Sept. 21, 2011: Explosion in a Nairobi Slum Reveals Multiple Injustices and Neglect for Fundamental Human Rights
Toddlers played alongside heaps of garbage as raw sewage ran through the narrow alleys that serve as sidewalks in Sinai, one of the largest slums in Africa and home to approximately 15,000 people. In addition to the normal challenges of daily life, residents of this informal settlement have been burying their dead in recent days, following a massive explosion of an oil pipeline on September 12, 2011 which killed over 160 people and severely injured many more. With countless numbers of people left homeless following the blast, their few possessions charred and many families having lost their primary income-earner, the people of Sinai have been left with more questions than answers.
Media reports continue to reflect statements by authorities that place blame on the area's residents, accusing them of illegally siphoning fuel and suggesting that they were engaged in criminal activity. But one week following the incident, as the last human remains have been pulled from the sewer line that runs through the community, a more complex picture has emerged.
According to information gathered by community organizations affiliated with ESCR-Net member the Nairobi Peoples Settlement Network, this tragedy could have been prevented. They say that the accident reflects multiple failures of the government of Kenya, and its private sector, to uphold their obligations to ensure protection of physical integrity (namely, the right to life) and fulfill the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing.
The city of Nairobi has no policy or law about how to respond to disasters, and several years ago, fire-safety education and other risk-prevention modules were removed from the public school curriculum, apparently deemed unnecessary. The companies operating in the industrial zone nearby Sinai, many of which are foreign investors, refuse to acknowledge responsibility toward the residents of the area, even while their factories often discharge industrial waste into rivers that run through nearby neighborhoods.
Members of several community organizations in Sinai claim that senior officials of the Kenya Petroleum Company had regularly siphoned off fuel twice a week in order to profit from the illegal sale of fuel to the area's residents, who lack access to safe and legal supplies of fuel and other essential services such as water. According to local witnesses, company employees implicated had decided to release a large flow of oil in order to prompt a leak of the crude and therefore conceal evidence of having siphoned fuel in recent weeks. Residents had reportedly been alerted that a substantial amount of oil was to be released, and a number of families kept their children home from school that day in order to help gather the much sought-after fuel. At 8:30 in the morning, the fuel leak was ignited - presumably by a spark that may have been caused by a cigarette held near the flowing oil. Over 160 people were killed, many burned beyond recognition, and a mass burial was held on September 21 in the country's capital.
Corrupt practices such as the siphoning of fuel by company officials and its sale on the black market is just one illustration of the hardship born by the city's poorest residents. Access to essential services by legal and safe distribution channels is absent in Nairobi's slums, compelling residents to purchase these services in the informal economy where abuses are rampant. With twenty liters of water costing as much as 20 Kenyan shillings (approximately US$ 0.20), a family is likely to have to pay several US dollars daily for basic hygiene, cooking and other household uses, in addition to the bribes and other expenses imposed due to the informality of the sale.
Kenya has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and recently adopted a constitution that enshrines international human rights standards. Yet the predicament facing thousands of residents in Nairobi's informal settlements reflects severe levels of inequality, neglect for those living on the margins of the city and the society and the failure by the government to provide for the basic needs of its poorest residents. Wealthy neighborhoods enjoy regular and safe supplies of fuel, water and electricity, although services are unavailable for the city's poorest residents, many of whom are forced to live in dangerous areas nearby oil facilities, railways or power lines. Makeshift shacks crowd along the narrow alleys in the slums, while nearby vast stretches of land have been reserved for future expansion by businesses and rendered unavailable for occupancy by low income families. Forced eviction of slum dwellers living on public lands is rampant, with new evictions being reported regularly on the daily news. In many cases, evictions in Nairobi's settlements render families homeless. For tenants receiving compensation for the loss of their homes, they are normally offered around 6,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately US $63). Home owners often receive some 9,000 Kenyan Shillings (US $95). However, in order to purchase a plot of land and build a new house, residents must pay upwards of 70,000 Kenyan Shillings (over $700 US). Among other expenses, regulations require that a license be obtained from the provincial administration, before residents may build a home. Community organizers in Sinai claim that people are compelled to pay upwards of 20,000 Kenyan Shillings in bribes in order to obtain permission to build, though not a title to their land, leaving them vulnerable to future evictions.
On Friday a small delegation of international human rights experts visited Sinai in an action coordinated by several ESCR-Net members in order to express solidarity to the residents of the Settlement and to remind the government of Kenya of its human rights obligations. Spokesperson to the delegation Miloon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, recalled the duty of the government to avoid the eviction of residents whenever it is possible. In situations whereby it is deemed necessary to relocate families for the sake of public safety, the delegation underscored the need to adhere to internationally recognized standards established in the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines for Development-Based Evictions and Displacement as well as General Comment #7 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Organizations working with the residents of Sinai and other slums of Nairobi are increasingly employing a human rights framework in order to advance a social justice agenda. Basing their popular education, organizing and advocacy efforts on internationally recognized standards, the Nairobi People's Settlement Network is working with slum dwellers to help them articulate their demands and incorporate them into the proposal of new policies and laws. As popular demands underscore the right of all people to adequate housing and essential services, land reform, the eradication of corruption, corporate accountability and participation in decisions that affect them, the residents of Nairobi's settlements are engaging in an inspiring grassroots effort to realize their rights and live a life of dignity.
* Article and photos by Thea Gelbspan, ESCR-Net following a visit to Sinai on 9/18/2011