- Power play has not accorded those of lower economic status the chance to afford adequate housing.
- What chances do the voiceless have if orders from the President intended to protect them are flouted without any reprimand from the Commander-in-Chief?
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we live. Many people have been negatively affected socially, economically and even culturally. Residents of informal settlements and indigenous people living in the forests are some of those hardest hit.
Yesterday was the UN World Habitat Day. Fighting for the right to adequate housing has become more than just about adequacy and affordability. It is more about ensuring our survival throughout the pandemic, which continues to mercilessly and indiscriminately take the lives of our loved ones.
Two days after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Kenya announced its first case. Panic broke out following orders for people to stay at home and maintain social distance. Both concepts were and remain very foreign and impractical to people staying in informal settlements where living spaces do not allow for much social distancing and most residents live from hand to mouth and cannot simply afford to “stay at home”.
As if in an attempt to exterminate these vulnerable communities during the pandemic, the state carried out forced evictions in Nairobi and Embobut Forest. The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company between May 4 and 6 left more than 7,000 families in Kariobangi North homeless.
More than 3,000 people’s homes and 200 businesses were flattened by bulldozers on October 1 in Dagoretti Corner by the Kenya Railways Corporation and Kenya Power and Lighting Company. Forest dwellers were also not spared. The Sengwer community reported that numerous huts were burnt down in September by the Kenya Forest Service.
Some contest the legality of forced evictions, while others condemn housing rights activists and support the government’s action of removing “squatters” or “getting rid of vermin”. But before we condemn those who speak for the voiceless and vulnerable, there are a few issues we need to review.
For starters, land and housing are sensitive issues in Kenya, with records of historical injustices and land grabbing. Power play has not accorded those of lower economic status the chance to afford adequate housing.
We have the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement. These guidelines enshrine the procedures that must be followed by state parties prior, during and after the evictions of persons for it to be a legal eviction under international human rights and principles.
Secondly, Kenya has clear laws on how evictions should be conducted on public, private and community land – whether the affected are there legally or illegally (Land Laws Amendment Act 2016, Section 152 A-I). No one is immune or above the law.
Thirdly, those families being forcibly evicted do not just magically disappear from the face of the earth. A classic example is the Kaloleni-Makongeni forced evictions in 2018. The residents simply had nowhere else to go but rebuild their homes in the same place. The bulldozers returned in 2020 to flatten their homes and livelihoods. If you sweep “dirt” under the rug, the “dirt” does not simply disappear.
Fourthly, the President, through the Interior Cabinet Secretary, announced that “until the country is done with the Covid-19 pandemic challenges, no evictions should take place”. He also announced that the police had been instructed to cease all evictions and they were required to obey court orders on evictions through the Office of the Attorney General. What chances do the voiceless have if orders from the President intended to protect them are flouted without any reprimand from the Commander-in-Chief?
Lastly, we have the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement. These guidelines enshrine the procedures that must be followed by state parties prior, during and after the evictions of persons for it to be a legal eviction under international human rights and principles.
These guidelines also provide for the review of state policies, legislation and regulations to ensure that existing laws are in line with international human rights standards and do not perpetuate or facilitate forced evictions.
So contrary to popular belief, communities from informal settlements and housing rights activists and are not opposed to development. Their only call is for due process to be followed prior, during and after an eviction.
Let us be our brother’s keepers. We cannot continue to view forced evictions through black and white lens. These vulnerable communities did not choose this life and none of us is immune from falling into the trap of poverty.