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Should Africa’s Tallest Skyscraper Be Built in a Kenyan Village?

10 min read.

The proposed construction of a 61-storey building in Watamu has generated both hopes and fears among local residents, who view the project as either a white elephant with serious environmental consequences or a godsend that will bring much-needed jobs and prosperity to the coastal area. RASNA WARAH examines the pros and cons of this multi-million-dollar project.

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Should Africa’s Tallest Skyscraper Be Built in a Kenyan Village?
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If all goes according to plan, construction work on a 61-storey skyscraper – which is being mooted as the tallest structure in the whole of Africa – will soon start in Watamu, a sleepy fishing village and tourist resort about 20 kilometres south of Malindi along Kenya’s coastline.

But lack of clarity on how the developer managed to get approval for the Sh28 billion ($280 million) project is raising concerns about whether this is another white elephant or phantom project. Questions are also being raised about whether the building is economically feasible and environmentally sustainable.

On its website, Palm Exotjca is marketed as an exclusive development with “chic residential suites, premium commercial space, eclectic restaurants and a vibrant casino”. Three Italians are said to be managing the project: The chairman Giuseppe Moscarino is a veterinarian and neurosurgeon from Rome whose passions are “art, architecture and Africa’s extraordinary beauty”; the managing director is Oliver Nepomuceno, who is described as the manager of several commercial and investment companies and joint ventures; and Lorenzo Pagnini is listed as the lead architect.

The main investors in the project are said to be the Italian billionaire Franco Rosso, along with investors from Switzerland, Dubai and South Africa. According to the developers, an engineering firm in India will handle the structural design aspects of the building while a Chinese company will undertake the construction work. Local engineering and architectural firms will also contribute to various aspects of the construction phase.

When completed, the 370-metre-high building, whose shiny artistic exterior will resemble the trunk of a palm tree, will comprise 270 hotel rooms, 189 luxury suites and apartments and social amenities, such as a shopping mall, a business centre, a theatre, a cinema, a nightclub, a fitness centre, a wellness spa, a children’s play area and four swimming pools – all of which invoke images of Dubai or Las Vegas.

The problem is that Watamu is not Dubai or Las Vegas. This fishing village and beach resort with a population of 14,000 barely has the infrastructure to service a level 4 hospital, let alone a skyscraper of this size. MAWASCO, the water utility company, already has problems meeting the water demand in Watamu and there are no signs that it intends to increase supply during the construction phase of the project or when it is completed. The Kenya Power and Lighting Company has promised to upgrade the Kakuyuni sub-station with a 23 MVA transformer and 25 kilometres of an overhead line, but only on the condition that the developer pays for the upgrade, which will cost Sh161 million.

Moreover, Watamu is hardly a vibrant tourist destination and commercial hub along the lines of Rio de Janeiro or Miami. What were the developers thinking when they came up with the idea and how do they expect to fill up all these hotel rooms and apartments?

Other such projects, such as Flavio Briatore’s Billionaire Club in Malindi – which was marketed as “a club for the world’s richest” – also had ambitions to attract the wealthy from around the world, but Malindians have yet to see Bill Gates or the Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Salman check in. On the contrary, Briatore has threatened to sell his other hotel, Lion in the Sun, in Malindi because he says that the unattractive business environment and poor infrastructure in the town are keeping foreign tourists and investors away.

In an article published in Coastal Guide, Issue 20, July 2019, Damian Davies, the general manager of the Turtle Bay hotel in Watamu, questioned the viability of the Palm Exojca project and whether the investors will get a profitable return on their investment. “There are lots of properties for sale in Watamu that aren’t selling; who will buy an apartment in a tower some distance from the beach when no one is buying beautiful beach properties?” he asked. “We don’t want a start-up that for economic reasons isn’t finished: a partially completed skyscraper.”

Red flags

Malindi and Watamu are currently experiencing a slump in tourism. Hotels are either shutting down or scaling down.

Many Italian residents are selling their villas to go back to Europe or to move elsewhere. But there is simply no market for these properties. Those that do manage to sell their houses often do so at below-market rates, mainly to Kenyans from Nairobi looking for a holiday home.

Italian and other tourists are flocking to other destinations in East Africa, such as Zanzibar, which have not been tainted by the threat of terrorism, and which have more superior amenities and infrastructure. The idea that this luxury development will be the magnet that will pull in tourists and foreign investors could simply be wishful thinking.

