How Nairobi sank into filth as graft held sway

Workers from Nairobi City County’s Department of Environment sweep up dirt at the Kencom bus terminus stage on March 19. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • There is a thin line between hope and despair, and Nairobi has straddled that line for decades as cartels robbed it dry.
  • Now a soldier is attempting to bring order to it, and he basks in the glare of the blessings of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
  • Can he undo the damage?

On a cold Nairobi morning a few weeks ago, Maj-Gen Mohamed Badi led a mixed team from the Nairobi Metropolitan Services and City Hall on an inspection tour of the city. In South C, residents had for years complained they were not getting piped water and were being forced to buy the precious commodity from vendors. City Hall, however, kept insisting it was pumping water to the neighbourhood every week.

Maj-Gen Badi said he needed to understand what was wrong, and asked engineers to locate the problem. It did not take long before the team came upon a shocking, if not brash, scene. The water pipes into South C had been cut, stuffed with mattresses, and sealed back. No matter how many litres of water the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company tried to pump into this neighbourhood, the residents were never going to get a drop of it because of that blockage.

No one knew who had blocked those pipes, but everyone knew why. Without piped water, South C was always going to service the gluttonous businesses of private water bowsers. And there, in the cold of the fateful Nairobi morning, the rot that is Nairobi was laid bare.

Everything — from water and sewerage services to garbage collection, matatu terminuses and public washrooms — in one of Africa’s most populous cities, with a population of about 4.8 million people per the 2019 census results, is run by rapacious cartels, some from within the bowels of City Hall, the seat of administration.

Mike Mbuvi Sonko knew this all too well when he took over the reins of the city after gruelling campaigns against the incumbent, Evans Kidero, in 2017. Riding the wave of his landslide victory, Sonko sauntered into City Hall and, in his trademark bravado, promised to “fix” Nairobi.

Taking aim at Kidero, Sonko called a press conference and announced that he had not inherited a functioning government, but a coalition of cartels that ran the city, from the rates department all the way to what should be the bastions of credibility and legality — the legal offices.

To announce his arrival, he led a sting operation at the county’s cash office in his first week in office and “busted” officers holding Sh7 million in cash from the previous day’s collection. This, he thundered in the glare of television cameras, was unacceptable, and he was going to watch every move every officer at City Hall made.

And so Mike Mbuvi Sonko directed the security department to install closed-circuit television (CCTV) in the cash office and mount their monitors inside his office.

“Under my watch, City Hall will cease being anyone’s cash cow,” he said. “We shall streamline revenue collection and management in line with the Public Finance Management Act.”

That was on August 23, 2017, just a day after his inauguration ceremony as Nairobi’s second governor.

“No more sleeping on the job, no more swindling Nairobi money. More development and more to look forward to. Hongera Governor,” tweeted one Robert Birundu in response to Governor Sonko’s grand statement of intent. Nairobi was regaining the lost spring in its step, the zest in its belly.

But that hope was misplaced. As Sonko was installing CCTV cameras inside City Hall, the ravenous bunch of wheeler-dealers and smooth criminals that has run the city for decades was worming its way back in, taking over every department worth the time and hassle. And that is if it had left at all.

The cartels engineered chaos all over and positioned themselves as the governor’s right-hand men and women. More than 100 county officers were either sacked or suspended as City Hall turned into a boot-licking and sycophancy paradise. Deputy Governor Polycarp Igathe took to his heels, followed soon afterwards by county executives, the county secretary, and a team of chief officers.

In this chaotic environment, the criminal networks took hold. Sources at the county offices told the Sunday Nation that senior officers, whose identities we are not revealing for legal reasons, allocated themselves public toilets in the city, which they turned into private cash cows.

“One toilet generates as much as Sh100,000 in a day, so you understand why people would fight to get licences to manage them,” a source told the Sunday Nation.

After grabbing the toilets, the cartels set their eyes on Nairobi’s chaotic public transport sector. Despite its disordered nature, the matatu sector generates upwards of Sh200 billion annually and ferries at least 70 per cent of the city’s population daily. Run mafia-style for decades, the sector is the preserve of the hard-of-heart investment daredevils.

Matatus plying various routes operate from particular spots in the city that, it is assumed, are allocated by City Hall. And those spots, running into hundreds, are mighty cash cows, attracting as much as Sh3 million if they are in the most lucrative zones of the city.

Criminal networks took advantage of the chaos in City Hall to run these matatu stages, charging upwards of Sh1 million per slot per Sacco — the grouping of matatu operators, based on the routes they ply, that was introduced by the late Transport minister John Michuki in February 2004.

It is believed a parallel inspectorate network took over these termini and annually pockets more than Sh1 billion from the Saccos.

