Nairobi's silent majority fights back

Posted: 11 May 2004

Author: Rasna Warah

When the ruling National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government came into power in December 2002 after ousting the despotic regime of former President Daniel arap Moi, it vowed to, among other things, ensure that Kenya's growing urban poor would have access to adequate housing. But a recent spate of evictions and demolitions in Kenya's capital city Nairobi has raised questions about the sincerity of the new government's pledges, as Rasna Warah reports.

In February this year, bulldozers began razing several shacks and shanties in the city ostensibly because they were built illegally on road reserves, along railway lines or under power lines that posed a danger to the residents or obstructed the development of new infrastructure such as roads. Up-market houses were not spared either. Newly-built houses in Nairobi's posh Kitusuru area were bulldozed, allegedly because they contravened building codes or the land on which they were built was illegally acquired during the previous regime and was encroaching on land reserved for road projects.

Mathare slum in Nairobi© Rasna Warah
Mathare slum in Nairobi© Rasna Warah
Mathare slum, Nairobi.© Rasna Warah
But the impact of the demolitions was most severe on the city's slums, where 60 per cent of the city's residents live. An estimated 42,000 structures were targeted, which would in effect have rendered over 400,000 people homeless. Kenya's leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, described the exercise as "Kenya's biggest bulldozing project".

However, public outcry and behind-the-scenes diplomacy led the government to make a quick retreat. When 2000 people were evicted from their homes in Raila settlement (ironically named after the Minister who ordered the evictions) and churches, schools and a clinic were also demolished, slum residents and civil society organisations began a campaign to resist further evictions.

International outcry

The demolition exercise also caught the attention of the international community. According to an exclusive report by the East African, a regional weekly, Pope John Paul II took the unusual step of intervening through his emissary, His Eminence Cardinal Renato Martino, who impressed upon President Mwai Kibaki - who is a Catholic - to "treat the slum dwellers in a humane manner and to find them alternative land before evicting them". At around the same time, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, who happened to be in the country, issued a press statement denouncing the demolitions, which he said, were "affecting the credibility of the government in the eyes of its own people and of the international community".

The UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), which has its headquarters in Nairobi, adopted a more restrained approach, perhaps because it did not want to risk antagonising the Ministry of Roads, Public Works and Housing (which authorised the demolitions), a key partner in its Nairobi Slum Upgrading Initiative, which aims to improve the lives of the city's nearly two million slum dwellers. According to David Kithakye, a UN-Habitat official, the organisation's approach was in line with UN protocol which does not allow the UN to attack any one government. "All we can do is point out to the government that things are not in order. We can't go around organizing protests."

Communication gap

Although plans for the slum upgrading initiative have been under discussion for over a year, progress on the project has been slow. Kithakye says this is because the initiative is still in its preparatory planning phase, which is expected to be completed in June this year. "What we will have in June is an agreed set of improvements, agreed with the slum dwellers themselves," he says. "After that, we hope that the government, together with UN-Habitat, will mobilize resources for the implementation phase".

Kibera, Nairobi, the world's biggest slum. Credit: UNEP
Lack of clarity about what the project will entail has complicated matters further. Initially, residents of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, were told that some of them would be relocated to Athi River on the outskirts of the city to make room for the upgrading project. However, this proposal was vehemently opposed by the residents, who, through their federation, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, pleaded with the authorities to not move them, as it would mean travelling longer distances to their places of work. Structure owners - who rent out their shacks to slum dwellers - have also joined the fray, as upgrading would mean they would lose rental income. One NGO official told me that the structure owners are also in the process of forming their own association to resist relocation. The majority of Nairobi's slum dwellers are tenants, who pay between $5 to $ 40 a month for a one-room structure in a slum.

Past slum-upgrading initiatives in the city have demonstrated that lack of communication and dialogue between slum dwellers and the authorities has been one of the leading causes of misunderstanding and violence in slum communities. In the late 1990s, for instance, a slum upgrading project initiated by the Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi went terribly wrong when violent conflicts arose between the Archdiocese and residents in Mathare 4A, one of the poorest slums in the city. Residents complained of not being involved in any of the decision-making processes and also of being misinformed of their tenure status in the upgraded houses. Odindo Opiata, Coordinator of Legal Services and Community Partnerships at Kituo cha Sheria, a legal aid NGO, says that lack of information and communication between slum dwellers and the authorities has been one of the most serious problems facing slum-upgrading projects, and is likely to be the source of future conflicts in slums within the city.

Slum growth

Slum residents associations are also demanding that they be consulted on any issues affecting them. Dalmas Otieno, Secretary of the Kibera Rent and Housing Forum, feels that slum dwellers should negotiate directly with the government, rather than through intermediaries such as NGOs, because they are the ones who "know where the shoe pinches". Otieno told the East African that the government's recent decision to demolish slum dwellings was "totally unfair" as slum dwellers were not warned or consulted before the bulldozers moved in. It is estimated that approximately 10,000 people were rendered homeless in the recent demolition exercise; many of them are still homeless as they were unable to find alternative accommodation.

The roots of the formation of Nairobi's slums can be traced to the pre-independence period when urban planning was based on government-sanctioned segregation, which relegated Africans to the most dense and least serviced sections of the city. After independence in 1963, the government tried to institute slum clearance and containment policies, which were prevalent in other parts of the world at the time. However, this policy did not work and only led to the proliferation of slums in other parts of the city. In the 1970s, the government tried site and services schemes, but even these failed to improve the lives of slum dwellers as they tended to exclude the poorest groups.

World Bank and IMF-led structural adjustment policies (SAPs) in the 1980s made the situation of slums in the city even more precarious. SAPs required that the government withdraw from subsidising basic services such as health and education. These policies severely affected the poor, who had to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for these services, and led to a dramatic growth in the city's slum population. A 2003 UN-Habitat report shows that between 1971 and 1995, the number of informal settlements, or slums, within Nairobi rose from 50 to 134, while the estimated population of these settlements increased from 167,000 to 1,886,000. Today, both natural growth and rural-to-urban migration continue to contribute to the growth of slums in the city, which have been described as among the densest and most unsanitary slums in the world.

Heavy price

Due to the very complex nature of informal settlement development in the city, attempts to upgrade slums have had mixed results. Lack of affordability and insecure tenure have been cited as the main constraints to improving housing for the urban poor in the city. Research has shown that the poor cannot afford to pay for upgraded housing, even if it is available to them. This means that indirect cost recovery and subsidies have to be developed. According to Winnie Mitullah, a researcher at Nairobi University's Institute for Development Studies, the cost of land and infrastructure itself prohibits the urban poor from developing or owing their houses. This calls for more innovative tenure systems that are accessible to the urban poor, such as community ownership of land and land subsidised by the government. Some have even called for the lowering of building standards for low-income housing, which would allow the use of non-conventional or traditional building materials, which are cheaper and more accessible to the poor.

The government is currently in the process of revising its housing policies and it is expected that these policies will be more sensitive to the housing needs of the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. For many slum dwellers, however, the hope of a better life is just a dream. Wachiuru, a slum dweller in Nairobi, doesn't think he will ever escape the deplorable conditions of slum life. At a recent public forum on human rights he told participants: "I was born in a slum, I live in a slum, I will probably die in a slum, and if there is a slum in heaven, I will probably end up there too."

Rasna Warah is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.

Related link:

From our website, see: