What’s with the leniency? Punish vandals severely

Vandalism of critical national infrastructure owing to the scrap metal trade has been growing gradually but steadily over the years

By David Wanjala

Mid-last year, at the height of the campaigns for the General Election that took place in August, President Uhuru Kenyatta, now retired, was bullied into rescinding a decision he had made in January of the same year banning trade in scrap metal. 

Coming in the wake of increased vandalism, mainly on power lines across the country, the President had issued a moratorium on the export or the buying or selling of any scrap material until there were proper guidelines in place to ensure that the scrap metal was not coming from “the hard-won investments that the Kenyan people have made.” 

The ban was met with resistance and lobbying from dealers, sector stakeholders, and politicians angling to cash in on the ensuing standoff in the face of an impending General Election. Silver Steel Limited, a firm dealing in scrap metal in Nakuru, challenged the temporary ban in court, urging that the dealers had been condemned without a hearing.

The Uhuru administration crumbled under pressure and lifted the ban hardly four months later. In May of the same year, Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary, Ms. Betty Maina, announced lifting the ban alongside an updated version of the scrap metal regulations, including that only licensed traders would be allowed to do business and that license applications would undergo vetting by county agencies. 

She added that anyone operating without a license would be liable to a Sh10 million fine or imprisonment for three years. A second-time offender would be liable to a fine not exceeding Sh20 million or imprisonment for not more than five years. 

Besides maintaining restrictions on exporting scrap metal, the regulations stipulated that scrap from critical national infrastructure shall only be disposed to the government-owned Numerical Machining Complex and Kenya Shipyard Limited for smelting.

Vandalized section of Langata road

Licensed dealers were also required to carry a certified copy of their licenses and the recipient of the scrap metal on vehicles used for transit. Further, they were also required to transport their cargo between the prescribed 6.30 am and 6.30 pm. They were also required to register as members of a Business Member Organisation, each of which shall establish self-regulating mechanisms to prevent traders from engaging in vandalised public infrastructure and stolen private property.

The regulations left annual fees intact at Sh250, 000 for licensed dealers, millers, and smelters, Sh150,000 for agents, and Sh50,000 for collectors, stockists of second-hand metal parts, steel fabricators, and motor vehicle salvage operators.

Vandalism of critical national infrastructure owing to the thriving scrap metal trade has been growing gradually but steadily over the years. It is now at a crisis level, posing a severe threat even to national security. In January last year, for instance, two men, Michael Mbevi, a scrap metal dealer, and Nicodemus Kyove, a lorry driver, were arrested and charged with destroying the SGR line in Mtito Andei, Makueni County, causing a two-hour delay along the SGR line.

The duo was arrested with railway line blocks, twenty-two pieces of Gauge blocks, and one fish plate, which the authorities said were “part of a haul being loaded into a waiting lorry at a scrap metal yard in Mtito Andei.

The government’s efforts in response to the growing menace of vandalism are often reactionary and half-hearted. President Uhuru’s January 2022 ban, for instance, was precipitated by the collapse of the Kiambere – Embakasi high voltage transmission power line that not only occasioned a nationwide power blackout for hours on end but that posed a near-human catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude. The collapse had been occasioned by vandalism on the masts carrying the high-voltage lines. 

With the resistance from scrap metal dealers, conflicted industry stakeholders and blackmail by political opponents, and the passing of time, the President’s steam in handling the problem fizzled out and, like the others before him, gave up.

The systemic failure by the authorities to tackle the menace of vandalism has, over time, emboldened scrap metal dealers whose appetite for road infrastructure, power, telecom and railway lines, and other key government installations have risen over time. 

The Airport North Road’s stretch between City cabanas and the intersection of Outering Road at Transami tells the story of emboldened rogue scrap metal dealers. When the Eastern bypass was done, this stretch, bordering the densely populated sprawling estates between Imara Daima and Pipeline, was extended with four service lanes, two on each
side of the bypass. 

The bypass, a dual road with two lanes on each side, ended up with eight lanes. It became a nightmare for the residents around the stretch. It claimed numerous lives of commuters, who, of necessity, had to cross the expansive tract daily. The authorities tried to man the stretch by lining up police officers along the road daily, but it yielded little. Eventually, a footbridge was done. To force the commuters to use it, the bypass was separated by steel metal bars with iron sheet panels from City Cabanas to Transami. It helped. Daily, avoidable grisly accidents that claimed lives were averted.

It did not take long, however, before rogue scrap metal dealers trained their appetite on the steel metal bars and iron sheet panels that separated the two sides of the bypass and forced commuters to cross via the footbridge. They began by carting away a panel at a time, bit by bit. It has been less than three years; hardly will you see any steel panel left separating the two sides of the bypass along the stretch between City Cabanas and Transami. Not just that, all the guard rails on the road barriers on the overpass at City Cabanas have also been vandalised and carted away. 

The eastern bypass, the Thika Super Highway, and other bypasses around Nairobi formed the late President Kibaki’s flagship state-of-the-art infrastructure upgrade. The level of vandalism that these projects and many others have endured is sad. 

The hooliganism in the scrap metal business needs to be dealt with holistically. The laws are there. The Scrap Metal Act is elaborate enough. The Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation needs to pick it up from where his predecessor left off and firm up the regulations for the sector and implement them without fear or favour. Whichever way, the vandalism must stop.  

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