At a public participation meeting organised by NEMA at the site of the building on 3 October, Mr Moscarino, the chairman of Palm Exojca, explained that this exclusive development will bring another type of high-end visitor to the area and is not competing with the hotels in the vicinity. He added that he was very proud to be associated with the tallest building in Africa.

However, let us say that the project is viable and there is a market for it, this question still remains: Why build such a tall structure in a village that is not a commercial hub and where most buildings are just one-storey tall? Wouldn’t it be incongruous with its surroundings? Wouldn’t it be like building a skyscraper in the middle of a desert? If you have to build the structure, why not build a scaled-down version?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that skyscrapers are more about ego and prestige than about economics. Very tall structures, such as the Petronas Towers in in Kuala Lumpur and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, are a kind of phallic symbol representing strength and virility. The skyscraper is to the modern world what the obelisk was to the ancient Egyptians – a monument that projects mystical power and status. But is this what Watamu needs?

Kilifi County has given the go-ahead to the project perhaps in the belief that it will generate jobs and stimulate the local economy, but Najib Balala, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, is not convinced that this is the kind of project that Watamu requires. He feels that a more suitable location for the project might have been Mombasa or Nairobi. He has also advised the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) not to approve the project. “That 61-storey skyscraper on a small plot in Watamu must not be built,” he is reported to have said.

What raises a red flag is the fact that the Palm Exotjca website lists its address as One World Trade Centre, Suite 8500, New York, but that address seems to be a virtual one intended to impress high-end clients. The other address is a plot number and P.O. Box number in Mombasa, but there is no email or phone number provided. The phone number listed on the website is a Washington DC number that goes unanswered. One concerned resident who has been following up on the matter said: “When we call the phone number listed on the website, no one answers it and has not for over a year. So why is it so difficult to find the real phone number if Palm Exotjca really wants to sell high-end apartments?”

According to residents’ associations and other concerned groups in and around Watamu who have raised their objections regarding the project with NEMA, Vitamefin Limited, the company that is listed as the owner of one of Palm Exojca’s plots in Watamu, was previously registered in the US Virgin Islands. However, the Virgin Islands Official Gazette, Volume XLIX, Number 78, shows that this company was struck off the register of companies on 1 May 2015 for non-payment of annual fees.

NEMA says that it has conducted an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) that shows no adverse environmental or social impacts related to the project. But Augustine K. Masinde, the National Director of Physical Planning in the Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning, disagrees. In a letter to the Director-General of NEMA dated 12 July 2019, he raised concerns about the conformity of the proposed development with physical planning laws and zoning regulations. He also said that certain issues, such as the environmental suitability of the parcel of land for the proposed development and availability and adequacy of requisite infrastructure and services, needed to be clarified. “In view of the foregoing, we advise that you suspend the approval of the proposed development to allow proper review and audit to establish its sustainability,” stated the letter.

A memo to NEMA – submitted on 21 July this year on behalf of the Watamu Association, the Kilifi Residents Association, the Kilifi County Alliance, Watamu Hoteliers, Local Ocean Trust, Watamu Marine Association, A Rocha Kenya, Watamu Against Crime, Watamu Property Managers and the Jiwe Leupe Community Association – lists several problems with the project, including:

  • The project is disproportionate in scope and scale, both technically and financially. The substrata along the Kenyan coast is highly unsuitable for very tall buildings.
  • There has been lack of meaningful public participation by the developers and the ESIA team.
  • Watamu lacks the skilled labour force to put up such a structure. The immigration of a large, well-paid skilled workers into Watamu has the potential for significant social, cultural, economic and moral hazards.
  • The area lacks the required infrastructure, including water and electricity supply, for such a large-scale project.

Lack of sufficient and meaningful public participation is of particular concern to the residents, as it was with the proposed coal-fired plant in Lamu. In the case of Lamu, lack of public participation was a key consideration in the National Environment Tribunal (NET)’s ruling. In its 26 June 2019 jugement, NET ordered Amu Power, the key player in the proposed Lamu coal project, to halt construction of the plant and to undertake a fresh ESIA for the project. It noted that the ESIA carried out for Amu Power was flawed in one key aspect: it did not involve public participation, which is a constitutional requirement. It noted that lack of public participation was “contemptuous of the people of Lamu”.