And these loopholes, among many others, saw own-source revenue collection dip from highs of Sh12 billion annually during the Kidero era to Sh10 billion. Projects stalled, building plan approvals were grounded, hawkers colonised entire streets, water rationing was normalised, and mounds of garbage rose overnight in the city’s backstreets.

Sonko appeared to be losing grip of the city, even though he insisted he was still in charge. His fall from the mighty place he occupied started with claims that his administration was operating 31 bank accounts, most of them unknown to the county assembly. Then details of a Sh96 million “confidential budget” allocated to the governor emerged, followed by allegations of a Sh2.4 million county fund used to facilitate a foreign trip for the governor’s wife and daughter to the 62nd Commission on Status of Women (CSW) in March 2018 in New York.

The series of allegations of procurement malpractices, misappropriation and embezzlement of county funds attracted the attention of investigative agencies, making the former Nairobi senator and his senior staff frequent visitors to Integrity Centre.

This culminated in the arrest and arraignment of Governor Sonko in December last year. He was subsequently barred from accessing his office over a Sh357 million graft court case. Without a deputy, the county government of Nairobi appeared orphaned.

Enter President Uhuru Kenyatta and, soon afterwards, a quiet, media-averse soldier called Maj-Gen Mohamed Badi.

On February 25, 2020 at State House, under the watchful eye of the President, Governor Sonko signed a treaty that transferred the administration of key functions of the county to the national government. And with that, the governor spared himself the ignominy of ouster and retreated to perform what many have come to call “lighter duties”.

A month later, Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) was established and Maj-Gen Badi appointed to head the new office as the director-general.

Well aware of the deep-rooted corruption and the rot in the city, President Kenyatta did not mince his words as he tasked the new sheriff to dismantle the cartels and bring militaristic order to the city.

Maj-Gen Badi hit the road running, paving roads and walkways, collecting garbage, installing discipline in the inspectorate, lighting streets, reclaiming parks, and generally bringing order to a sprawling metropolis on its death bed.

This week, at he marked 100 days in office, Maj-Gen Badi sounded optimistic.

“We have heeded your call during our commissioning to bring an end to the rampant corruption and dismantle the cartels that were adversely affecting provision of services in the city, greatly slowing down its growth,” he said, addressing President Kenyatta and, most importantly, the residents of Nairobi.

Among the NMS priorities was the dismantling of the criminal network domiciled at the urban planning department in City Hall, which gave developers the leeway to build haphazardly in the capital.

Already, an artificial backlog of 4,400 development building applications has been cleared. However, NMS’s most visible achievement has been in the transport, roads and public works sectors, which have seen Nairobi get the much-needed facelift.

A non-motorised transport project is currently ongoing along Kenyatta Avenue, Muindi Mbingu and Wabera streets, while road construction and rehabilitation are ongoing in different parts of the county.

The NMS is also repairing traffic signals in the city centre, Community, Gikomba, Muthurwa, Kirinyaga Road, Murang’a Road and near Kenyatta National Hospital. It has also installed automated hourly car parking facilities on Desai Road, Machakos bus station, Sunken Car Park and the Nairobi Law Courts.

The new team has also increased garbage collection from the previous daily average of 1,000 tonnes to 2,500 tonnes, and is in the process of closing down 82 out of 110 dumping sites.

“The City is slowly regaining its glory as garbage heaps are diminishing every day,” said the Maj-Gen Badi.

With Nairobi’s main dumping site, Dandora, three times full, there are plans to relocate the dumpsite in the long run. However, in the short term, NMS is in the process of designating 35 solid waste collection points.

Nairobi residents have been undergoing water rationing since April 2017, with informal settlements particularly hard-hit. To ease the pressure, NMS has adopted three strategies — sinking boreholes, extending water piping and using water bowsers to ensure efficient and equitable distribution.

So far, out of the 93 borehole sites identified, 92 are complete and operational. In collaboration with the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, 20,903 metres of extension piping have been constructed, while the licensing framework for bowsers is under review.

“The evidence of this progress can already be seen,” said President Kenyatta, who has occasionally taken night-time tours of the city to inspect rehabilitation works.

“Our neighbourhoods are beginning to look cleaner, and hundreds of young people, especially those in poor and vulnerable communities in the city, are earning a living,” he said.

Meanwhile, Governor Sonko wants President Kenyatta to call to order officers from the national government involved in the implementation of the agreement that birthed the NMS in order to forestall a possible collapse of the deal due to what he terms as continued commission of illegalities.

It is not clear whether the President will heed his call, but Maj-Gen Badi knows too well that he can place a call to State House whenever he wants.


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