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  Middle East & Africa
Nairobi Fire Tragedy: A Call for Urgent Safety Measures across Africa
By Benson Kamary
Associate Editor & Writer
A call arose for urgent safety measures across Africa on the occasion of Nairobi Fire Tragedy:

The images of raging fire from Nairobi a few days ago was shocking and the pictures from its aftermath even more disturbing. But perhaps what might be disappointing is the pattern in which most African governments have provided in the past as a response to slums-related challenges. Will there be seriousness this time around?

The inferno at the Sinai slums near the Kenya Pipeline Company depot in Nairobi is said to have been triggered when a section of oil pipe succumbed to high pressure leading to a spillage. Explosion is claimed to have occurred at the Sinai village where the oil, running through a drainage system, met fire at a time when villagers were scooping oil for various reasons.

The outcome of the outburst was catastrophic with over 100 people dead and many others still to nursing serious wounds in the hospital beds. The number of deaths could rise.

But such a tragedy in a slum context is not only a Kenyan problem. I have been in a number of cities in sub-Saharan Africa and the challenges mirror each other; slums in Kampala to Kigali, Dares-salam to Bujumbura all paint a picture of pending health hazard if not fire-related disasters. Slums or informal settlements by nature are hardly planned. They simply sprout like mushrooms. Here, passable roads, if any, are a nightmare. Fire-engines, ambulances and other quick response facilities can barely penetrate in case of emergencies. Again the issue of hygiene arises owing to lack of clean water, sewage systems and proper garbage disposal remain real.

Is there a solution? I trust yes. My five year interaction with Korean history, economy and culture tells me that it is possible to transform a slum into decent homes, improve people’s lives through employment and by providing basic amenities. About six decades ago, Korean economy is said to have been at par with that of Kenya. Today the gap between the two countries is appalling; Korea ranks 14th and Kenya 84th according to last year’s GDP World Bank ranking.

African governments ought to take the issue of slums seriously if they are to achieve their development vision. The Sinai village where the disaster occurred in Nairobi was a population waiting for a disaster. Kenya Pipeline knew it; the government understood that, yet someone somewhere did not take action. Like in many countries in sub-Sahara Africa, there have been pledges from new governments about slum upgrading projects. Unfortunately, that is the far they have gone - except in a few cities where the work begin only to stall when other ‘political interests’ show up. No doubt most of the architectural plans are getting dusty in the shelves waiting, perhaps, for the next would-be government to make a pledge.

The government’s mandate of addressing unequal development, unemployment, the widening rich-poor divide, and corruption seems to be a snail-speed mission. Yet these are the root causes for slum mushrooming. And when slums arise, there are obvious attributes that follow suit including concerns over security, health and of course safety.

Africa’s failure in implementing worthy development policies has seen the continent stagnate. There might be foreign factors that contribute to Africa’s slow development; but there is something that a government must do for its population. Sometimes one wonders why little has been achieved even among countries with vast natural resources compared to some “Asian Tigers” like Korea and Japan. What is more, African policy makers have been to these nations and have studied what a good town planning or rural economy design mean.

I love Africa. She is my home come rain come shine, but I wish to remind her, with love, that this time serious measures should be taken with no breath of compromise. The responsibility of protecting citizens lies in the hands of the government and those given the mandate to lead. Provision of safety, justice and safeguarding of basic human rights are just but fundamental elements for prosperity.

For now, condolence to those affected.

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Benson Kamary, professor of Tongmyong University in Pusan, serves as an Associate Editor & Writer for The Seoul Times. Based in Busan, South Korea, the Kenyan professor also serves as chairman of Kenya Community in Korea (KCK). He can be reached at






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