Mike Norton-Griffiths, the chairman of the Watamu Association, says that the major flaw in the project is in the planning. He says that nine completely independent projects are buried in the ESIA, each requiring an ESIA and planning permission, and each needing to be completed before the main project. Yet this has not been done.

There are also serious environmental concerns. Watamu is home to the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, the famous Gede ruins and a marine park that is the breeding ground for turtles and other marine life. There are concerns that improper handling of wastewater and sewage from the project – both during the construction phase and when it is completed – could negatively impact the biodiversity in the region.

Simmering tensions

The above concerns were partially addressed on 3 October at the public participation meeting organised by NEMA, which I attended. A Kenyan engineer recruited by Palm Exojca made a detailed slide presentation explaining how the development will deal issues such as wastewater and even birds who could die accidentally by crashing into the tall shiny structure. (Much of this presentation was lost on the local communities attending the meeting, but that did not deter him from going on with the hour-long presentation.)

The meeting, which was attended by NEMA, county government officials, some representatives of residents associations, and a large group of people from the community, at times appeared stage-managed and intended to allay any fears that the project was unviable or environmentally unsustainable.

But what also came out loud and clear at the meeting was that the local residents view the project as a contest between the national government and the county government of Kilifi and between the (mostly British) expatriate community and the Italian investors. Speakers at the meeting emphasised that this was a project supported by the county government and that the national government should not interfere with it. “Those opposed to this project are enemies of devolution and enemies of the people,” said one very vocal community leader, whose statement was met with roaring applause from the audience.

Supporters of the project, including the governor of Kilifi County, Amoson Kingi, believe that the project will bring in much-needed jobs to the area and will boost tourism. Community members at the meeting repeatedly cited employment as the main benefit of the project. (The majority of the local residents will neither be able to afford the amenities offered at Palm Exojca, but they do hope to find low-paid and semi-skilled jobs in the luxury development.)

It is hard to argue with the sentiments of the majority of the local people, who have been marginalised for decades and who suffer from high levels of poverty and underdevelopment. (Kilfi County is among the six poorest counties in the country.) A project like this could change their fortunes in significant ways by generating hundreds of jobs both directly and indirectly. When you have not seen any real development in your area for years, despite the presence of a large numbers of beach hotels, a project like is hard to resist, even amid environmental concerns. As one speaker at the meeting pointed out, “Nobody talked about how the beach hotels in Watamu would affect turtles. So why should this development, which is not even on the beach (it is 366 metres from the ocean) be of concern?”

The project has also unveiled simmering tensions between the indigenous local residents and the largely British expatriate residents. Kilifi North MP Owen Baya, a vocal supporter of the project, claims that the British people living in Watamu are opposed to the project because it will “block their view of the ocean”. But he does not say how the influx of wealthy foreigners into Watamu when the building is completed will affect the local population. Will it give rise to other types of tensions?

There is also the issue of double standards. Someone I spoke with who did not want to be named told me that the Europeans living in Watamu live there only half the year; they spend the rest of the year in Europe. “These people can enjoy First World amenities, like theatres and nice roads and pavements, whenever they want to. But they want Watamu to remain a backwater whose unspoilt natural environment they can enjoy whenever it is convenient for them. But what about the locals who have never been to a cinema or even travelled outside their county? Don’t they deserve a taste of modernity?”

The locals clearly view the Italian investors as a godsend that will bring much-needed employment and development to the area. One MCA even referred to Mr. Moscarino as “our small God”.

“Even London began as a small village,” said another speaker. “We want Watamu to become a city like Dubai.”

Owen Baya, the Kilifi North MP, told the audience that until a hundred years ago even Nairobi was just a swamp, and wondered why there was so much resistance to this particular project.

At the meeting, Mr. Moscarino gained additional points with the locals when he sold the development as a social responsibility project. He told the cheering crowds that the developers will build a hospitality school and a secondary school in Watamu and that up to 2,000 local people will be hired as drivers, carpenters, construction workers and the like during the construction phase. It was obvious that he was exploiting the fact the majority of residents are too poor and illiterate to refuse such a generous offer. His statement was met with loud cheers.

