By John Ndiso and Maggie Fick
NAIROBI (Reuters) – For decades the Nairobi River has been besieged by the construction of buildings teetering perilously over its banks, bringing pollution, blockages and floods to the waterway that runs through the capital.
The government is taking bulldozers to the problem, in a demolition campaign begun this month that has levelled shopping malls, a petrol station and a coffee shop in Nairobi, to the horror of businesspeople who insist that official permits prove their buildings are legal.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s spokeswoman Kanze Dena said such permits had no legal force, citing widespread corruption.
“It’s very clear that riparian (riverbank) land is land that is not supposed to have any buildings on it,” Dena told Reuters.
“If that land was given away it was done so in a way that was not legal, so that’s an area of corruption. The president has been very firm on his fight against graft. It has to start somewhere.”
The effort is cheered by many in the city of more than 4 million, who have watched with dismay as apartment blocks, shopping malls and even swimming pools have popped up along the river.
The late Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, tried in vain to halt such construction.
“It’s good that the demolitions have picked up again and it’s a shame that it’s taken so long,” said veteran anti-corruption campaigner John Githongo, referring to unsuccessful past attempts to stop illicit construction.
The trouble, say Githongo and some of the businesses affected, is the haphazard nature of the demolitions, which they say come with little or no warning.
There have been chaotic scenes in busy areas.
On Thursday evening street children scurried through the rubble next to a traffic circle while workers attempted to bring order to what resembled a bomb blast site. Steel rebar and metal sheeting jutted into the air through piles of debris.
A man whose shop was torn down one recent morning argued business owners should be given notice when the government declared existing permits invalid.
“You don’t just turn up with a bloody bulldozer,” he said. “On what legal basis is this happening?”
In a statement, the Law Society of Kenya said: “Our environment and planning laws have evolved over time and in some instances, developments have predated the law. The state should ensure that the application of the current law does not result in unlawful deprivation of private property.”
It is unclear how many buildings are at risk of being demolished.
The National Construction Agency said in a statement in March that nationwide 2,028 buildings, some of them on riverbanks, had been classified as unsafe.
Kenyan media this month said there was a list of 4,000 unsafe buildings in Nairobi earmarked for demolition by a committee appointed by the president. Dena, his spokeswoman, said she could not speak about specifics.
A wall of a 12-acre temple complex built close to the river by the Visa Oshwal Community of Kenya was knocked down last weekend. “We got all the necessary approvals that were needed at the time,” said Jinit Shah, vice chairman of the religious group.
“Investors out there might be running scared now that the approvals granted by government bodies within Kenya are not now valid.”
Nearby, the Ukay shopping centre – which contained a supermarket, restaurants, pharmacies and other shops – was simultaneously felled.
A week earlier, the centre’s owners had been invited before the national assembly’s committee on environment and natural resources to present their building permits amid the committee’s inquiry into encroachment onto riparian land across Kenya.
The lawmakers unanimously assured them that their documents were in order, so it was a shock when cranes arrived just after 5 a.m. and began the demolition, said someone involved who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The government has torn down a building which the same government had given us permits to continue operating,” he said.
(Additional reporting by George Nganga and Cecilie Kallestrup; writing by Maggie Fick; editing by Andrew Roche)