Robbing the dead is common in Kenya

Yesterday’s disaster on the Nakuru – Eldoret highway symbolizes the moral and intellectual bankruptcy that has afflicted Kenyan society. If it wasn’t for the explosion, the looting of that accident scene would have passed off as a normal event.

Across Kenya, a culture has emerged of looting from road accident victims. Even where dozens lie dead or dying, the first people at the scene will loot as much as possible before offering assistance.

A few years ago, several foreign tourists driving themselves to the Kenyan coast crashed somewhere along the Nairobi – Mombasa highway. A bus crew that happened to be first on the scene proceeded to loot travellers cheques, foreign currency, clothes, jewelery and other valuables. Needless to say, none of the tourists survived.

A similar scenario replayed itself on the same highway when a Kenyan family perished in a grisly road crash. People from nearby villagers were only interested in stealing clothes, money and mobile phones. Those who arrived at the scene much later took away motor vehicle parts for sale as second hand spares.

But a fuel tanker accident is the biggest bonanza that can befall Kenyans living near highways. The looting of fuel is motivated by high oil prices and heavy demand from public transport operators. Men, women and children will rush to the site of a fallen tanker with all kinds of containers. There have been cases where women took cooking pots from their kitchens for use in carrying away fuel!

The fuel is sold to motorists at a discount, hence the heavy demand for stolen fuel. Currently, oil companies are selling petrol at 75 Kenya Shillings (US$1) a litre. Fuel stolen from an accident scene could easily sell for about Kshs60 a litre. This is low enough for motorists looking for bargains but very profitable for a poor villager who got it for free.

A 20 litre jerrycan of petrol siphoned from a tanker could fetch about Kshs1,200 ($16). This is more than most rural Kenyans earn in a month. Indeed, there are villages so poor that no single household will have more than Kshs20 ($0.26) in cash.

Other popular accidents involve trucks carrying consumer goods such as cereals, cooking oil, clothes, detergents and electronics. These are quickly looted and sold off in neighbouring towns, where shop owners are happy to get the goods at low prices.

Trains have not been spared either. A few months ago, a train carrying cereals from the port of Mombasa to the interior derailed in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. People swarmed and broke open the train wagons in order to loot maize and wheat.

In the eastern suburbs of Makadara, a herd of Maasai cows were hit by a goods train that did not stop. Residents of nearby slums converged on the scene with machetes, axes, knives and saws and descended on the dying cows. People carried away chunks of meat as the Maasai herdsmen watched helplessly. In any case, the Maasai had their own fears of prosecution for grazing on a railway line.

Where are the police when these accidents happen?

Majority of Kenyan police stations are located in town centres. Rural areas have few police stations, meaning that when an accident happens, it will be hours before police arrive. By then, most of the cargo will be looted with little attention paid to the injured. This further explains the rather high fatality rate from road accidents in Kenya: lots of people die from injuries that could be treated if they were taken to hospital in time.

In yesterday’s disaster, police found people already looting fuel. Infact, it may well turn out that the police were going elsewhere and just happened to come across the accident. To their credit, the fallen officers tried to secure the crash site but circumstances dictated that it was too late to save lives.

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