We are trapped in the treadmill of Kanu oligarchy

Monday February 12 2024
Embakasi Gas Explosion

View of what remained after a huge gas blast at Embakasi in Nairobi, Kenya caused loss of lives, property and injuries on February 2, 2024. PHOTO | NMG


The explosion at a gas plant in a poor residential area in Embakasi, Nairobi killed six people and injured hundreds of others. Many of these injuries are life-altering. 

The explosion damaged small businesses, leaving the poverty-stricken residents without a means of livelihood. Survivors who spoke to news reporters looked more defeated than hurt. There is nothing as heart-wrenching as seeing a broken spirit. 

The residents were already poor. School fees were forbidding; the cost of power and food rising every day. But they managed to survive every day.

All they had hoped for was the government to guarantee them safety from such hazards. But, even in this, the government failed them. Thus, their broken spirit.

Read: NGUGI: Do Kenya’s poor connect thievery to their penury?

Let’s review a few facts pertaining to the catastrophe. The gas plant was in a residential area, which is illegal. The authorities knew of its existence. The owners, despite being fined for operating illegally, continued to do so. At some point, they obtained a licence.


Residents had warned of the danger of the plant, but officials in the relevant regulatory bodies and administrative departments were probably too busy chasing after tenders or, as is now the fashion, away on benchmarking trips to Europe.

The comedy of errors and criminal negligence that led to death and destruction in Embakasi are not unfortunate anomalies. On the contrary, they characterise our administrative and governing culture. 

In 2018, scores of poor people were killed, and hundreds of others displaced when an illegal dam broke its walls in Nakuru. In 2013, a train collided with a matatu in Umoja. The railway crossing was unmanned.

Stalls encroached on the railway line, blocking the line of sight of drivers. Traders even hawked their wares on the railway tracks, only moving away when a train appeared. Again, many warnings of danger went unheeded. 

I could cite instances of unsafe buildings being given permits, including a school that collapsed and killed children in Dagoretti. I could cite hunger warnings that went unheeded. The point is that these unending disasters were preceded by tales of bribery, criminal negligence, and plain breakdown of basic ethical principles of administration and governance.

Read: NGUGI: African leaders’ cyclical behaviour that kills hope

Some ideologues, who make a dishonest living by concocting theories to explain our failing development project, will argue that these disasters are caused by machinations of the dark forces of imperialism. They might tell us that there is a nostalgic British colonial hand behind these disasters. 

However, these preventable disasters are the result of failure of the Kanu oligarchy that has ruled this country since 1963. Each successive regime tweaks the system here and there to cover up its brokenness. 

The oligarchy, whether under Kenyatta or Moi, Kibaki or Uhuru, or now Ruto, is fundamentally broken. We are like research rats trapped in a treadmill. We keep spinning in the hopes that the treadmill will take us somewhere. It will not. To get somewhere, we must interrogate the oligarchy with a view to changing it. 

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator