Theft of road barriers and utility infrastructure constantly causes disruptions in the transport, energy and communication sectors. The vice also kills people as the vandals expose road users and consumers to grave risks. Meanwhile, those who steal everything metallic and sell to scrap metal dealers make a killing.
While guardrails, railway gauge blocks, transformers, conductors and cables are meant to serve particular purposes, they are a treasure for criminals who milk cash out of scrap.
For example, without road guardrails and barriers, severity of accidents increases. Similarly, it becomes a challenge for medics to respond to emergencies in case of power blackouts due to deliberate damage of electricity lines.
Above all, vandalism increases the cost of living, according to Stephen Mutoro, Chairman, Stop Crime Kenya (Stock) , a campaign hosted by Consumers Federation of Kenya (Cofek).
So brazen are the metal thieves that they even strike in broad daylight. Some have the audacity to climb electricity transformers to siphon oil or steal conductors. In some instances, the thieves steal fibre-optic cables, leaving many people cut off from communication. The wanton destruction whose value cannot be easily quantified has gone on for so long that vandalism is almost normalised.
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“The only solution is that this war against vandalism is ours as consumers. We need to come up with a mechanism on how to deal with the vandals because they live amidst us. Let’s be responsible by exposing them,” says Mutoro.
Public awareness, suggests the Confek boss, is needed to sensitise Kenyans to know their role in protecting road furniture and infrastructure. He fears if allowed unabated, vandalism has a cost implication.
“We have to take individual responsibility, otherwise the cost of living goes up when expenses incurred in repairing damages caused by vandals is passed to consumers,” says Mutoro.
Even though the Scrap Metal Council is supposed to control the scrap metal business, the sub sector remains largely unregulated. A clip of a man stealing iron sheets in broad daylight along Mombasa Road highlighted the huge appetite for scrap metal.
In the video taken a few weeks ago, the man is seen in broad daylight carting away iron sheets erected as barriers for the Expressway under construction which he loads onto a motorcycle and speeds off. Demand for scrap metal is high but supply is low, leaving dealers to scour everywhere for anything resembling metal. A kilogramme of metal in some places fetches between Sh20 and Sh40 but on arriving at scrap yards, the same quantity may be bought for Sh100.
With high demand and ready markets, railway lines, road barriers, bridge guards become key sources for vandals whose acts have huge consequences on Kenya's economy and well being of taxpayers.
In the capital city, road barriers and bridge guards are frequently stolen. This year alone, 150 suspects have been arrested for acts of vandalism, according to an engineer with Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Just recently, we arrested three suspects trying to vandalise road barriers along the Eastern bypass. They were taken to court and charged 200,000 shillings,” said the engineer.
But despite hefty fines and frequent arrests, the vandals continue to wreak havoc, endangering lives of road users.
The KURA engineer revealed that over the last two years, Sh10 million has been spent to restore barriers on Ngong and Outer Ring Roads.
“The situation has however improved along Outer Ring Road following sustained impromptu inspections,” he added.
The road was notorious for vandalism, leading to a sharp rise in accidents. The thieves did not spare roadside lamp posts and manhole covers.
Though it is not known how much is lost to the vandalism menace, it is estimated the loss runs into hundreds of million shillings annually. Few years back, the Public Interest Stakeholders in the Scrap Metal Industry lobby group put the figure of loss at Sh16 billion annually.
Kenya Power in 2012 said it had lost over Sh6 billion to vandalism over the last 10 years while Telkom Kenya placed the annual loss at about Sh504 million.
Stolen transformers and conductors result in outages, some lasting for days before replacement. The artificial power shortages are felt in homes, hospitals and learning institutions. When communication is disrupted by theft of cables and fibre-optics, it becomes difficult for those in emergency and distress situations to seek help.
According to Kenya Iron and Scrap Metal Association (KISMA), those who damage transport, electricity and communication infrastructure are non members operating outside the guidelines of the association.
“The association has laid down ground rules that are strictly followed. Our members are discouraged from dealing in scrap metal vandalised from roads and railway lines,” says the association’s Secretary General, Irshad Sumra.
According to Sumra, who has been in the business for decades, the sub-sector supports about 1.2 million people and that there are about 200 registered scrap metal dealers.
“The rest are in business illegally and they are the ones giving the sector a bad name by encouraging vandalism of public property,” says the proprietor of Roma Metals.
Even as the Scrap Metal Council attempts to regulate the sub sector, taxpayers continue to bear the brunt of vandalism. Apart from their safety being compromised, they pay for restoration of the stolen guardrails, road barriers, manhole covers, transformers and cables.
Not only does vandalism endanger lives and occasion economic losses but the vice causes disruptions as was the case recently when passengers travelling to Mombasa and Nairobi were on November 22, 2021 left stranded following a safety scare on the rail path.
The Madaraka Express trains heading to Mombasa and Nairobi were stopped mid-way after it was established that a section of the railway had been vandalised. Five days later, two suspects were arrested in connection with the vandalism and disruption which the Directorate Criminal Investigation (DCI) terms as an act of terrorism.
Michael Mbevi, a scrap metal dealer, was seized at his yard in Kinyambu, Mtito-Andei as he loaded stolen gauge blocks into a lorry. Also arrested was Nicodemus Kyove, the driver of the truck.
“The arrest of the two suspects followed a tip-off from a patriotic member of the public, who informed Railway Police officers and DCI detectives engaged in an operation to recover the vandalized blocks,” said DCI on its twitter handle.
The suspects were slapped with economic sabotage and terrorism related charges. Early this year, rehabilitation works on three key metre-gauge railway lines fell behind schedule due to vandalism.