On a rainy evening of May 24, 2011, eight casual workers at a makeshift paint manufacturing factory were roasted to death in Kariobangi Light Industries, about 15 kilometres north of Nairobi.
The inferno that left five others seriously injured, including the owner of Picasso Chemicals, was blamed on poor planning, ignorance to the law, corruption and slow response from the city fire brigade.
No lesson was learnt after that tragedy. Today, the factors that largely contributed to the fire remain unknown. No effort has so far been made to forestall a similar tragedy.
Instead, access roads are being blocked with abandon, the sewer line has been encroached, few remaining open spaces grabbed, and illegal tapping of electricity — conditions for a perfect death trap in an area flooded with highly flammable materials.
All these activities are happening under the nose of local government officials allegedly compromised by greedy land developers who are busy turning the residential estate-cum-industrial zone into a messy maze infested by brazen criminal activities.It is the rule of the jungle in Kariobangi where counter accusations between an alleged clique of influential developers and some residents has become the norm. The grabbers are accused of violating the Physical Planning Act by putting up permanent houses, along access roads and the main sewer line.
Two of the illegally constructed houses stand a few metres away from the spot where the factory workers perished, after hectic efforts by firefighters to reach the scene.
The firemen were frustrated by a poor road network.
Cheated death twice
The situation has however, worsened, two roads are completely cut off, complicating further rescue operations in the event of an emergency. It was not clear who exactly is to blame since everybody implicated, pointed the finger elsewhere.
“We fear that in case of a fire outbreak, accessibility will be hindered,” said William Kinyua, the chairman of Kariobangi Light Industry Jua Kali Association. The man has allegedly cheated death twice while trying to fight against land grabbing.
On the two occasions, some of the alleged grabbers wanted to shoot him dead. The matter was reported to CID officers at Kasarani police station.
Kinyua, who expressed fears over his life, blamed local provincial administration and council officials for the wanton grabbing and general breakdown of social order.
Keen not to attract any suspicion, Kinyua, with the help of Jonathan Mbao, showed The Nairobian five roads that are inaccessible as a result of grabbing.
Declined to give us his first name
The illegal buildings were hurriedly put up during the December holidays, the two said as they took us around. At one point, they warned us to disguise ourselves as government officials on a survey mission for fear of attacks.
A section of the sewer, which runs to Ruai, is buried under structures where people carry out their businesses oblivious of risks posed to them. “Our complaints to the chief, ward manager Mr Thuo and DO have not been acted on,” said Kinyua.
Incidentally, Thuo — who declined to give us his first name — was transferred last December, a period that was marked with intensified grabbing activities as claimed by Kinyua and Mbao. When reached, Thuo hinted that his opposition to grabbing could have been one of the reasons he was removed and replaced by Petronilla Wanjiku.
But Wanjiku said she was not aware of any land grabbing. “I haven’t seen anyone come to my office over the matter,” she said.
Some of the alleged powerful grabbers have also encroached on plots belonging to residents like Waithaka Mwangi, who is embroiled in a land ownership dispute with Julius Gitau. Gitau neither confirmed nor denied the grabbing allegations.
“Just go to the chief or the DO in Kariobangi. Those old men (Kinyua and Mwangi) are brokers. The chief and DO will tell you the exact story then from there you will make judgment because if I explain to you, it will sound like I am defending myself,” said Gitau.
DO Charles Mabonga exonerated the provincial administration from blame saying they only intervene where public land is involved.
“City Hall can explain better, they have the warder, manager and planners. It also has the plan of the area and details of the genuine individual owners who pay rates, so we are not involved. We just address complaints by forwarding letters to City Hall. They can be in a better position to answer,” he said.
Kariobangi Light Industries is in Kariobagi North which began in 1961. But ‘industrialisation’ in the area began in the late 1980s when workers from formal industries lost jobs because of the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in Kenya. SAPs were policies imposed on developing countries by World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to save their economies from collapse.
The government set up garages and workshops on Outering Road.
To support them, the state decided to donate 40 acres for beneficiaries to set up light industries and small-scale enterprises. As business boomed, so was the grabbing mania as people with money and political connections turned the first phase of 30 acres into a residential estate leading to the current negative consequences.
The initial idea was to make it an industrial zone, but it mushroomed with storeyed buildings that use only the ground floor for businesses while upper stories as residential apartments. The other 10 acres had remained idle until recently when the land was grabbed.
‘Foreigners with pistols’
Kinyua claimed those occupying it are foreigners, alleging that some of them are armed. Shanties have been erected with electricity wires hanging dangerously above. Residents claimed the electricity is stolen from Kenya Power supply grid.
“The open field (10 acres) that had been set aside for expansion has been grabbed by foreigners from Somalia. Some of them are armed. When we try to go there to oppose the encroaching, they draw pistols threatening to kill us. We have reported to relevant authorities but no action is taken. Residents are not happy with what is happening,” Kinyua said.
On January 26, residents set ablaze 10 shanties on grounds that they were hideouts for criminals who terrorised them during the night. Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko was among the leaders who toured the scene.
Local AP commander Charles Mongira admitted that criminals are using the hovels to plan attacks adding that an operation will be carried out to flush out the alleged foreigners.
According to Karige Kihoro, a resident, the blockage of roads is a ticking time-bomb in an area where several activities take place. “Our access road has been blocked, we have complained and complained. Are we in government? What is the county government doing?” he posed.
Some entrepreneurs deal in inflammable materials like paint, methylene, spirits and plastics. Other activities include metal fabrication works, soap making, motor vehicle repair works, manufacture of mechanical devices like scale balances, wheelbarrows, flour mills, hand carts, bolts, hinges and nuts.
Yet the Physical Planning Act discourages against zoning a residential area together with industrial activities. Again, the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not condone the manufacturing of hazardous and flammable chemicals in a residential place.
Benefitting from the mess
“We are living like a country without laws,” said Kinyua, a metal dealer trying to fight land grabbing in Kariobangi amid strong resistance from a clique benefitting from the mess.
Muchiri Kimunyu, another alleged ‘grabber’, laughed off the claims branding those implicating him liars.
“I think it is better you come because I am not a grabber, the truth hurts. You may even assist me, you just come because somebody could be calling you a thief when he is the thief.”