Shutting down the country to plant trees masks our leadership failures

President William Ruto (left) during the National Tree Planting Day at Kiu Wetland, Makueni County, on November 13, 2023. [PCS, Standard]

Like a pen in a master’s hand, President William Ruto on Wednesday utilised the executive tools at his disposal to shut the engines of production for the whole country.

However, this should not be entirely unexpected given the missteps, failures and lack of clarity on response to a devastating flooding disaster.

What is certain is that the president’s response last week, while good-intentioned, may have been too little, too late. We will never know how many lives, of those lost, that could have been saved if such decisive leadership and action plan had been given back in February when the weatherman issued the alarm.

As for this column, in another place and time, I would have said the economy must not be seen to run on the whims of powerful men. While folks may celebrate a bonus-free day, investors and businesses bear huge economic costs and production disruptions, especially with unplanned public holidays.

For instance, businesses that had scheduled production and delivery schedules have to pay double costs in wages for the day if they are unable to reschedule their production. Otherwise, they may suffer serious contractual related or demurrage charges. Having said that, the discipline of economics is not blind to the real world and the human interactions within which economic activities happen.

People get sick, machines break down, acts of nature strike and, sometimes, human errors happen even for the most sophisticated systems and technologies. Besides, I am a strong advocate for sustainable development and a national champion for circular economic growth and development. Faced with the enormity of the lives and livelihoods destroyed in the past three weeks, it becomes a sacred duty and a civic responsibility to rally under the President’s call for each one of us to plant a tree, maybe many trees both now and into the future.

However, and specifically for this article, planting trees must not be seen as an end in itself or skirted away as purely a Climate Change complication to cleanse sins of commission or omission at both the national and county leadership levels. In true memory and honour of the estimated 257 departed souls (with many more still unaccounted for), this must be taken as a moment to reflect and a time to take remedial actions against failed urban planning, disaster preparedness and institutionalise leadership accountability.  

For posterity, what lemonades can we make from this painful experience as a country? How can we truly immortalise our departed countrymen and women?


The primary lesson emerging from this crisis is that science and evidence is a reality in any policy and decision-making environment. This is especially so for a country whose national leaders have teetered towards spiritualising the management of the economy and human life to escape from the burden of leadership responsibility and failures.

As a constitutional democracy, the Kenyan people unambiguously acknowledge the supremacy of an Almighty God of all creation in the preamble. Thereafter, in 18 chapters, 264 articles and 6 schedules Kenyans pronounced themselves on who and how power shall be exercised, and the guidelines to conduct official government business.  

It thus must be humbling for the Kenya Kwanza administration to now accept science and evidence to decide when to close or open schools to assure the safety of learners. The weatherman correctly told us which day will rain and when it will not. He tracked cyclone Hidaya accurately and advised on implications for correct policy response. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the purity of God’s creative power, manifested through science and evidence to preserve humanity and advance the socio-economic well-being of our society.

Going forward, our political leaders must humble themselves and learn to listen to sound technical advice in making policy choices and administrative directives. This saves lives, minimises waste and surprises, and preserves socio-economic order in society.

The second lesson is a call to order in both our urban and rural development planning systems. For many years, the post-independence planners have behaved as if human needs only exist for today. The flood waters re-awakened each one of us to the mess that City Hall and other municipalities are; probably dens of negligence, greed or simply gross incompetence.

Ironically, Section 110 (3) of the County Governments Act clearly demands the County Executive Committee for each County to prepare County Spatial Plans. This is complemented by the Urban Areas and Cities Planning Act.  

Margo Huxley and Andy Inch, in an article posted in the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography in 2020, argue that spatial planning attempts to plan for the process of social, economic and environmental change to bring about ends, together with drawing up plans, maps and diagrams that indicate where socio-spatial activities should take place. Thus, spatial development processes foster and augment qualities people value in the environment in which they co-exist.

For instance, good spatial plans in Nairobi must have told us where to put up residential structures, what densities per area and the capacity of drainage systems to support each area. Spatial plans define where rivers start and end, strategic locations for markets, schools, hospitals, recreational amenities and parks including disaster response and recovery routes for various emergencies that may affect residents both today and in future.

But look, we have a city government that prides itself of serving three to five million people each day but cannot provide even a basic service like functional public toilets. City dwellers are left completely at the mercy of private cartels or their primitive devices. That despite paying all manner of levies, and taxes, and confronting county gangs that purport to enforce archaic rules.

Huxley and Inch argue that urban planning guides and directs the use of development of land, urban environment, urban infrastructure and related ecosystems and human services. This is in a way that ensures maximum level of economic development, high quality of life, wise management of natural resources, and efficient operation of infrastructure.

Metropolis success

To breathe life into the centrality of urban planning in national and human development, we can sample two cases, one for the oldest and newest models of metropolis success. According to an article posted on the blog Rethinking the Future (, the New York City Masterplan was completed in 1811 under DeWitt Clinton's leadership.

Popularly referred to as the Grid Plan, it was an eight-foot (24 metres) map re-drawn by Williams Bridges from Randel’s original master plan and engraved by Peter Maverick. At the time, the city had only a few hundred thousand people, but they planned for a city of a billion. In 2022, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for New York was estimated at $1.87 trillion (or about Sh248.71 trillion at current exchange rates).

On the other extreme, the Shenzhen City Masterplan, in Guangdong Province of China was done in 1980 as the first special economic zone for China’s economic renaissance. It’s just about the size of Bomet County in geographic size that was a fishing village of 30,000 fishermen at the time. Currently, it is the fastest-growing metropolis in the world with a GDP of 3.46 trillion Yuan ($482 billion or Sh64.1 trillion). It is home to over 15 million people in under 37 years and home to over 3,000 international companies.

For the ordinary Nairobi dweller, these numbers sound mind-boggling. However, it is a fact of life in these cities and their residents! It is for this reason one wonders who bewitched us?