Let not the ones in power be the reason the fertiliser hits the fan

 Destroyed trucks are pictured at Beirut port on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. PHOTO|  JOSEPH EID

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • A few years ago, a distressed vessel approached the port, needing to discharge a cargo of nitrate fertiliser in order to prevent disaster aboard.
  • To us, fertiliser holds the power to transform agricultural production and project it to the domain of abundance.

A terrible thing to say, but over the course of its history, Beirut developed a solid reputation as the capital city of blasts, explosions and detonations.

Everyone else – Mogadishu, Belfast, Kabul, Islamabad – didn’t quite register the reflexive association with deadly pyrotechnics that Beirut did.

And so, when reports and footage emerged of a massive explosion inside that city, an especially heavy pall of despair descended on the world with the dark billows that engulfed the hapless city.

Most likely, some warlord or other was trying to make an important point, or some fundamentalist was prosecuting a nationalist, ideological or other factional agenda.

Feverish speculation trotted out all the usual suspects and possible motives, including the forthcoming American elections; you cannot make this stuff up.

A strong theory emerged, however, and it was as outlandish as anything conspiracy theory could throw up – so much so, in fact, that it must be the truth. It is the fertiliser theory.

Prevent disaster aboard

A few years ago, a distressed vessel approached the port, needing to discharge a cargo of nitrate fertiliser in order to prevent disaster aboard. The authorities in Beirut allowed the fertiliser to be off-loaded, then seized it.

Despite spirited effort on the part of the crew and owners of the vessel, the powers of Beirut remained implacable, and everyone appears to have moved on somewhat, without a definitive resolution of the matter... until early week, when the mother of all blasts obliterated every ounce of nitrate, together with the buildings, equipment and personnel in the vicinity.

The only time fertiliser ordinarily comes close to security matters is when food security is in focus. To us, fertiliser holds the power to transform agricultural production and project it to the domain of abundance.

That is the version available for those of us inhabiting the innocent world. The other side, however, sees in fertiliser raw material to produce devastating explosive power.

People seeing the video swore that the swift impact of the blast and the ‘mushroom cloud’ that overhung Beirut for a while indicated a nuclear attack. Ogopa mbolea, nani!

All power in the universe, then, possesses this duality of potential – it can yield tremendous good as efficiently as it can obliterate everything, including its wielders.

Ministerial declarations

We live in the era of stark violent power in this country. Everywhere you turn, unsheathed executive power stares back at you, ready to have its way.

Ministerial declarations resonate with the undertones of gloating impunity that define the force we know as ‘the system’.

We witnessed this side of state power in the ‘war on corruption’, the consolidation of total and direct control of key institutions, especially our hapless Parliament, and the chilling and brazen onslaught on the judiciary.

The stated intention of these cataclysmic power moves was to clean up government and make it deliver services to Kenyans.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 creates, defines and confers sovereign power. It also sets out parameters for its exercise throughout the Republic.

It jealously circumscribes its means and ends. In short, the Constitution skews the awesome potential of power towards realising the integrity of the state and the welfare of its citizens, so that through it, government is at all times a force of good in society.

The Constitution may therefore be seen as a manual to help us manage power so that it doesn’t blow us all up. To stretch the analogy, it saves us from welding with acetylene inside a warehouse holding 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

We are every day witnessing bureaucrats, parliamentary whips and majority leaders scooting all over a warehouse with welding torches aflame, neither knowing nor caring that they endanger everyone, but themselves foremost.

In theory, under conditions of flagrant incompetence and corruption, all systems must collapse under their own weight. In practice, this means that we in Kenya are already on the brink. Adding reckless abuses of power to the problem invites highly unwelcome problems to fragile situations.

The brief careers of Irungu Kangata and Samuel Poghisio are boldly cautionary in a most welcome way.

They are backed by stupendously resolute state power that lays to waste anything in its way, yet they are bungling abjectly and publicly. Instead of formidable power men, they are a sorrowful spectacle.

Long ago, a certain advertisement cautioned that power is nothing without control. Control here would be the Constitution of Kenya, which reminds us that all power belongs to the people and must be exercised for their benefit, in accordance to the principles and values laid down quite elaborately therein.

Without reference to the Constitution, holders of public office are like welders who do not know that there is ammonium nitrate in the warehouse, and even if they did, do not and will never understand the implications. At that point, it is too late for pennies to drop, bells to ring or bulbs to light up.

Mr Ng’eno is a lawyer and the former State House speechwriter. @EricNgeno