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Monday, May 29, 2017

Together, we can restore Nairobi’s riverine glory

Nairobi was founded in 1899 as a railway depot by the colonial authorities. This was two years after the colonist established Machakos as the administrative centre for the Kenya Colony.

At the turn of the 19th century Nairobi – Maasai word for cool water– was lush and green with wetlands bisected by clear rivers. A significant part of the upper Athi River basin drains through the city of Nairobi and its suburbs. The colonists chose to set up the Uganda railway beachhead in Nairobi precisely because it had plentiful supply of freshwater and a benign climate.

Complete or reliable records of Nairobi’s environmental history are scant. But early accounts describe Nairobi as a marshland devoid of humans and dense with animals of all kinds. Today lush swamps have disappeared and thriving wildlife is gone. In their place buildings and roads have emerged. The clear rivers are no more. What we have now are open sewer canals, teeming with bacteria, loaded with heavy metals and chocked with plastics.

The once luxurious riverine zones are now dense with squalid settlements. Nearly all of Nairobi’s slums are on what should be protected riparian buffers. It is estimated that about 56 percent of Nairobi’s residents live on the edge of Nairobi River or its tributaries. Some of the slum residents rely on Nairobi’s rivers – filthy fluid colonies of bacteria and poison warehouses – for domestic water. High concentrations of heavy metals have been detected in riverine vegetation and river sediments.

Pollution of urban rivers is not peculiar to Nairobi’s rivers. In the mid 1800s, London’s sewers were emptied, unfiltered into the River Thames. By 1957, the pollution levels on London’s River Thames were so bad the river was declared biologically dead. Nearly sixty years later, the Thames is alive again: teeming with hundreds of species of fish, waterfowl and more than 400 species of invertebrates.

Past efforts to restore and rehabilitate Nairobi’s rivers have achieved little. This includes Nairobi Rivers Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Program, which was implemented between 2003 and 2009. In 2015, the Cabinet Secretary of Water and Irrigation Eugene Wamalwa announced a master plan for rehabilitation and restoration of Nairobi River Basin.

What is needed is a partnership that brings together government, private sector, civil society and especially, the residents. I believe we can roll out the largest civil works project, signing up tens of thousands of youth to remove the solid wastes, de-silt the rivers stabilize the banks. This effort must include restoration of riparian buffers, urban storm water management, construction of large wetlands to cleanup storm waters, regulate discharge and conserve vital limnological functions.

Restoration of Nairobi’s riverine glory we will create tens of thousands of new environmental and engineering jobs for the youth.  More jobs will be created when we re-claim riparian buffers, construct wetlands and build thousands of new safe and affordable homes for the urban poor.


We win when Nairobi’s riverine glory is restored and picturesque waterfronts emerge as places for recreation for all cityzens of Nairobi.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Can Trump restore world peace?

In his first oversees trip US President Donald Trump bounced along to a Saudi sword dance.  Like his predecessor, Barack Obama, Donald Trump received the highest civilian honor, the order of Abdulaziz al-Saud.

Trump placed immense distance between himself and the virulent anti Muslim rhetoric that was the hallmark of his election campaign. When President Obama skipped the funeral of Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia, Trump tweeted “ I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia it were held in a Mosque”.

Trump acknowledged that Saudi Arabia is home is home to the holiest sites for one of the world’s great faiths. Trump has a newfound fondness for Muslims. Trump declared that America was adopting “Principled Realism” and decisions will be “based on real-world outcomes, not inflexible ideology”.

In his Saudi Arabia speech Trump said “I have always heard abut the splendor of your country and the kindness of your citizens, but words do not do justice to the grandeur of this remarkable place”. Trump moved from “Islam hates us” to “young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free of fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred”.

Owing to his tremendous learning during his trip to the Muslim world I hope President trump would understand that when we see masses fleeing from war, plunder, blood drenched earth, murder and rape we see innocent men and women, and children who must be shown compassion.

Acts of terrorism and war anywhere demean all that is holy everywhere.  Show compassion Mr. Trump. Unclench your fist. Lift the travel ban and welcome refugees because in your own words Muslims have “borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence”.

Trump’s message on terrorism to the over 50 Muslim countries was unequivocal. According to Trump, it’s a battle between good and evil and, the choice between features. Trump further declared, “terrorists do not worship God, they worship death”.

The solution, according to Trump, a better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. He urged Muslim leaders to drive extremists “out of your places of worship and drive them out of this earth”.

While we must demand action from Muslim leaders, it is also important for Trump to completely and sincerely restrain himself from spreading anti Muslim rhetoric of hatred that appeals to his political base, and fueled his election victory.

The root causes of violent extremism are complex. They cannot be supplanted by military assault alone. If Trump is sincere he must walk the hard and long road to help Muslim societies to build stronger economies and deepen civil liberties. The dreams and aspirations of hundreds of millions of Muslim children, especially girls must flourish.


We all must hope that this is not some phony dial back or re-set just to close arms trade deals with governments of the Muslim world.

Is Sonko the voice of Kenya’s underclass?

