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Why Uhuru is angry with scrap metal dealers

Scrap metal dealer weighing iron sheets at a demolished stall in Mukuru kwa Njenga, October 2021. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

In September 2019, the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (Kura) offered a Sh100,000 reward to anyone who could give leads to the arrest of people vandalising road furniture.

The attempt by the urban roads agency perhaps offers a glimpse at the struggle that State-owned utility firms have over the years undergone, pumping billions of shillings into infrastructure such as roads that are later on vandalised.

Apart from roads and associated infrastructure such as guardrails and signposts, other sectors including construction and autos have also faced vandalism - a piece at a time.

It is the same struggle faced by power sector entities as well as telecommunication, water and other utility firms, which have lost billions of cash whenever there is a cut on their infrastructure.

The offer by Kura may not have yielded much considering the continued destruction of equipment on roads that it is in charge of.

But the ban on trade in scrap metal by President Uhuru Kenyatta will perhaps help the cause of Kura and other State agencies that have watched helplessly as their assets are torn apart - piece by piece to feed to the unscrupulous and insatiable segment of the scrap metal industry.

The move by President Kenyatta followed the collapse of key power transmission towers as well as vandalism on Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and communication masts.

Though investigations are ongoing as to what may have caused the collapse of the electricity transmission pylons, power agencies have said vandalism played part in weakening them to a point they could not withstand elements they had built to withstand including winds.

The collapse of the towers on the Kiambere-Embakasi line resulted in major blackouts across the country early this month while pylons along the Loiyangalani-Suswa line resulted in power rationing.

“We have put a moratorium on the export or buying and selling of any scarp material until we have put in place proper guidelines until we ensure that the material is not coming from the hard-won investments that the Kenyan people have made,” said the President on January 20.

The scrap metal business is characterised by shabbily dressed young men who walk around collecting small pieces of metal and trying to fill up their sacks.

It is however a big industry and one that is exporting 12,462 tonnes of scrap metal in 2020, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. This is in addition to what is consumed locally.

The collapse of the towers on the Kiambere-Embakasi line resulted in major blackouts across the country. [File, Standard]

“Vandalism of road infrastructure is indeed economic sabotage and should not be allowed to wipe out the gains already made. We have observed with utter shock wanton vandalism of street-lights, guard-rails, road signs among others on most of our urban road network,” said Kura in a statement where it promised to pay for information leads on vandalism.

“We wish to condemn this unscrupulous and barbaric behaviour which not only endangers the lives of road users but also renders the maintenance of roads expensive.”

Power outages

Among the most vandalised roads in Nairobi include Thika Super-Highway, Outer Ring-Road, Ngong Road and Lang’ata Road.

Director of Highway Planning and Design at Kenya National Highways Authority Samuel Omer last week noted that while the recent power outages had shifted focus on vandalism of electricity infrastructure, the challenges cut across different sectors.

“What is unspoken is the danger we have faced over the years because of vandalism. We should equally be concerned about vandalism on road infrastructure and generally all infrastructure,” he said.

“We build this infrastructure with a lot of taxpayer funds and there is no reason why we should incur such high costs and it does not bring returns to the society. This menace has to be stopped.”

“We think that about 10 per cent of the money we use in the repair of roads could have been avoided if we did not have incidences of vandalism.”

The Kenya Roads Board gave Sh59.34 billion to the road agencies for the maintenance of roads. Assuming that each spent six per cent in repairing and replacing signage and other furniture destroyed by vandals, it would mean Sh6 billion expenditure on roads can be spared if the country can get rid of vandalism.

The money is huge considering how much has been spent on past projects. The dualling of Ngong Road from Dagoretti Corner to Karen cost Kura Sh2.4 billion, the money spent repairing works of vandals can be used to do such projects.

The Nairobi Expressway, being put up by the China Road and Bridge Corporation under a public-private partnership model will cost about Sh60 billion, meaning last year the road agencies may have spent 10 per cent of this coast in just replacing furniture removed by vandals.

Nairobi Expressway will cost about Sh60 billion. Elvis Ogina, Standard]

A special audit on road furniture that the Auditor General published last year noted the dilapidated road infrastructure. The Auditor-General noted that a well-regulated scrap metal sector with a heavy State oversight could help bring down instances of vandalism on infrastructure.

Such measures include the implementation of the Scrap Metal Act of 2015.  “The sustained vandalism of road furniture can be attributed to lack of continuous inspection and monitoring of road furniture and lack of mechanisms of reporting vandalism. It was noted that the materials used for road signs, mostly metallic, are more susceptible to vandalism because of the relatively high value of scrap metal in the market,” said the Auditor General.

“In addition, the Scrap Metal Act enacted in 2015 to make provisions for the regulation of the scrap metal trade, had not been operationalised by the Ministry of Trade and Industry at the time of audit.”

“Warning and informatory signs communicate to road users and reduce risk of accidents. Vandalism, therefore, may increase instances of road accidents due to misinformation and limited or no protection to road users.”

While there are industries and livelihoods that depend on the scrap metal trade, the unscrupulous end of the trade that is fed by vandalised metals makes it too expensive for the country.

President Institution of Engineers of Kenya Nathaniel Matalanga rooted for a total ban on scrap metal trade.

“I think the government should stop scrap metal dealers… there have been efforts but players and lobbies say this affects their livelihoods and should not be stopped but we should look at the benefit and the losses,” he said in a recent media interview.

Analysts have also urged Kenyans to report vandalism. “We have to try to change the culture among Kenyans. The culture is that anything that is public belongs to anyone and the thinking is that I can do anything with it… we need to have respect for public property,” said James Mcfee of Strathmore Business School during a panel discussion on KTN News.