As I left the NEMA meeting, I did wonder whether if, for any reason, the project is not completed – and the promised jobs and schools never materialise – what effect this will have on the local people. Will dashed hopes lead to even more resentment?

We can only wait and see if indeed the local people’s dreams will be realised in five years when the construction of Palm Exojca is expected to be completed. Palm Exojca could either be the catalyst that spurs development in Watamu or the Trojan horse that introduces vices that threaten to destroy a way of life. It could also be a case study in how economic opportunities often trump environmental concerns when it comes to “development”, especially in areas that are poor and marginalised.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Kenneth Kaunda: The Founding President of Zambia

Independence leader who fought white rule and helped shape postcolonial southern Africa

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda
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This piece was originally published in the Financial Times and is republished in the Elephant with the express permission of the author.

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president who has died aged 97, was a towering figure of African nationalism and the anti-colonial independence movement that swept the continent in the 20th century. For his 25 years in office he fought apartheid, yet was more a victim of southern Africa’s white minority regimes than an instrument of their collapse.

After taking office at independence in 1964, Kaunda banned all political parties except his United National Independence party in 1972. In 1991 he reluctantly conceded multi-party elections, in which he was soundly defeated. Nonetheless, Kaunda ruled Zambia with a rare benevolence in an era of dictatorships and systematic abuse of human rights. His Christian faith, together with socialist values, was at the heart of his doctrine of “Zambian humanism”.

At home, his policies were little short of disastrous economically. Zambia’s all-important copper mines were nationalised shortly before a fall in the commodity’s price, while industries were taken over by an administration short of managers — the country had only a dozen university graduates at independence in 1964 — and newly created state-owned farms proved a failure.

Abroad, his influence never quite matched his rhetoric. He denounced white rule but was inhibited by landlocked Zambia’s dependence on trade through neighbouring Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Closure of the border with Rhodesia left his country dependent on a road to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam for its fuel imports. A Chinese-built rail link opened in 1975, but the line never met its potential.

Born at Lubwa Mission on April 28 1924 in what was then Northern Rhodesia, Kenneth David Kaunda was the eighth child of teacher parents. After secondary school he too became a teacher, but in 1949 he gave up teaching to enter politics. By 1953 he was secretary-general of the country’s African National Congress party. Impatient and ambitious, he formed his own party in 1958, which was banned a year later.

In 1960 he took over the leadership of the United National Independence party. It swept to victory in the independence election of 1964, ending Zambia’s legal status as a British protectorate. Almost immediately, Kaunda was confronted by the white Rhodesian rebels’ unilateral declaration of independence on November 11 1965.

For the next 15 years his political life was dominated by the Rhodesian bush war, which spilled over into Zambia. He provided a base not only for Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union but South Africa’s own African National Congress, Namibia’s South West Africa People’s Organisation, the FNLA of Angola and Frelimo from Mozambique.

His frequent tearful warnings of regional cataclysm, invariably delivered while holding a freshly ironed white handkerchief, were heartfelt but ineffectual.

Historical and geographical realities left him with a weak hand.

His decision to keep the border with Rhodesia closed hurt Zambia far more than it did his neighbour, and its eventual reopening in 1973 was a humiliating climbdown. A meeting with John Vorster, prime minister of apartheid South Africa in 1975, achieved little, while his secret talks with Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s white minority leader, served only to sour relations with Nkomo’s rival, Robert Mugabe, who was to win the elections for an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

Pro-independence events had also left Kaunda at a serious disadvantage. The huge Kariba hydroelectric dam was built on the Zambezi river that formed the boundary with Rhodesia. Its generator was on the south bank, leaving the latter in control of power supplies to Zambia’s copper mines.

Perhaps his finest hour came when he hosted the 1979 Commonwealth conference that helped pave the way to Rhodesia’s transition to an independent Zimbabwe. The highlight was a beaming Kaunda leading Margaret Thatcher around the dance floor.

Trade union-led pressure for an end to the country’s one-party system eventually became irresistible, and in 1991 he conceded to demands for the multi-party poll that led to his ousting.

One of his last public appearances was at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, where he attempted to get the crowd of mourners to join him in a rendition of “Tiyende Pamodzi” (let us pull together), a rousing Unip anthem sung at Unip rallies.

