.  

The commission learnt that Chanan Singh and his brother Gulchand Singh had been supplying the engineer, Stone, with liquor at his home so that he could give favourable terms.

“Chanan Singh was in the habit of giving occasional bottles of brandy to Mr Stone for the benefit of his wife, who was in poor health, the suggestion being that the brandy in question could only be obtained at a source known to Singh,” reads the report

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The contractor had also repaired Stone’s car and provided him with a tarpaulin to cover his sick cow and at one time supplied him with sand and ballast.

There were several other corruption rackets going on in the city at the time. One of the scams involved a group of fire-fighters who syndicated corruption, and had even opened a joint bank account where money realised from sale of stolen property was stashed.

The city fire department was in a shambles as a group of workers led by the fire master, Wallace, had a habit of selling the department’s equipment.

In one instance, the manager of Pitt-More Estate in Kiambu approached the fire master for some pipes for irrigation.

He was referred to a duka behind Victoria street where he got 1,000 feet of the pipe and unwittingly issued a cheque to the fire master of the City Council.

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Misplaced cheque

However, on October 28, 1953, the City Treasurer wrote to Howarth, and unwittingly gave away the game: 

“Dear sirs, I have received your cheque for Sh3,465 made out to Nairobi Fire Services and will be glad to know what account this is for.”

He followed it up by returning the cheque on November 3, 1953 with a cover letter:

“Our Fire Master assures us that no hosing has been purchased from us, so I return your cheque herewith.”

Meanwhile, the fire master told Howarth that their deal was private as the hose was not a council property and instructed him to write another cheque to GM Perrin.

Perrin, who was a firefighter, later explained that he had opened the account on July 14, 1953 with Standard Bank of South Africa and that it was jointly owned by colleagues Anderson and Walker.

They had set up the syndicate after they arrived in Nairobi and had financial problems setting up home for their families. 

In yet another daring plot, a water engineer discovered that he could make more money and live a luxurious life if he excavated stones in trenches where there were none and made his employer pay for the excavations.

The engineer, Harold Whipp, thought a befitting gift to Nairobi upon being elevated into a city in 1954 was shallow water and sewer trenches without pipes in some places so that he could pocket some money to finance his lavish lifestyle.

There was damning evidence before the commission showing Whipp had conspired with contractor, Ismail & Company, who was excavating a trench for the water pipeline along Ngong Road.  

Apparently, Whip had ordered his junior Keogh to enter fictitious figures of rock which had been excavated from the trench so that the contractor could be paid. In return, Whipp and Keogh were given goodies including fully paid holiday trips to Mombasa.

Things took a nasty turn when Keogh refused to cooperate and Whip resorted to threats warning him that if he reported the matter, he, too, would be in trouble for he had given fake certificates.

At one point, when the commission went to inspect sections of the trench which had no rock or pipes, Whipps hired firefighters from the city council so that they could cover the trenches. They also discovered that the engineer had tampered with his water meter so that he could pay lower bills.

When the going got too tough and Whipp was arrested and found to have stolen records which incriminated him in the scandal, he committed suicide on learning that he was about to be prosecuted.

“According to the Coroner’s verdict, Whipp met his death by his own hand on the railway line near Nairobi on February 13, having previously been arrested and released on bail on January 30...” 

At  the time of his death, he had cost the city council about £11,645 (Sh1,630,300) by today’s exchange rate.

The commission also learnt that Somen (mayor) had also supplied 400 substandard flush panel hardboard doors for the Mbotela housing project sold at exorbitant rates.

Two European contractors were also indicted for conspiring with City Hall to be paid Sh16,154 without supplying any goods.

Private swimming pool

The mayor and his deputy, Dobbs Johnson, were put on the spot for failing to declare their interests in companies supplying goods to the council. Somen had used council workers for the construction of his private swimming pool.

It has been more than a half a century since the scandal was unearthed at City Hall, but some of the problems they created still persist.

The houses built in Ofafa and Mbotela still stand, although age and poor workmanship have taken their toll. The Nairobi County Government which has been grappling with numerous housing scandals, is also planning to demolish the old houses to create space for erection of skyscrapper apartments and create more houses.

In its renewal project, the county government intends to redevelop over 2,000 acres in estates such as Kaloleni, Bahati, Ziwani, Mbotela, Jericho and Shauri Moyo where about 80,000 units will be constructed at a cost of more than Sh40 billion, in projects dubbed Nairobi renewal project.

The plight of the people living in the condemned estates is captured by 48-year-old George Magani, who told us: “Although my one bedroom house in Ofafa is in deplorable state, it’s the only home I know. I was born here and I do not know where I will go if we are evicted.”

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