[Letters] A call for urgent safety measures across Africa

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[Letters] A call for urgent safety measures across Africa

The images of raging fire from Nairobi, Kenya, a few days ago was shocking and the pictures from its aftermath even more disturbing. But perhaps what is most disappointing is the manner in which most African governments have responded to slum-related challenges. Will there be a serious commitment this time around?

The inferno at the Sinai slums near the Kenya Pipeline Company depot in Nairobi is said to have been triggered when a section of the oil pipe succumbed to high pressure, leading to a spillage. Officials claim the explosion occurred at the Sinai village where the oil, running through a drainage system, met fire at a time when villagers were scooping oil for various reasons.

The outcome of the explosion was catastrophic with over 100 people dead and many others in critical condition. The number of deaths could rise.

But such a tragedy is not a Kenyan problem alone. I have been in a number of cities in sub-Saharan Africa and the challenges mirror each other; slums in Kampala, Uganda, to Kigali, Rwanda - Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Bujumbura, Burundi - all paint a picture of pending health hazards, if not fire-related disasters. Slums are hardly planned. They simply sprout like mushrooms. Here, passable roads, if there are any, are a nightmare. Fire engines, ambulances and other quick-response facilities can barely penetrate in case of emergencies. And again, poor hygiene remains a major concern due to the lack of clean water, sewage systems and proper garbage disposal.

Is there a solution? I trust that there is. In my five years of interaction with Korean history, economy and culture, I believe that it is possible to transform a slum into decent living and improve people’s lives through employment and aid. About six decades ago, the Korean economy is said to have been at par with that of Kenya. Today, the gap between the two countries is shocking: Korea ranks 14th and Kenya 84th in GDP by purchasing power parity, according to last year’s World Bank statistics.

In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, there have been pledges from new governments to ameliorate conditions in the slums. Unfortunately, that is as far as they have gone - except in a few cities where the work begins to stall when other political interests show up. Most of the architectural plans are getting dusty in the shelves, waiting for the next would-be government to pledge commitment.

The governments’ mandate of addressing unequal development, unemployment and corruption seems to be a snail-speed mission. Yet these are the root causes for slum mushrooming. Africa’s failure in implementing worthy development policies has seen the continent stagnate. There might be foreign factors that contribute to Africa’s slow development, but there are some things that a government must do for its population. Sometimes one wonders why little has been achieved even among countries with vast natural resources compared to the “Asian Tigers” like Korea and Taiwan. What is more, African policy makers have studied what good town planning or rural economic design means.

I love Africa. She is my home come rain or come shine, but I wish to remind her, with love, that this time serious measures should be taken with no breath of compromise. The responsibility of protecting citizens lies in the hands of the government and those given the mandate to lead. Provision of safety and justice and the safeguarding of basic human rights are fundamental elements for prosperity.

*Letters and commentaries for publication should be addressed “Letters to the Editor.” E-mailed letters should be sent to eopinion@joongang.co.kr.

Benson Kamary,
a freelance journalist and the secretary general of the Kenya Community in Korea.
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