The response was an uncomprehending silence. Kaunda had become disconnected from the Africa that he, Mandela and others had worked to shape.

This piece was originally published in the Financial Times and is republished in the Elephant with the express permission of the author.

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Cherry-Picking of Judges Is a Great Affront to Judicial Independence

Uhuru Kenyatta’s refusal to fulfil his constitutional duty to appoint and gazette JSC-nominated judges is a tyranny against the judiciary.

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Cherry-Picking of Judges Is a Great Affront to Judicial Independence
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The 2010 constitution placed an onerous responsibility on the judiciary. That responsibility is to check that the exercise of public power is done in a manner that is compliant with the constitution. The constitution brought everyone, including the president – in both his capacities as the head of state and head of national executive – under the law. Hence, the judiciary has the final word when called upon to determine whether anything done or said to be done by anyone in the exercise of public power is constitutional.

To ensure that judges and magistrates can perform this task, the 2010 constitution created a strong architecture to secure judicial independence. In a nutshell, judicial independence simply means creating the necessary guardrails to ensure that judges and magistrates are and feel fully protected to make the right decision without fear of reprisal and that the judiciary has the facilities it needs to create an enabling environment to facilitate judges and magistrates’ abilities to undertake that core mandate. Ordinarily, the critical aspects of judicial independence include decisional, operational/administrative as well as financial independence.

Operational independence safeguards the ability of the judiciary to run its affairs without interference from other arms of government or from anyone else. Financial independence on the other hand ensures that the judiciary is well funded and fully in control of its funds so that its core duty (decision-making) is not frustrated by either lack of funds or the possibility of a carrot–and-stick approach where the executive dangles funding to extract the decisions it wants. In this regard, the constitution creates a judiciary fund and places it under the administration of the judiciary. Unfortunately, the national government and the treasury have continued to frustrate the full operationalisation of the judiciary fund.

Centrality of an individual judge’s independence

Importantly, the foundational rationale for judicial independence and its different facets is securing the decision maker’s (judge and magistrate) individual independence. This is commonly referred to as decisional independence. In the end, the judiciary exists for only one reason: to adjudicate disputes. In this regard, the person who is charged with decision making is the one who is the primary beneficiary of judicial independence. Of course, ultimately, everyone benefits from an independent judiciary.

Still, the constitution has specific and high expectation of the decision-maker, including that he or she makes decisions based only on an objective analysis of the law and the facts. The decision maker must not be mesmerised or cowed by power. He or she should never be beholden to power – in the present or the future. Simply put, under the constitution, a decision maker should never have to think about personal consequences that he or she may suffer for making a decision one way or another as long as that decision is based on an honest analysis of the law and the facts. Put a bit differently, the decision maker should never have to make (or even think of calibrating) his or her decision to please those in or with power – either within the judiciary or outside it – with the expectation that it will help him or her to obtain professional favours, promotion or to avoid reprisals.

And this is why Uhuru Kenyatta’s cherry-picking of who should or should not be appointed judge is the greatest threat to judicial independence in Kenya.

But first a quick word on what the constitution says about the process of selecting, appointing and disciplining judges.

Selection and disciplining of judges

Before 2010, the president played a controlling role in the selection of judges. This meant that the surest way to become and remain a judge was by being in the good books of the president and his handlers. The result was that the judiciary was largely an appendage of the executive – and could hardly restrain the abuse of public power by the president or other ruling elites. The 2010 constitutional provisions on the judiciary were deliberately designed to eliminate or highly diminish this vice.

The power to select judges was given to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), a body representative of many interest groups, the president key among them. Constitutionally, the president directly appoints three of the 11 JSC members: the attorney general and two members representing the public. But with his usual ingenuity at subverting the constitution, Uhuru Kenyatta has added to this list a fourth – by telling the Public Service Commission (PSC) who should be its appointee. Regardless, while there are always endless wars to control the JSC especially by the executive, the many interests represented complicate a full takeover of the JSC by the executive or any other interests. And that is partly what the constitution intended to achieve. The law – which the court has clarified numerous times – is that once the JSC has nominated persons to be judges, the president’s role is purely ceremonial, and one that he performs in his capacity as head of state. He must formally appoint and gazette the appointment of the judges. No ifs, no buts.

This is why Uhuru Kenyatta’s cherry-picking of who should or should not be appointed judge is the greatest threat to judicial independence in Kenya.

