• Irũngũ Houghton

Time to revisit the role of citizens and Governments in disasters

Updated: Dec 23, 2018

The recent spate of accidents, fires and building collapses reflect a country caught sleeping at the wheel. Listening to the conversations after the horrific fires in Moi Girls and Sigoti Secondary schools and the terrifying Thika road accident we seem caught in reactionary blame-games that finds fault either in Government or the public. Is it time for us to revisit the role of citizens, civic organisations, public and private institutions in law enforcement, fire-services and health emergencies?


A quick glance at disaster related data reveals a fragile country. Over 1,000 students were arrested last year for 483 incidences of school unrest. Three fifths of these incidents were arson related. At least twenty buildings have collapsed over the last five years, many of them high occupancy buildings. Over 1,500 have died in road accidents this year alone. Behind these statistics lies pain, disability and lost potential.


Behind these statistics also, lies the heroes who act in what para-medics call the “golden hour”, the moment of danger. Contrary to what Hollywood would tell us, these guardian angels are the ordinary men and women who comfort and rescue others from danger. We now know they live and act in all corners of the Republic. They are not segregated by age, gender, ethnicity or sexual choice. Young Moi Girls Secondary school student Mary Jengo was one of them. Rather than flee and leave her students behind, she acted promptly to save lives and lost her own.


Crises produce guardian angels and we can be grateful for them. But can we collectively do to remove the conditions that make them necessary? To do this we will have accept some painful truths. We currently value infrastructure over the people who will use it. Public and private investment in roads, buildings, security and educational institutions dramatically outstrips investment in building civic competencies in law enforcement, fire and health emergencies.


Marginalised Kenyans know and resent this. Feeling no sense of ownership over that school dormitory, pavement or kiosk, they are very content to burn down what’s around them. They know that their destructive action will get the attention of authorities. Reactive governance trains the public to act in very predictable ways and our leaders need to wise up.


Secondly, we excel at post-disaster panic responses and suck at scenario-planning and compliance monitoring. If you are someone who manages disasters and hear excessive criticism, don’t, I am a committed complainant. I am only interested in exploring new ways of keeping us all safer.


Why is it that nyumbi kumi, civic education, public participation and disaster prevention and management programmes are so badly funded? Why aren’t disaster management manuals handed out to every employee? What don’t our homes, markets, matatu stages and schools have signs on what to do and who to call in the context of an accident? Why don’t families train at least one member on first aid responses?


Why did the courageous first-time responders to Moi Secondary School and Thika road drive past 4-5 private emergency centers to get to Kenyatta National Hospital? Perhaps we do not yet see our private emergency management centers obligated by Article 43.3 to be places for emergency treatment and care for all.


The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) have a lovely phrase, “every pedestrian is important to someone.” It reminds us no-one is alone in this world, we are all connected and we can look out for each other. The sooner we can start viewing our safety comprehensively the safer we will all be. Internalising safety standards, regularly practice drills and update contingency plans in all our public spaces are easy places to start.


In the aftermath of this week, can we hold Counties and National Government accountable to effective crisis response and future prevention? Twenty-four years ago, secondary school student Wanza Kioko was arrested by the Special Branch for writing and posting a letter to President Moi. She accused him and his Government of repeatedly failing to protect her community against famine. The story was captured by the media and she was promptly released to protect the Government from further embarrassment. She had made her point.

Perhaps, we need more Wanzas in the Republic right now.


First published Sunday Standard, September 10, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

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