UN-HABITAT ‘s Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, on Wednesday called on city authorities in the Kenyan capital to suspend all ongoing multi-storey building work until better inspection measures are enforced. Her comments were made during a visit to the ruins of a building that collapsed this week claiming at least 14 lives, and leaving more than 100 injured with an unknown number of people still unaccounted for.
Mrs. Tibaijuka visited the sight immediately upon her return to the city from a mission in New York where she had attended the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor. She was accompanied by her deputy, Ms. Inga Bjork-Klevby, and said the agency had always been at the forefront of advocating stricter building supervision, as part of good urban governance. Monday’s tragedy, she said, confirmed that someone was sleeping on the job. She said it was the poor who had now paid with their lives.
“The issue here is not about the owner of the building. He or she could also be a victim of a conning game perpetrated by some of their employees who could have been working in cahoots with the city council personnel supposed to enforce the law,” she said. "The most important account is that of the City Engineer and his office. They are the ones to inform what was going on. True, the owner of the building might want to cheat or do a hurried job. But in a system that is working, the building inspectorate unit would stop that". The building, which was under construction, collapsed in Nairobi’s Central Business District on 23 January. So far 14 people have died and 107 reported injured. Kenyan, American, British and Israeli rescue teams are assisting the local team in continuing a round-the-clock search for any remaining survivors who might be trapped in the rubble.
Responding to a statement by Government Spokesman Dr. Alfred Mutua that some City Hall officials responsible had been sent home, Mrs. Tibaijuka was of the opinion that the measure was not enough, and that legal action should be taken against those found culpable.
“Sending the culprits home is not enough,” she said. “The correct position is that they must be taken to court and face the due process of the law. This way, it can be established, more objectively, who was at fault, and corrective measures would be taken so that it serves as a lesson to others in positions of responsibility." Dr. Mutua agreed, saying that the government would soon carry out an audit of all the ongoing construction in the city centre to verify quality and avert further tragedy.
Mrs. Tibaijuka thanked the leader of the Israeli rescuers, Mr. Yitzhak Gershon, on behalf of the United Nations. He told her his team of 117 had come in three planes and included doctors, paramedics and special rescue equipment. “It is a crucial matter to us because we are in the business of saving lives,” Mr. Gershon pointed out.
In a live interview with the Nairobi based Citizen TV and the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Mrs. Tibaijuka affirmed UN-HABITAT’s commitment to quality buildings. She insisted that the Nairobi tragedy must also be seen in the broader crisis of chaotic urbanization taking place on the African continent. She said building regulations and construction standards must be followed, because they were made for a purpose. She said high rise buildings could not be built without due engineering care and expertise. There was no room for politicization of the process.
Later the Executive Director came face-to-face with the human side of the tragedy when she visited some of the injured at the Kenyatta National Hospital. Eighteen-year-old Duncan Ocholla captured the lack of strict controls at the building site. “When we heard the bang we thought nothing much of it because that was a normal occurrence in the building. With time we had gotten used to the swaying of the building as we worked.” Also nursing injuries was Michael Ngigi, a mason. He said that high unemployment was a contributing factor to careless treatment of low-wage earners like him by their bosses. Anyone who raised an issue of safety was likely to be sacked and replaced, he said, so they dared not speak out against what they had observed as wrong practice at the ill-fated construction site.
Asked by Mrs. Tibaijuka why he as a mason, did not protest when he observed building rules not observed, he replied in agony: “I am a very lowly worker and when you see people in suits coming to the site and talking to the foreman there is nothing you can do because if you raise any objection you are sacked. I assumed all would be well." Mr. Ngigi told Mrs. Tibaijuka that since he had survived, his problem was how to raise money to get new tools, since he had lost all his tools in the tragedy.
The Executive Director later expressed her desire for a strong workers’ representation, as part of the legal empowerment of the poor. As part of immediate support to the victims, UN-HABITAT, within the framework of its work on youth empowerment will look into the issue of token replacement of working tools to some of those who were injured, like Michael Ngigi.