By Protus Onyango
NAIROBI; KENYA: Vandals are now fighting for a piece of the metal installations on the just completed Thika Superhighway, thanks to a construction boom in Nairobi and its environs and the lifting of the ban on trading in scrap metals.
If the trend is not checked, soon the construction marvel could be stripped bare, thus putting both pedestrians and motorists at risk.
Our investigations reveal that the vandals; jobless youth mainly are hired by wealthy brokers who deal in scrap metals to cut and steal metal along the Superhighway in the wee hours of the morning.
Road signs, guard rails, meter boxes and parts of street lighting poles stolen from the Superhighway are smelted and turned into steel strands, carbon iron wire, galvanised sheets, nails, steel beams, pipes, frames and coils.
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Police say well oiled tycoons are behind the vandalism rackets.
Road signs, rail guards, meter boxes and parts of street lighting poles have been largely vandalised in the Kasarani and Githurai roundabouts.
The stretches near Kenyatta University and Juja town are the hardest hit although the area near Thika town too has been affected.
The daredevil vandals have been uprooting metal lamp-posts plunging the highway into darkness in the process endangering road users driving past tunnels, which have no access to sunlight.
At Juja, where a footbridge is under construction, the criminals delayed its completion after they made away with huge chunks of metal rails, delaying the progress of the project.
The theft, experts disclosed has been fuelled by a boom in the building and construction industry, which has created a huge demand for raw materials, which factories are sourcing from unscrupulous dealers.
It is instructive that many cases are reported in Nairobi and Kiambu Counties, two regions which are home to many real estate projects.
During the commissioning of the highway, President Mwai Kibaki noted that vandalism is costing the government billions of shillings each year and ordered authorities to apprehend the thieves.
The Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha) Director General Meshack Kidenda is equally concerned and has warned that the problem would persist unless scrap metal trade is banned.
“This project has cost the government Sh31 billion and it is a shame that a few unscrupulous people want to erode the gains even before the road is finished,” Kidenda says.
Mr John Mwatu, the project implementation team leader decries the theft.
“When we started laying the street lighting cables, about three kilometers were stolen and wherever we put a sign it was stolen within an hour. This costs us about 10 percent of the total construction cost of the road,” he says.
Outdoor advertising companies have been forced to incur extra costs to mount billboards on higher masts and use alternative materials such as hard plastic to discourage vandals.
Ban scrap metal dealers
“The government should just ban scrap metal dealers. Kenya does not produce metal and I don’t understand how metal dealers can survive in this market if they don’t steal. I am worried about what Thika Road will look like in two to three years if scrap metal dealing is not banned,” Mr Mwatu says.
Mr Steven Oundo, the chairman of the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) who is also the chairman of the newly formed National Construction Authority, which controls contractors, says scrap metal business would always be there but called for proper regulation so that thieves are eradicated.
The vandals are forgetting that the road has opened up much of the areas bordering the road to mega investments mainly in the real estate sector.
Owing to the new development, property prices around the area have skyrocketed.
Statistics from the Finance ministry show that the country loses Sh2 billion in road signs and barriers to vandals annually.
Our investigations revealed that those involved in the illegal trade are well-connected rich people who use unemployed youth to perpetrate the theft.
“The rich guys come and give us the job. They carry us on the pick-ups and instruct us to cut the guardrails, lighting poles and wires. After cutting, we drop the pieces on the pick-ups that are parked at strategic points. We normally do this in the wee hours of the night,” says a young man involved in the business.
He adds: “Sometimes, when we encounter the police, they are bribed with huge amounts of money of scrap metal dealers and used motor vehicle parts, we have written to the minister to reinstate that Law,” Mr Iteere said.
The police are also calling on the government to equip them with patrol cars so that they can be able to ply the major roads and apprehend offenders.
“We don’t have cars and uniform to use during this rainy and cold period. A policeman can’t walk on the road for kilometres to see whether or not a bridge or a rail is being cut,” says a policeman based at Pangani police station.
During this year’s budget presentation, Finance Minister Njeru Githae termed the dealers as economic criminals and promised to amend the law to empower the Internal Security Ministry to identify and trace all scrap metals handled by dealers.
He further announced tough measures that will see illegal dealers in scrap metals serve jails terms of three years or pay a fine of Sh1 million.
Experts predict that the Superhighway saves Nairobi drivers millions of shillings a day in fuel consumption, mechanical damage, stress and pollution.
Thika Superhighway is billed as East Africa’s biggest infrastructure development.
The 50-kilometre Superhighway runs from the Museum Hill in Nairobi to Thika town.
It has eight lanes and is able to carry over 70, 000 vehicles a day. The road has many flyovers, under-passes, interchanges, cross drainage systems and modern street lighting.
Despite the advantages, the Superhighway has become a death trap.
Statistics from the Kenya Police Traffic Department show that 70 people die on the road after every four months.
Experts are now calling for retraining of motorists who use the road to update them on what is expected.