Obama’s visit exposed our infrastructure deficit

The visit by President Obama to Nairobi has magnified our infrastructure-planning dilemma. Closing Mombasa Road, Waiyaki Way and Thika Road brought the entire city to a standstill.

A city the size of Nairobi should not have so few arteries as they constitute single points of failure, resulting in huge traffic disruptions whenever something happens.

We need good roads that parallel each of the major highways into the city so that in the event of one being closed for whatever reason, including state visits and pile-ups, motorists can still access the city centre.

We also need roads that connect to those arteries, away from the CBD, to avoid the current dangerous situation whereby every motorist has to drive through the city centre to go to any direction.

The Obama visit clearly shows that it is time for at least a four-lane beltway around the city complete with overpasses where major highways intersect.

We inherited Nairobi from the colonial government. Although it had a great plan, we did not implement it beyond what the colonial government left behind. We opted not to change things, at least not based on data-driven planning. That is how Nairobi became overwhelmed.

For example, the city’s infrastructure (sewerage, roads, energy, etc.) was planned for less than 300,000 people. Little has changed, yet the population it serves has ballooned to more than 4 million.

The road infrastructure was to handle less than 100,000 vehicles but we are approaching 1 million vehicles with close to 10,000 new registrations every month. The city urgently needs a rapid mass transportation system to cater for the 3 million people who walk to work every day.

A selfish county leadership cannot undertake this investment, and the public must take its position and save the situation. Perhaps the best evidence that we were not thinking about future is in the construction of schools.

Colonial-era schools that were meant for whites still remain the best schools, attracting students from around the city.

Today, people commute from all parts of the city to access the Lavington area where private schools such as Strathmore, St Mary’s, Msongari and Kianda are located.

Fifty years after independence, we have not created good quality schools in all corners of the city as a strategy to minimize cost and mitigate unnecessary traffic jams. It therefore does not come as a surprise that when Waiyaki Way is disrupted, so are all other major roads.

Nairobi has the potential to collect significant amount of revenue in rent and rates but due to its inefficiency, the city is ever reliant on the central government to finance its operations just like far-flung rural towns.

We, the residents, are partly to blame since the people we elect as Members of County Assembly (MCA) rarely have a development agenda. Most also lack the education and the exposure necessary to comprehend complicated financing models such as Municipal Bonds that could be used to finance a compressive infrastructure development in the city.

I can state here that financial resources are not the main problem bedevilling our city. Our problem is in the software of those who guide city development.

This is a major problem because of democratic ideals that we embrace and the fact that political parties have no rules of selecting their candidates.

Indeed, political parties often select some of their candidates based on the level of thuggery the individual is known for. By all indications, it will get worse in the days to come as some of these individuals size themselves up for bigger positions.


Some of the happenings in Nairobi are reminiscent to what happened in Chicago, where criminals and politicians were bedfellows for a long time, to the detriment of citizens. President Obama alluded to legendary corruption in his hometown this week.

Al Capone, a leading gangster in Chicago, had a mutually profitable relationship with the then Mayor, William Hale Thompson, and the city’s police chiefs. As a result, violent crime was the order of the day.

Capone was known to make huge donations to charitable organisations and always drew cheers from credulous crowds whenever he appeared in public. This charade went on until an incident that came to be known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, where gang rivals killed indiscriminately.

The resulting outrage from the massacre led citizens to demand action on criminal gangs. The federal government intervened by prosecuting Capone for tax evasion and jailing him for 11 years.

I am aware that the entire city of Nairobi has been mapped in such a way that managing revenue collection can be automated while at the same time infrastructure and services can be planned better.

As soon as some cartels understood the intended purpose of this new technology, resistance built up and that system has never been implemented. Just like President Uhuru did with the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS), there has to be an executive order to implement systems that enhance efficiency.

Left to democracy, rules and processes, it will never happen, and corruption will always prevail. There is indeed hope that we can salvage what used to be the green city in the sun. Just like the people of Chicago did, we must raise our voice to demand changes.

In as much as everyone is preoccupied with individual pursuit of happiness, much of it comes from collective effort, which we now need. Although there is a Nairobi Master Plan, not many people know whether it addresses current and future needs of the city.


There are regulations and standards but hardly anyone knows what they are. This explains why we are losing lives to poorly constructed houses. In my view, once we attained an inclusive constitution, we went to bed, hoping that democracy would take root automatically simply because we had a good constitution.

Implementation has proven to be even more difficult. We are let down all the time when those we are supposed to trust with building institutions fail.

Perhaps to understand how difficult democracy is, I paraphrase the former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill who said “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all others.” Indeed democracy is the most complicated form of government, and both the politician and the citizen must learn its accountability mechanisms.

The citizen in particular must understand that making government work is like cooking porridge; unless you stir, scum will form at the top.

Democracy in Africa has ended up infecting the citizens with a peculiar hubris whose main symptom is complacency. We have ceded everything decision to the politicians.

Civil society, which was meant to fill in this glaring gap of democratic governance, has to a large extent failed. Consumer groups that emerged to champion consumer rights have all been tamed by politicians and other interest groups.

My argument here is that internal forces alone cannot build sustainable democracy in Africa. The case of Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia and even the National Accord in Kenya, shows that there is always room for foreign intervention, even as we pride ourselves with our independence and sovereignty.

If we started with the basic human rights, which are food, shelter and clothing, and provided these things efficiently and equitably, we would have changed Africa. Trust between the governed and the governors would increase, and Africa would become a high trust society, which a key determinant of stability.


Expanding the scope of the three basic rights will necessitate careful planning where the government zones agricultural and commercial land.

For example, the rich red soil of Kiambu should never be turned into real estate zones when we have expansive, unproductive semi-arid land in Kitengela. Even the white settlers respected the rich agricultural land in central Kenya.

Through proper planning, we cannot only ensure food security for ourselves, but our great-grandchildren. Indeed our Constitution admonishes us to live sustainably so that we can bequeath a hospitable environment to future generations.

The current greed of exemplified by haphazard building complicates work for even the best planner on earth. Building a democratic nation may be difficult but there are some fundamentals that we can embrace to make significant change and improve the status of our people:

Build a strong institution of non-state actors (media, professional organisations and authentic civil society groups) funded by the state to educate both the legislatures and the citizens, as well as to ensure implementation of key projects that make the city competitive for the benefit of the people. For a start, we should perhaps strengthen the Commission of Administrative Justice to take keen interest in building a sustainable democracy within Kenya;

Support the development of open systems including opens data and open contracting, conducting regular analytics and publishing the results. Leverage Information and Communications Technologies to build addressing systems through digital maps;

Build the city with the knowledge that there are others who will come after us by nurturing existing ecosystem with its wetlands and rainfall patterns.

Richard Rogers a British architect noted for his modernist and functionalist designs in high-tech architecture once said:

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges facing our cities or to the housing crisis, but the two issues need to be considered together. From an urban design and planning point of view, the well-connected open city is a powerful paradigm and an engine for integration and inclusivity.”

Nairobi must be a well-connected, open city that becomes the engine of integration and inclusivity, a city that does not exclude its citizens from development and where citizens can go about their business the next time a US president comes visiting.