In fact, the law further clarifies that not even the JSC can reconsider its recommendation once it has selected its nominees. There is a good reason for this unbendable procedure – it helps to insulate the process from manipulation especially once the JSC has publicly disclosed its judge-nominees. Still, the constitution preserves for the president, the JSC and citizens the option of pursuing a rogue nominee by providing the realistic possibility for the initiation of a disciplinary and removal process of a judge even after appointment if there are legitimate grounds for such action.

In this regard, the JSC also has the responsibility to discipline judges by considering every complaint made against a judge to determine whether there are grounds to start proceedings for removal. It is to be noted that the president has more substantive powers in relation to the removal of judges. This is because if the JSC determines that there are grounds for the removal of a judge, the president’s hand is mostly unrestrained with regards to whom he appoints to sit on the tribunal to consider whether a judge should be removed. Unfortunately, there is an emerging trend that indicates that Uhuru undertakes this task in a biased manner by subjectively selecting tribunal members who will “save” the judges he likes.

The injustice of cherry-picking

Now, back to the injustices of Uhuru’s cherry-picking of judges for appointment.

The injustice is horrific for both the appointed judges and those who are not appointed, especially those of the Court of Appeal. Under the 2010 constitution, you do not become a superior court judge by chance.. For High Court judges nominated to the Court of Appeal, this is earned through hard work, countless sleepless nights spent writing ground-breaking judgments and backbreaking days sitting in court (likely on poor quality furniture) graciously listening to litigants complain about their disputes all day, and then doing administrative work to help the judiciary keep going. All this while maintaining personal conduct that keeps one away from trouble – mostly of the moral kind. Magistrates or other judicial staff who move up the ranks to be nominated judges endure the same.

The injustice is horrific for both the appointed judges and those who are not appointed, especially those of the Court of Appeal

If ever there was a list of thankless jobs, those of judges and magistrate would rank high on the list. It is therefore completely unacceptable that a faceless presidential advisor –  probably sitting in a poorly lit room with depressing décor and a constantly failing wifi connection, and who likely has never met a judge – can just tell the president, “Let’s add so and so to the list of judges without ’integrity’. And by the way, from the last list, let’s remove judge A and add judge Z”. Utterly unfeeling and reckless. Worse, the judge is left to explain to the world what his/her integrity issues are when he or she knows nothing about them.

Psychological tyranny

Cherry-picking also creates a fundamental perception problem. Kenya’s Supreme Court has confirmed that perception independence is a critical element of independence. For litigants appearing before the judges who were appointed in cases involving the president or the executive, it will be hard to shake-off the stubborn but obviously unfair thought that the judge earned the appointment in order to be the executive’s gatekeeper. That is what minds do; they conjure up possibilities of endless, and at times, conspiracy-inspired thoughts. Similarly, those who appear before a judge who was left out will likely believe that the judge – who decides a case impartially but against the executive – is driven by the animus of non-appointment. And you can trust the president’s people to publicly say as much and even create a hashtag for it. Yet such perceptions (of a judge who is thought to favour or be anti-executive) are relevant because justice is both about substance and perception.

And that is the psychological tyranny of Uhuru’s unconstitutional action – for both the judges that have been appointed and to those who have not. It is, indeed, a tyranny against the judiciary and, in a smaller way, against all of us. Perhaps just as Uhuru intended it to be.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Safety and Compensation: The Case of Sputnik V

All vaccines come with medical risks and Kenyans are taking these risks for their protection and that of the wider community. They deserve compensation should they suffer for doing so.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Safety and Compensation: The Case of Sputnik V
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How effective is Kenya’s system for regulating new medicines and compensating citizens who suffer side-effects from taking them? Since March 2021, Kenya has been using the AstraZeneca vaccine supplied through  COVAX to inoculate its frontline workers and the older population. This is available to the public free of charge, according to a priority list drafted by the Ministry of Health (MOH). The Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) also approved the importation of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia, which was initially available through private health facilities only at a cost of KSh8,000 per jab, before the MOH banned it altogether. However, there were reports in the media that the vaccine continued to be administered secretary even after the ban.

