Thursday, 22 June 2017

I'm intrigued by people who are eating Kenya's new railway; 21.06.17

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Mombasa Terminus in Miritini in May 2017. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
The passenger train station in Miritini, Mombasa, on May 2017. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 
As the stories on the standard gauge railway recently launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta continued to bubble – the glory it will bring, the cost, which pocketed what and didn’t – I have been intrigued by a less glamorous part of the tale.
These are the fellows who, in many ways, are all but “eating the SGR”: the vandals who are stealing metal bits presumably to sell them as scrap.
You get this image of them watching the SGR as it was being built, and working out what parts they would steal, and budgeting how much they would make off it.
It also didn’t come as a surprise. After the Thika superhighway opened, the thieves went about stealing as much guard railings and lighting as they could.
The conventional argument is that the small people “eat” the railway, streetlights, and guardrails off the side of highways, as part of the wider social infestation caused by the grand corruption of the Big People.
The Big People eat tenders, steal votes, fleece the National Treasury, and so the folks learn from them and make do with skimming off the “government” things that pass near their village.
So apart from vandalising the SGR, they will take off with the windows, sockets, electrical wires, and bulbs from the neighbouring public schools.
As evidence of this, during the 2013 elections, if you remember, people were quite shocked by the state of some of the Kenyan schools and public places where the polling stations were located.
But there has to be something bigger going on, a new contestation over, to use the cliché, the public [goods] space.
You see it all over Africa actually. Many times people take these things not to sell for a little change, but to fill a void created by the absence of a state service.
A famous highway was redone in western Uganda some years ago, a section of it passing not far from President Yoweri Museveni’s country home.
The contractors went over the top, and peppered the road with reflective studs – very many of them. But slowly, the studs started disappearing. However, they were not showing up in the second-hand scrap markets, and it was a puzzle.
Soon the puzzle was solved. Being Museveni’s stronghold and backyard, he reportedly visited one of his staunch supporters in a nearby village.
And there, on the edges of the man’s house, were some of the studs that had disappeared from the highway. The family acted without any awareness of how awkward it looked.
The picture became clear. People didn’t think they were stealing the reflective studs. They considered that they were putting them to better use than the government that was “just wasting them on the drivers”. They could take that position because they didn’t own cars and, therefore, didn’t drive at night.
They didn’t have electricity or flush toilets inside in their houses. The reflective studs helped them to see their way to the door at night when they woke up to go and pee or allowed the man of the house not to run into walls when he returned home late at night from the local bar and was groping his way to the bedroom.
If they had electricity, they would not have plucked out the studs. It is a complicated push and pull going on.
One notices, though, that the thieves usually don’t steal many guardrails or streetlights during the construction of these projects.
In fact, if you think of it, there is more valuable stuff to steal during the building stage. If you are ambitious, you could steal a tractor. There is fuel for the machines, cement, and pipes and metals piled up.
But the people don’t for two reasons. First, until the road is handed over to the government and “unveiled” by the president or a minister, the people still mostly see it as the private property of the contractor. And respect for private property runs deeper than for the public ones.
Secondly, it helps that private property is likely to be guarded. If you want to steal glass from a school, the public school is easier because it won’t have a guard. The private one will likely have both a fence and guard.
African governments generally don’t effectively occupy the public spaces that are supposed to be the State’s charge. Other than for coercive purposes (for example, keeping protesters away from the gates of parliament), they tend to be absent landlords.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of ‘’ and ‘’; Twitter: @cobbo3

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