Monday, February 2, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Africa News On Line
Nairobi, Kenya
February 2, 2009

Strong statements by ordinary shoppers at Nakumatt Downtown have pointed to the fact that guards drew down steel shutters as fire started inside Nakumatt. One man had to bulldoze his way through an irate guard who stood on his way in an attempt to stop him from fleeing the fire. A young girl who escaped with a bottle of water she did not pay for also corroborated the story; that there were attempts to lock the supermarket doors to prevent looters from escaping with goods!

If you listen to the sad story of Nakumatt, it is not difficult to dismiss these allegations offhand; never mind the vehement denials of the Nakumatt management; some of who had claimed just hours after the fire started that all their staff were safe and no more people were trapped inside the raging inferno.

Had it not been for the frenzy and loud complaints of the masses milling on the streets that some people were actually still inside trapped, we would have gone away not knowing the truth. Had we not had relatives trying to trace their loved ones; some through mobile phones and doing all they could to get in touch with them; it would not have occurred to us that the owners had actually lied to the public!

Have we not heard of similar stories in the past where a plastic factory in Nairobi’s Industrial Area burnt down with several workers inside just a few years ago because the Asian owner had the habit of locking up workers lest they pilfer his products?

In the case of Nakumatt, I have never known a fire exit all these years I have gone shopping in their various establishments. All I have known are one entrance and exit- both situated at the front with mean looking guards making sure that each access is not used for the other.

If indeed investigations reveal that the guards were ordered to close the steel shutters for whatever reason; can the people who gave the orders be tried for mass murders because they were well aware that their orders would culminate in deaths of many innocent Kenyans? How different are they from those murderers who closed a church in Eldoret and set it ablaze with people inside? How different are they from the other criminals who locked up a family in Naivasha in January 2007 and set them ablaze in reprisal against a similar incident in Eldoret a few days earlier?

The story of the Salgaa fire in Molo is even more depressing. It revealed how low we have fallen as a nation. It showed how our law enforcement agency; the police department has become an institution of greed, corruption and shame.

If indeed the police immediately erected a toll station once the oil tanker overturned for the sole purpose of extorting cash from the public who were eager to siphon the free fuel; then it is true the police force as it is currently constituted has fallen beyond redemption!

I have never been a policeman in my life but two members of my family have served in the force. My brother policeman used to tell me that the job of a policeman in case of an accident, any accident, is to seal it off, prevent further injuries and preserve the area for investigation lest evidence of cause is tampered with.

In the case of the Molo tragedy, the police are alleged to have sealed it off not to preserve the area and protect property but rather to make a quick buck from poor villagers. It is this callous behavior on the part of our law enforcement officers that infuriated one drunken villager into teaching them a lesson. In the process the policemen and hundreds of villagers lost their lives in a most despicable manner!

The sad story of the Salgaa fire is that even if we were to investigate; even if we were to set up a commission of inquiry as we always want to do; we would never really get the culprits to prosecute; both the men in blue and the arsonist implicated were consumed in the blaze along with other innocent fortune seekers.
But the most disappointing thing in all these national disasters was the behavior and body language of the government officials that visited Nakumatt and Salgaa soon after the tragedies occurred.

In Nairobi, the Minister of International Security was soon at the scene in a full suit and a tie in the heat of the afternoon sun near the inferno! He was accompanied by similarly dressed other government officials, the PC of Nairobi and some officials from Special programmes that looked more helpless than the victims burning in the inferno. If anything, they behaved like an extension of George Saitoti’s bodyguards, competing to be caught on camera with the minister! Is this how officials should behave in a disaster that is still in progress?

In the Salgaa fire, two MPs that bumped on the accident gave two contrasting reactions in front of cameras. Whereas one looked shocked and anguished when talking to the press; the other diminutive MP promptly brought his usual eloquence in front of cameras and actually managed a broad smile in talking about this tragedy!

Politicians aside; if indeed Nakumatt fires and Salgaa had something to do with individuals intentionally aggravating the situation; let those responsible be charged in a court of law whether they are dead or alive as long as there are witnesses ready to testify. Impunity of any kind must be dealt with ruthlessly.