By Kenyatta Otieno
Forget the tyranny of numbers for now. In Environmental Management, there is the principle of “tyranny of small decisions”. It states that a single decision against the environment may appear harmless and inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, but over time several such decisions compound and cause huge negative effects. The recent heavy rains exposed our vulnerability to effects of our small mistakes over time.
As soon as the rains fell in late April, pictures began to circulate of cars submerged in flooded roads. Most people in social media had something negative to say about Governor Evans Kidero and the Nairobi County Government. In such circumstances, the norm and easiest way out for people is to point fingers and shift blames. Then a building next to a river which had over one hundred rooms in Huruma came tumbling down. Nature has no mercy even for Huruma residents.
As a registered geologist, I received a call one day from someone asking for geotechnical services which we do in conjunction with civil engineers. This is a requirement that came a few years back after a series of buildings collapsed. Its objective is to make sure that foundations of buildings are done to recommended specifications. His approval for a development was pending in the planning department of a County Government (not Nairobi). When I gave him the requirements and the cost, he proposed I just write a report without visiting the site at a much lower cost. His reason was that it will only be used in seeking approval, what happens after that should not worry me. I turned down the offer.
This is what happens at Planning Departments in this country. The mistakes, shortcuts and wrong decisions that go towards approving development plans look harmless at face value. When we allow grabbing a road reserve here, development on riparian land there, change of user somewhere and an apartment in a single unit area over there, it looks normal and harmless. When all these decisions combine with our poor services in drainage and garbage collection, over time, nature punishes us harshly for it.
To the man in charge of city planning, a single development in Huruma is “too small to affect Nairobi”. People generally think that cutting a single tree is harmless in the larger scheme of global warming. When I drive an un-roadworthy vehicle, I will think its addition on global greenhouse gasses emissions is negligible. But when many people do it regularly over a few years, the effects are catastrophic.
The world was shocked when Kenya, the “island of peace” in the region went up in flames in early 2008. After the International Criminal Court indicted six people but dropped the charges for lack of evidence afterwards, we can now look at PEV objectively. The two commissions (Kriegler and Waki) formed after the chaos, agreed on the significance of historical injustices as a major cause of the violence. They both agreed that the disputed election result was just an excuse to settle old scores.
In short, the people accused of instigating the PEV were accused of striking a match on fuel that had been swept under the carpet by the Kenyatta and Moi regimes and, to some extent, the Narc administration. When these acts of omission and commission were being committed, the government looked the other way and hoped that the people would accept, heal, forget and move on. It looked harmless, and was the easiest thing to do at that point in time.
As we approach next year’s general elections, several people have warned of the possibility of violence if hate speech and corruption are not checked. I don’t believe the people sounding the alarms are pessimists; they are more on the pragmatic end of things. The belief on the ground is that as long as Kikuyus and Kalenjins are “sorted”, then peace is assured. What we do not take into account is the systematic accumulation of small mistakes against the rest of Kenyans.
Kenyans, especially those on social media, spew ethnic venom like agitated black mambas. Though they are supposed to be at the upper end of Kenyans social strata, their aggregate viewpoint is low and disappointing. A democracy is as good as its average voter; you can imagine where the average voter is. It is unfortunate that the “informed” citizens on social media platforms are often relied upon to break down the state of national affairs to the average voter. Our hate speech-happy leaders are covered by the assurance that their voters resonate with their negative talk and the best our criminal system can do is to record their statements.
Muriithi Mutiga, in an editorial in one of the local dailies, pointed out in a tongue-in-cheek quip that there are only six people in Kenya who are not tribal, and you are not one of them. We all send some negative tribal spin covered in ethnic stereotype humour, or harmless comments. A look at our social media when some #trending topic has not taken up our psyche and you will think we are preparing for a good fight at dawn. Unknown to us, small mistakes are slowly piling up.
Our approach to urban planning and nationhood are similar. We like the easier way out where a few people celebrate easy wins and the rest are asked to “accept and move on” or simply live with it. We never stick to laid down policy and plans because selfish interests override the common good. Even when a right decision is made, no one follows up to make sure that everything is done to specification, and according to laid–down procedure. Our public system runs on autopilot.
When things go wrong, we are the first to blame the other party, conveniently forgetting our contribution to the problem. As a society, we suffer from selective amnesia; we forget very fast and move on with the hope that things will sort themselves out somehow.
Nature does not forget and has no mercy, especially if its effect was avoidable. When things turn around on us, we sort the crisis and subsequent messes, but no one takes responsibility or is held to account. We forget and move on to the next cheap thrill until our “tyranny of small mistakes” creates another crisis.