Back in 2019, Nairobi residents were caught by surprise when police officers were deployed to man public toilets in the Central Business District (CBD).For the next two weeks, it was drama as police kept vigil amid vicious fights between two rival camps for control of the scarce facilities for answering to the call of nature.Management of the toilets has the years proved to be a lucrative business generating millions of shillings in a month. Police were forced to step in after a group of youth owing alliance to a city MP and an MCA tried to kick out a self-help group manning the lavatories. The take-over attempt proved futile.
It, however, underlined the importance of the washrooms - that some people were ready to spill blood to control them. The entire CBD has 17 public toilets serving hundreds of thousands on a daily basis. For a long or short call, one part with Sh10. Assuming that on average 2,000 people visit each toilet to either defecate or urinate; this would be Sh20,000, amounting to a total of Sh340,000 fetched from the 17 toilets on a single day.
The millions at stake
This translates to about Sh10 million per month, but this is on the lower side since the public lavatories are ever-streaming with pressed clients coming to relieve themselves.Some years back, the facilities had remained under disuse after they were neglected by City Hall. Some became safe havens for criminals while others had been turned into abodes for street families. They only became useful after being revamped and put under private management spearheaded by organized self-help groups that keep fighting over control due to the millions at stake.
Even with their availability, the public toilets are not enough. Many people are forced to use facilities in hotels and bars that allow access. It is, therefore, understandable why public toilets in CBD are being fought over. During the last fracas, the group enjoying the backing of politicians, wanted to evict the self-help group claiming they had the right to manage the toilets.
It was around the same time that former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko had proposed that the toilets should be free of charge. When Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) took over, Lt-Gen Mohamed Badi promised to streamline operations at the toilets. This was after several self-help groups that had applied to manage the toilets wrote to NMS protesting poor management and biased awarding of the tender to run the toilets.Among the group was one known as United Disabled Vendors that expressed interest under the affirmative action category. This is after it came to the attention of the group that the leases of some of the toilets had expired in June 2021.In response, NMS said: “We are committed to a very fair, open, and transparent public toilet allocation process, we will endeavor to keep you updated on the progress we make on the toilet management.”
But NMS exited before addressing the matter. Recently, Governor Johnson Sakaja’s administration sought to revisit the matter by advertising a tender for the provision of cleaning services and maintenance of the toilets. Even before interested groups forwarded their bids, it emerged that the tender notice had been canceled in what has now raised eyebrows among interested parties.
“The Nairobi County Executive wishes to bring to the attention of all prospective bidders that the tender notice published on websites has been terminated,” read the termination notice.Some traders, who have previously been applying for the tender in vain, are optimistic that Sakaja’s government will not entertain politicians and cartels who have been bribing their way to secure tenders to manage the toilets.Starehe MP Amos Mwago, in whose constituency the toilets fall, acknowledges that there exists a serious problem. He explains that while some toilets were supposed to be managed by People Living with Disabilities, women, and youth this has never been the case. The lawmaker accuses powerful forces of edging out marginalized groups. “When the new administration came in, I raised the issue including how the toilets should be managed but it has never been taken seriously at all, it is a ticking time bomb,” states Mwago.
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According to the MP, the problem has been allowed to exist by those awarding the tender to cronies and are opposed to transparency. A sitting MCA, who declined to be named told The Nairobian, a powerful cartel in City Hall resisted plans to invite other bidders to manage the toilets. He claimed the cartel is pushing for the construction of more toilets. “The move could backfire because, if groups are allowed to construct more toilets, it will be hard to remove them from such locations. It is like allocating them plots without following due process,” he said.
“It has been one year since the governor took office with a promise of streamlining the city and restoring its dignity. He should do that now because some of the toilets in the city are poorly managed, sometimes without water and cleaning detergents,” he added.In 2015, the county government revised rent for toilets from Sh15,000 to Sh20,000 monthly in up-market areas, while for the low-market areas, the rentals were doubled from Sh5,000 to Sh10,000.
A lobby under the banner ‘We The People’, an umbrella body of different interest groups, accuses City Hall of failing to explain why those currently managing the lavatories are still there despite the expiry of the lease in 2021. “Recently we forwarded the catalogue of the letters that we have been writing about toilets to the office of the governor but they never responded. Our last attempts to reach the governor was around February but still there was no response,” said Peter Njoroge, the group’s spokesman. But Environment Chief Officer Ibrahim Otieno clarified that the tender for managing the existing toilets was canceled so as to iron out emerging issues. “Trying to remove the people who are running the toilets at the moment could be chaotic since that could be their only source of income,” explained Otieno.