Although side effects are rare, we know that all vaccines come with certain medical risks. Kenyans taking vaccines run these risks not just for their own protection, but also for that of the wider community. The state has a responsibility to protect citizens by carefully controlling the distribution of vaccines and by ensuring that adequate and accessible compensation is available where risks materialise. These duties are enshrined in the constitution which guarantees the right to health (Article 43) and the rights of consumers (Article 46).

A system of quality control before the deployment and use of medicines is set out in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act the Standards Act, the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act and the Consumer Protection Act. However, the controversy over Sputnik V in Kenya has cast doubt on the coherence and effectiveness of this patchwork system. Moreover, none of these Acts provides for comprehensive compensation after deployment and use of vaccines.

Vaccine approval and quality control

Subject to medical trials and in line with its mandate to protect global health, WHO has recommended specific COVID-19 vaccines to states. Generally, WHO recommendations are used as a form of quality control by domestic regulators who view them as a guarantee of safety and effectiveness. However, some countries rely exclusively on their domestic regulators, ignoring WHO recommendations. For instance, the UK approved and administered the Pfizer vaccine before it had received WHO approval.

The COVAX allocation system fails to take into account the fact that access to vaccines within countries depends on cost and income.

By contrast, many African states have relied wholly on the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety given their weak national drug regulators and the limited capacity of the Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The Africa CDC itself deems vaccines safe for use by member states on the basis of WHO recommendations. Kenya has a three-tier approval system: PPB, Kenya Bureau of Standards and WHO. The PPB relies on the guidelines for emergency and compassionate use authorisation of health products and technologies. The guidelines are modelled on the WHO guidelines on regulatory preparedness for provision of marketing authorization of human pandemic Influenza vaccines in non-vaccine producing countries. However, prior to approval by PPB, pharmaceuticals must also comply with Kenya Bureau of Standards’  Pre-Export Verification of Conformity standards .

Vaccine indemnities and compensation 

To minimise liability and incentivise research and development, companies require states to indemnify them for harm caused by vaccines as a condition of supply. In other words, it is the government, and not manufacturers, who must compensate them or their families where required. Failure to put such schemes in place has undermined COVID-19 vaccine procurement negotiations in some countries such as Argentina.  Indemnities can be either “no-fault” or “fault”-based’.

No-fault compensation means that victims are not required to prove negligence in the manufacture or distribution of vaccines. This saves on the often huge legal costs associated with tort litigation. Such schemes have had a contested history and are more likely to be available in the Global North. By contrast citizens of countries in the Global South must rely on the general law, covering areas such as product liability, contract liability and consumer protection. These are usually fault-based, and require claimants to show that the vaccine maker or distributor fell below widely accepted best practice. Acquiring the evidence to prove this and finding experts in the sector willing to testify against the manufacturer can be very difficult.

By default, Kenya operates a fault-based system, with some exceptions. Admittedly, citizens have sometimes been successful in their claims, as in 2017 when the Busia County Government was ordered by the High Court to compensate victims of malaria vaccines. The High Court held that county medics were guilty of professional negligence, first by not assessing the children before administering the vaccines, and second by allowing unqualified medics to carry out the vaccination.

The problem is that the manufacturer has not published sufficient trial data on the vaccine’s efficacy.

In recognition of these difficulties, and in order to ensure rapid vaccine development during a global pandemic, WHO and COVAX have committed to a one-year no-fault indemnity for AstraZeneca vaccines distributed in Kenya. This will allow victims to be compensated without litigation up to a maximum of US $40,000 (approx. KSh4 million). To secure compensation, the claimant has to fill an application form and submit it to the scheme’s administrator together with the relevant evidentiary documentation. According to COVAX, the scheme will end once the allocated resources have been exhausted. The scheme also runs toll-free telephone lines to provide assistance to applicants, although the ministries of health in the eligible countries are also mandated to help claimants file applications.

Beneficiaries of the no-fault COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court. However, it is anticipated that some victims of the COVAX vaccines may be unwilling to pursue the COVAX scheme.  At the same time, since the KSh4 million award under COVAX  is lower than some reliefs awarded by courts in Kenya, some claimants may avoid the restrictive COVAX compensation scheme and opt to go to court. Because such claimants may instead sue the manufacturer, COVAX requires countries to indemnify manufacturers against such lawsuits before receiving its vaccines.

