Darius Mbela – Singing minister who declared war on slums

Apart from politics, Darius Mbela made a mark as a choral composer, singer and conductor. He was “the only old boy who had sung his way into Parliament”, Mbela’s fellow Alliance High School alumnus, Attorney General Amos Wako, once said of him. Accompanied by the St Stephen’s Church Choir, he was reportedly involved in the composition of the dirges that were sung during founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s funeral in 1978. He was at the time a Permanent Secretary.

But what singularly defines Mbela’s role in national politics was his tenure at the Ministry of Lands and Housing where, despite his best efforts, he was not able to address Kenya’s squatter problem, especially in Coast Province. It was during his tenure that land grabbers ruthlessly targeted public utilities.

Among his first assignments at Lands and Housing was opening a key conference that focused on unplanned settlements. At this meeting he said the greatest challenge in Nairobi was to work out viable strategies for adequate shelter for the city’s residents, according to the news magazine The Weekly Review, of December 1988. The Government, he stated, would discourage rural-urban migration by decentralising the country’s urban structure. Experts were predicting the population of Nairobi would hit the 5 million mark in 2000.

In July 1988 he appointed a team – drawing officials from the Nairobi City Commission; the ministries of Housing, Local Government and Physical Planning; and the provincial administration – to improve housing in Nairobi, especially in the unplanned settlements.

“Many of the city dwellers are living in squalid conditions which have in turn created a host of other problems such as violent crimes, prostitution, illicit brewing of alcohol, drug abuse and begging,” he said as he announced the creation of the committee. “No government can feel proud when its people are living in temporary shelter made of cardboard and plastic materials.”

Three months later, he proposed that all housing projects in urban areas must be multi-storey because such buildings offered the best use of land, making them the most suitable for densely populated urban areas.

“From now henceforth, high-rise housing development will be the rule rather than the exception,” he declared as he launched a KES 179 million Kibera high-rise scheme for the National Housing Corporation (NHC).

In May 1989 the Daily Nation reported, “Open stinking sewers, narrow filthy earth roads and wretched timber and mud-walled dilapidated buildings with rusty corrugated iron-sheet roofs which characterise slums everywhere in the world will be an endangered species in Kenya by the turn of this century.”

Mbela had just declared war on slums. “It is a Government policy that no slum should see the year 2000.” This announcement followed a Presidential directive in 1987 that had ordered NHC to plan to wipe out all slums in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru, and all other major towns. This started with high-rise buildings in Pumwani and Kibera.

His other task as minister was to resettle the landless. Whereas this was a noble idea, it emerged later that the land was issued out to senior military officers and public servants, top politicians and politically-connected individuals, and not the intended squatters. It was thus not surprising that in 1988, Mbooni MP Johnstone Makau claimed that the Ministry of Lands and Housing was full of corruption, inefficiency and chaos.

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