First it was Brexit. Then a real estate mogul triumphed. A comedian, Beppe Grillo, delivered the NO vote in the Italian constitutional referendum. Emmanuel Macron’s “On the Move” trounced France’s establishment parties.

Across the world, globalization and technology have been accused of concentrating wealth, power and privilege in the hands of political business and intellectual elite at the expense of an expanding, exploited underclass.  

Everywhere, the underclass feels disposed, cheated, left behind and unloved. They feel they are getting poorer when everyone is getting more prosperous. For the underclass a globalist ideal is at the expense of their prosperity. The liberal globalist idea is antithetical to inclusive prosperity at home.

Populist leaders are emerging to give voice to the underclass. Cas Mudde, a professor of political science at University of Georgia, defined populism as “thin ideology”, which could be attached to a variety mainstream proclivities, such as racism or nationalism.

But the expression of populism in the America, Britain, and France is not just a “thin ideology” in search of a wagon to hitch on. The populism we are witnessing is a robust challenge to complacent elitism. The populism we are seeing today is what British politician Nick Clegg has referred to as “raging grievance surging across the democratic world”.

The populism we are witnessing an angry underclass, which is demanding a seat at the table. People like Donald Trump and Beppe Grillo have been extremely successful at exploiting anger at an establishment that is out of touch with ordinary people. Giving voice to the frustration of the underclass is one thing. But providing answers to the solutions to their problems – poverty, inequality, rising unemployment – is quite another.

Why should you care about the populism and underclass chatter? Poverty is on the march. Inequality is deepening. We are deep in the era of jobless growth. Urbanization is proceeding at a dizzying pace and a Kenyan urban underclass is crystalizing. Yet our politics is broken, unresponsive.

Nairobi’s candidate for governor on Jubilee Party ticket, Senator Mike (Sonko) Mbuvi has built his meteoric political ascent on a multi-ethnic coalition of Nairobi’s large underclass. Sonko gets the youthful urban underclass. Sonko is talking about runaway unemployment among urban youth and the cost of unga. He is talking about training and skills for youth.

Sonko responds to personal distress, including illness, bereavement and debt. Sonko is talking about poor housing and high rents. Sonko is talking about the rights of Boda boda and Matatu operators. He is talking about hawkers and their right as bona fide entrepreneurs.

Setting aside Sonko’s theatrics and lack of policy chops, he has a huge loyal constituency. In a survey conducted by the East African Institute in 2014 a majority of Kenyan youth identified Sonko as their role model.


Sonko’s multi-ethnic urban coalition is re-defining our politics. Ignoring him would be politically naive and socially disingenuous. Regardless of the outcome of Nairobi’s governor race, Sonko is politically viable and relevant beyond 2017.

Monday, May 1, 2017

We can be a good, thoughtful, reflective society

A ship's crew which does not understand that the art of navigation demands knowledge of the stars will stigmatize a properly qualified pilot as a star-gazing idiot, and will prevent him from navigating. These words written circa 380 BC by Plato in The Republic are singularly relevant to our society today.

Plato’s words ring true because we now live in a society where critical, thoughtful intellectual engagement is frowned upon as distractive, idle theory. Public discourse and policy decisions and even action is often unbridled by sound knowledge or evidence.

Anti-reason stretches from the pubs to pop culture and to the pseudo intellectual universe of university lecture theatres. The dominant cultural momentum in our society is at odds with reason and evidence. Moreover, the bewildering materialist culture of a neo-liberal economy gone awry has made everything intangible and beautiful, such as knowledge and intellectualism, unworthy.  Just show me the money.

Contempt for thought evidence and reflection defines the ubiquitous lassitude buttressed by clumsy broadcast and print journalism, mediocre exam-centric public education, which has bred an inexhaustible reservoir of a slothful and ignorant public, and most of all, a dearth incisive of public intellectuals.

The dearth of public intellectuals is exemplified by fact that ours is a society where issues of great moment are framed and led by a bellicose political class. Our so-called intellectual class, the kind that inhabits digital and print media lives not by prodding but by pandering or placating political or ethnic interests.

In the words of Plato these mercenary intellectuals trick themselves out as philosophers. I use the word intellectual to mean someone who lives for ideas, which suggests that he or she is dedicated to the life of the mind. Few academics and almost no politician in our country today could qualify as intellectuals by this construction.

The surge of unreason is at odds not only with rationalism but also with what I think are the fundamental tenets of liberty. The flight from reason and fact-based action is capable of inflicting vastly greater damage to freedom and democracy, the essential foundations upon which to build equitable and sustainable economic growth.

The 2017 campaigns will most likely be dominated by tyranny of unreason, characterized by single-minded men and women of parochial persuasion, who peddle innuendo and prey on the ignorance of our fellow citizens. In a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey in January 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “ If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what will never be”.


There has never been a more critical moment for us to harness, in addition to other tools, our collective intellectual resources to confront the reality of our most urgent challenges, including deep and worsening ethnic division, a ponderous constitution, unbridled corruption and moral decadence, poverty and rising inequality, mediocre public education and deterioration of state capability. Disdain for reason and critical thought comes at a colossal cost.  And posterity will judge us harshly.

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