Letter from Africa: Kenyans beg for mercy

Woman holding clenched fist Image copyright AP
Image caption Bystanders waited anxiously as rescuers tried to find people in the collapsed building

In our series of letters from African journalists, Joseph Warungu considers what the collapse of a building in Nairobi reveals about Kenyan society.

"Huruma" is a Swahili word meaning mercy.

It is also the name of the district of the city that has attracted world attention following the building collapse that killed 51 people.

Judging by the sad events of Huruma, and many other previous tragedies, it is safe to say that the majority of Kenyans live by the mercy of God.

The collapse of the building is a reflection of a society that is collapsing bit by bit, day by day.

The rule of law in Kenya has all but collapsed under the weight of impunity.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Six days after the collapse three people were pulled out of the rubble, but 51 people were killed

Furthermore, many do not trust the very people whose job it is to enforce the law - the police.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, a watchdog body established by the constitution, has said the police have been responsible for torture, killings and summary executions.

While action has been taken against some individual officers accused of taking the law into their own hands, not all have faced justice.

Impunity also means you can put up an unsafe building in an unsafe area and stuff it with desperate families.

And then sleep soundly, knowing that although something really nasty could happen to your tenants, there is nothing bad that can happen to you.

Joseph Warungu:

Image copyright BBC Sema Kenya

"The one institution in Kenya that has stood the test of time and is unlikely to collapse any day soon is corruption"

Five reasons why buildings collapse

In Kenya money speaks loudly, and it can silence anyone or anything.

More than 30 buildings have collapsed in the last 10 years in different parts of Kenya, killing and injuring people.

An audit of the safety of buildings in Nairobi, conducted last year by the National Construction Authority, showed that only 42% of the buildings were found to be safe to live in.

The education system too has been teetering on the edge of collapse.

In March, the national examinations board was dissolved, following widespread cheating in national exams, which resulted in the cancellation of 5,000 results.

Image copyright Getty
Image caption Exam questions were reportedly being sold for 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($10; £7)

Some of this cheating is inspired and funded by the parents themselves, a sign of another institution - morality - in danger of collapse.

Morality stands little chance once discipline in Kenya buckles.

It is the indiscipline and impunity that gives people the confidence to drive dangerously in the wrong lane as police watch helplessly.

We have also witnessed examples of the collapse of clear leadership in key public institutions with negative consequences.

During the 2013 terror attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, in which 67 people were killed and 200 others injured, the rescue operation was hampered by rivalry between the police, who initially responded to the attack, and the military, who eventually took over the operation.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Lack of coordination between the army and the police hampered efforts to deal with the Westgate attack

It was a case of inflated egos, lack of co-ordination and confusion over who really was in charge.

Sometimes it is never quite clear who is in charge in Kenya.

The president himself has in the past found himself in an embarrassing position after pronouncing on one thing, or issuing a particular directive, only to be contradicted or overruled by another institution.

And this month we witnessed the collapse of yet another Kenyan virtue - hospitality.

The authorities have lost patience with the hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly from Somalia who have been sheltering in Kenya.

If the government has its way on the matter, the refugees will need to find a new home either back in Somalia or in a different country.

But the one institution in Kenya that has stood the test of time and is unlikely to collapse any day soon is corruption.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Nairobi authorities are now trying to clear people out of other unsafe buildings in the Huruma district

In almost every tragedy in Kenya, money will have changed hands.

A study conducted in 2014 said some buildings collapse because contractors steal cement and use less steel.

Architects and engineers are also blamed for failing to verify the quality of the work or properly supervise construction.

And then you have the Nairobi City building inspectors who are overstretched.

As a result, the institution of corruption is always hanging about in the shadows and it never takes a day off.

The police were quick to take action following the collapse of the building in Huruma and arrested the owners, but they did not target the whole chain of people involved in the construction industry.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rescuers spent 12 days searching for survivors after the building collapsed on 29 April

This though is Kenya where we love painkillers to deal with the symptoms instead of treating the causes of the illness.

And because of this, our lives will continue to be at the mercy of God.

Until we reinforce our social, political, economic and governance structures to prevent the collapse of the Kenyan soul, the Huruma building collapse will repeat itself.

And our response will be to reach out for the predictable pill to kill the pain.

Hopefully one day those entrusted with public positions will move the nation from huruma (mercy) to another Swahili word, huduma (service).

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