Sputnik V 

Sputnik V is different. Neither the WHO-based regulatory controls before use, nor the COVAX vaccine compensation scheme after use applies. Sputnik has not been approved by WHO or the Africa CDC. The PPB approved its importation in spite of the negative recommendation of Africa CDC, and in the face of opposition from the Kenya Medical Association. The rejection of Sputnik in countries like Kenya is partly due to the reluctance of Russia’s Gamaleya Institute to apply for WHO approval, partly because the manufacturer has not published sufficient trial data on the vaccine’s efficacy, and partly due to broader mistrust of the intentions of the Russian state. This may be changing as Africa CDC Regulatory Taskforce and European Medicines Agency are now reviewing the vaccine for approval while 50 countries across the globe have either approved its use- or are using it already. In Africa, Ghana  Djibouti, Congo and Angola have approved the use of Sputnik V with Russia promising to donate 300 million doses to the African Union. Such approvals have been hailed for providing an alternative supply chain and reducing overreliance on the West.

As regards compensation, Russia has indicated that it will provide a partial indemnity for all doses supplied. However, no clear framework has been set out on how this system will work. There has therefore been no further detail on the size of awards, and whether they will be no-fault or fault-based. This lack of legal specifics has added to the reluctance of countries around the world to adopt the vaccine.

As matters stand, therefore, the Kenyan government would not be able to indemnify private clinics importing and administering Sputnik V. The absence of a statutory framework on vaccine compensation by the state makes this possibility even less likely. Nor would compensation be available from the Gamaleya Institute. The only route then would be through affected citizens taking cases based on consumer protection legislation and tort law in the Kenyan courts. As we have noted, this is complex and costly. Claims might be possible in Russia, but these problems would be exacerbated by language barriers and differences between the legal systems, as well as the ambiguity of the Russian compensation promises.

The private sector can complement state vaccination efforts, but this must be done in a way that guarantees accessibility and safety of citizens.

Although the importers obtained a KSh200 million insurance deal with AAR as a precondition for PPB authorisation, the amount per claimant was restricted to KSh1 million, which is well below the WHO rates and the average tort rates ordered by Kenyan courts.  As an alternative to claiming against the manufacturers and distributors, injured patients might sue the Kenyan government. Such a claim would allege state negligence and dereliction of statutory and constitutional duties for allowing the use of a vaccine that has not been approved by global regulators such as WHO, thus exposing its citizens to foreseeable risks. This would be particularly attractive to litigants given the difficulties in recovering from the Russian authorities and the risk that Kenyan commercial importers would not be able to meet all possible compensation claims. Ironically, the use of the Sputnik V vaccine in private facilities still exposes the government to lawsuits even if it didn’t facilitate the vaccine’s importation and distribution.

What the government needs to do

The acquisition of vaccines has been undermined by the self-interested “nationalism” of states in the Global North. Only after buying up the greater part of available vaccines have they been willing to offer donations to the rest of the world. These highly publicised commitments fall far short of what is required in the Global South. Kenya’s first task must be to intensify its diplomatic efforts to increase supply through bilateral engagement with vaccine manufacturing states and in multilateral fora like the World Trade Organization, acting in alliance with other African states. Such steps are only likely to bear fruit in the medium term, however. In the short term, it is certainly sensible to involve private companies in vaccine procurement and distribution in order to supplement the supplies available through COVAX. This is recognised in Kenyan and international law as an acceptable strategy for securing the right to health. But it must be done in a way that guarantees accessibility and the safety of citizens. Accordingly, Kenya should encourage Russia (and all vaccine manufacturers) to publish full trial data showing effectiveness and risks, and to seek WHO approval on this basis. It should require them to establish and publicise detailed indemnity frameworks to allow for comprehensive and accessible compensation. It should acknowledge that citizens accepting vaccines are not only protecting themselves, but also the wider national and global community. With adequate regulation before use, the risk of doing so can be minimised and made clearer. But some risk remains, and those who run it deserve to be compensated for doing so. It is therefore imperative for Kenya to establish its own no-fault indemnity scheme for all state-approved vaccines, including those imported by the private sector.

This article draws from COVID-19 in Kenya: Global Health, Human Rights and the State in a time of Pandemic, a collaborative project involving Cardiff Law and Global Justice, the African Population and Health Research Centre, and the Katiba Institute, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK).

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