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Embakasi Gas Explosion Puts EPRA On The Spot

When citizens willingly disregard the law, it undermines the social contract essential for a functioning society. Laws are established to maintain order, protect individual rights, and ensure collective well-being. When people choose to ignore these laws, it leads to a rise in criminal activity, jeopardising community safety and stability.

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On Friday 26 January 2024, President William Ruto alarmed the nation by announcing that his administration intended to defy the Court of Appeal ruling that ground to a halt the housing levy, and would in fact proceed with his affordable housing project, which he signalled was going ahead at full tilt regardless. “The affordable housing project is unstoppable,” he declared.

Barely a week later, Ruto again defied yet another court order and proclaimed that his government was on course to deploy Kenya Police to the U.N.-approved security mission to Haiti, come hell or high water. The court had ruled that the mission was illegal, emphasising that the National Security Council, headed by the president, lacked the authority to deploy regular police outside the country. “So that mission can go ahead as soon as next week,” Ruto announced in Rome, where he was attending the Italian-Africa summit, “if all the paperwork is done between Kenya and Haiti.” Now, what does any of this have to do with a gas plant explosion in Nairobi?

On Friday 2 February 2024, stunned Kenyans woke up to the devastating news that a deadly explosion had rocked the Mradi area of Embakasi as they slept. But there’s still a huge amount of uncertainty and confusion over exactly what happened. So let’s start with what we know for certain: we know that a huge explosion happened in Embakasi just before midnight on Thursday. We also know that at least three people have succumbed, and no less than 280 sustained serious injuries. Those numbers are going up as you read this.

Residents were forced to evacuate and have been ordered not to return because of the danger and the choking fumes. (And in a late development, Nairobi Women Representative Esther Passaris announced on Friday that survivors will receive KSh 5,000 from the County government as aid.) However, officials provided conflicting accounts of what caused the fire. Initially, a government spokesman said the fire was caused by a company replacing gas cylinders, but that version of events caused an uproar as Kenyans were quick to point out that the government had not enforced its own guidelines, and that Nairobi County officials were pocketing kickbacks to overlook government and city rules and regulations. And then the government walked this back and said that is actually not what happened; the explosion was caused by the ignition of a lorry loaded with gas. Amidst all this confusion, one thing is clear: Kenyans want answers.

And this confusion is our entry point into the disaster.

By their own admission, EPRA—the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority—maintain that the LPG storage and filling facility where the explosion originated was operating outside of the law as it had been denied an operating licence on several occasions. In a statement released on Friday, EPRA said it had received applications from the plant’s operators on 19 March 2023, 20 June 2023, and 21 July 2023. “Applications for construction permits for a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) storage and filling plant at the site were received by EPRA on 19th March 2023, 20th June 2023, and 31st July 2023. All applications were rejected as they did not meet the set criteria for an LPG storage and filling plant in that area,” read the statement in part.

The main reason for the rejection was a failure of the designs to meet safety distances as stipulated in the Kenya Standard. “EPRA noted the high population density around the proposed site and the applicant was requested to submit a Qualitative Risk Assessment, clearly indicating the radiation blast profiles in the unfortunate case of an explosion like the one that happened yesterday,” continued the statement. The regulator states that the applicant did not provide the requested QRA, resulting in the rejection of their applications. So, upon rejection of the application, what did EPRA do? How on God’s green Earth did the plant continue to function?

Impunity, by any other name.

In short, EPRA knows the applicants by name and, in cahoots with the Nairobi County government, allowed them to operate without a license, fully aware that “an explosion like the one that happened yesterday” was imminent. They must be held to account. Which brings us full circle to Ruto defying the courts. If the president can flout the law at will, why then should that same law constrain anyone any longer in this country?

Impunity and citizens disregarding the law have profound and detrimental effects on society. Impunity, or the exemption from punishment, erodes the foundation of justice and fosters an environment where those in power believe they can act without accountability. This leads to corruption, human rights abuses, a breakdown of social trust and, as in the case of the Embakasi gas explosion, death and injury. When citizens observe those in power eschewing consequences for breaking the law, it diminishes their faith in the legal system and fosters a sense of injustice and inequality. Monkey see, monkey do.

Simultaneously, when citizens willingly disregard the law, it undermines the social contract essential for a functioning society. Laws are established to maintain order, protect individual rights, and ensure collective well-being. When people choose to ignore these laws, it leads to a rise in criminal activity, jeopardising community safety and stability.

The intertwining of impunity and citizens’ disregard for the law forms a vicious cycle: as impunity escalates, so does the disillusionment of the citizenry; and as citizens increasingly flout the law, impunity becomes more entrenched. Breaking this cycle requires a concerted effort from both the legal system and society at large to reinforce the importance of accountability, justice, and the rule of law. Only through collective commitment can society hope to maintain a fair and just system that safeguards the rights and well-being of citizens.

Someone knew that they did not have a valid lenience to operate a gas plant in a residential area, and immediately became a cash cow for enforcers. This brings to sharp focus the role of EPRA: is it a regulatory body, an enforcement entity, or merely a licensing operation? Does EPRA have teeth, and can it bite? Is EPRA aware of what is going on in the sector it is mandated to police? If EPRA didn’t know, then who should? For all intents and purposes, EPRA came to learn about the disaster via the press like we all did. As one online observer pithily summarised this fiasco, “Kenya is an amazing country. Someone is paid a salary every month to know things, but just like the rest of us, they wait for the news to learn the things they are paid to know.” And this is where impunity is leading us: chaos, disorder, and anarchy.

I listen to Spotify, write short stories, and draw pretty pictures on my MacBook Pro all day.

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