Miracle man of Mombasa
By Anver Versi.
In the May 1998 issue of African Business, I blasted the state into which the harbour city of Mombasa, Kenya, had fallen. I described it as a "cesspit" in which "layers of rubbish now form the surface of some streets". I took officials heavily to task, saying, "the state of the roads should be a badge of shame to be hung around the necks of the civic authorities".
I thought I had used strong language but several of the letters we received on this subject from residents of Mombasa complained that I had been too soft. The conditions were worse than I had painted them, they said.
A month ago, I returned to Mombasa. Exhausted from an all-night flight, I went straight to bed when I arrived. I was in no condition to notice anything at the time.
Early the next morning, an acquaintance who works for the local municipal council telephoned me. He had heard I had arrived in town and asked me what my impressions now were. I said I had not noticed anything yet.
"Please go around the town and look for yourself. Then write what you see". I agreed.
A shock was awaiting me. This time a pleasant one. The town was transformed. Most of the roads had been repaired, the islands and road divisions were blooming with well kept vegetation, the heaps of rubbish had disappeared; the surface of the roads had a newly-washed sparkle, the offensive smells had gone. This was a totally different place to the one I had visited less than a year ago!
And just as clean clothes lift up the mood of the wearer, the clean town had a profound effect on the citizens. People took pride in themselves and their deportment. I saw several people, including children, making the effort to throw away their litter into the bins that had been provided instead of simply chucking it away as they were wont to do before. There was a generally friendlier, less menacing atmosphere all round.
It was a miracle.
How had it been achieved? I asked. The answer was one name: Nagib Balala, the city's new Mayor. The young man, aged 32, had been elected to the office by popular pressure. His goal was simple: To clean up the town and make it a wonderful place to live and do business. He brushed away all objections and excuses for why this or that could not be done. He shook up the contractors who were being paid to carry out various civic activities and warned them that if they failed to perform, they would lose their contracts. He put firecrackers in the pants of municipal officers and got them jumping to carry out the tasks for which they were being paid from the public purse. He toured the city everyday and at various times to monitor the big clean-up. He wanted to know why roads which should have been repaired months ago had still not been.
In my earlier editorial, I had asked this question: "What I find very difficult to understand is why the citizens of the town seem to accept this sorry state of affairs?"
Mr Balala asked the same question to the citizens. He made a deal with businesses: If they undertook the rehabilitation and care of islands and road divisions, he would allow them to use the space to advertise their products. This was a shrewd move by the cash-strapped council leader. Businesses responded enthusiastically. Human nature being what it is, each businessman or company set out to outdo the other in the presentation of his 'patch'. The result - a cleaner, more beautiful city without the council having to break the bank.
Mr Balala went further. He organised the city's first parade. Again businesses, social and welfare groups, schools and individuals responded eagerly. Everyone had a great time. It brought people together and gave them a sense of belonging to the city. In short, Mr Balala took the city away from the inefficient and incompetent few who had been running it into the ground and gave it back to the citizens. Again, it is human nature that we care for that which is ours and neglect that which we don't think belongs to us.
So to my friend in the council who phoned me I will say this: I blamed the civic authorities for the dire state of Mombasa in my editorial last year and I have no hesitation in publicly praising in this editorial the new Mayor and his team for the great job they have done. I hope other civic authorities anywhere else in Africa who read this will be inspired by Mr Balala's actions to fulfil the functions for which they have been elected and do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Mr Balala and his team have proved that when the will is there, miracles can be achieved.
But, despite his enormous and well deserved popularity with the public, it seems that the Mayor has stepped on some sensitive toes. There were rumours that he might not stand for a second term of office. Insiders say that his zeal to clear up the mess in the city has left a number of people without the easy lifestyle they had become acustomed to. Some of these people are politically powerful and they are more concerned with their own short term goals than the general good.
I hope that this is a rumour without foundation and that a man who has demonstated his ability to hold high office is not steam-rollered out by political bullies. But it can happen. It is the duty of all fair minded citizens to make sure that it does not.
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