BUILT BY IMPUNITY

Kenyans Exposed to Danger As Construction Scofflaws Flourish

By Andrew Ochieng

In Nairobi, collapsed apartment and business towers have captured public attention and directed light to a global problem. Poor building-code enforcement has allowed sub-standard construction, with tragic consequences from Nairobi to Mexico City.

Nairobi – Sixteen months ago, Agnes Kavere, became a survivor.

At the end of April 2016, she was in her house in Huruma, Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and biggest city. She had just arrived from a rural farm to visit her husband, who had been living in the city.

She remembers the day clearly: It was raining heavily when the six-story tower collapsed around her. Fifty-two of her neighbors died that day. Since then, Kavere and her three children have lived scarred lives.

“People had said the building was going to fall,” said Kavere, who now lives with a friend in a one-room shack in the Kibera slum’s Mashimoni neighborhood. “The day before the building collapsed, the windows cracked and broke. But my husband told me that we should persevere. That the following day we would move out. So we stayed, but we could not even sleep, because we did not know what was going to happen.”

On the day of the collapse, Kavere was making dinner when the structure began to shake.

“My husband was on the third floor and I called him to come down and listen to the tremors,” she recalled. “He told me to stop cooking, pick up the child, and help move our property upstairs. He said ‘upstairs,’ but I hesitated. How could upstairs be safe? … I did not want to argue, so I put the child on my back and we started ferrying our things to the third floor.”

Agnes Kavere

It took a while, and the couple managed a few trips up and down the stairs, moving their belongings, before the building finally yielded to the weight of its shoddy construction. Kavere was glad she carried her child on her back the whole time. The two were found and pulled from the rubble. Days later, recovering in the hospital, she was told her husband, Moses Khayumba, had died. They found his body at the city mortuary, along with other bodies of adults and children.

Kavere and her husband had occupied their one-room flat for two years. She recalls that there had never been a sign that it would come tumbling down. Not even the suspicious closeness to a river dissuaded them from living in the building. It was affordable and they thought it solid, and didn’t know that its closeness to a river violated regulations of the national environment management authority.

A History of Failure

Around the globe, building codes of modern governments are failing, undermined by corruption, lax regulation and the forces of nature.

Dan Manduku is the director of the National Construction Authority. “A failure can occur if there is any problem within with chain, there can be corruption.” Photo by Robert Gichira.

Improper construction has brought down massive structures, dating back to ancient civilizations in Greece and Rome. The failure of dams, globally, has claimed more lives than any other construction category. And buildings have fallen because of mistakes and poor regulation in first-world cities as well, from London to Alexandria, Virginia in the United States.

But it is in modern skyscrapers where people live and work, and must place faith in architects, builders and government regulators. Too often, slip-shod work, poor standards and regulation – and corruption – have let people down. The world’s worst collapse in recent history was the Savar Building at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At least 1,100 people died, and another 2,500 were injured – most of them workers in garment factories crammed into a building that had been built four stories higher than its authorized design. The Savar collapse was a textbook example of how poor planning, construction and government oversight create an avoidable disaster: The building was constructed on a drained lake, the intended use was changed to industrial midway through construction, and poor materials and the unauthorized floors all combined to doom the garment workers.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

In Africa’s burgeoning cities, ignorance of building codes is not a given. Just across the border, in Uganda, government and industry appear to have learned their lessons and come together to change how things are built, after several tragic collapses a few years ago.

Change, however, is slow to come in Nigeria, where breakneck population growth has aggravated chronic disregard for building codes and construction standards. Punishment has been rare in a country where several collapses in recent d