In early May, Kenyan authorities evicted more than 8,000 people in two of Nairobi’s informal settlements. Deprived of their homes, hundreds of families were forced to sleep out in the open for weeks. They not only had to gather around fires for warmth, but were at a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19 and of being arrested by government authorities for breaking curfews and other restrictions.
The first round of evictions began on 4 May in the Kariobangi North Sewerage settlement and surrounding areas. The day before, a court order had ordered a halt to removals pending a court hearing. Officials from the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, accompanied by police, took little notice. They arrived in the early morning and evicted about 7,000 residents, including children, from about 600 households. They brought in excavators to demolish homes, churches, shops, and schools, and destroyed people’s personal belongings.
On 15 May, authorities conducted a second round of forced evictions. This time, they arrived late at night in Ruai, another informal settlement in Nairobi, and removed more than 1,000 people. The residents had to sleep outside in cold and rainy weather without shelter. No alternative housing was provided despite the government’s dusk-to-dawn Covid-19 curfew requiring people to stay at home or risk penalties.
Illegal and unregulated
This is not the first time Kenyan authorities have carried out mass evictions of residents in informal settlements. In lieu of sustainable urban planning and inclusive social policies, forced evictions appear to have become a common practice to facilitate development, infrastructure projects and conservation initiatives.
Possibly the most visible evictions are carried out when the government reclaims land for public uses like road, rail, or sewerage – and they are not unique to Nairobi. Some of these evictions are illegal and conducted with no court order, no consultation with affected communities and no written three-month advance warning. Often, they are carried out early in the morning or late at night.
At the heart of evictions in Kenya is the issue of who has legal ownership of the land. In the removals this May, officials asserted that residents were on public land that had been illegally acquired. A crucial problem underlying this, however, is the country’s stalled process of recognising traditional ownership of land. This includes community land and is particularly relevant in the case of indigenous peoples and other marginalised communities.
These shortcomings are further exacerbated by incompetence in government departments charged with the responsibility of registering and issuing title deeds, as well as malfeasance by some of those charged with regulating urban planning and approving new developments. Many developments are reportedly unregulated and involve river reserves being paved out, zoning regulations being ignored, and shady transfers of land – all with the connivance of corrupt officials.
Regardless of the justifications, these evictions would be outrageous under any circumstances. During a pandemic when social distancing and access to water are crucial to protecting public health, it is even more so. Access to adequate housing is critical to protect people from the Covid-19 infection, prevent its spread and allow those infected to recover.
Moreover, these evictions do not meet standards set by both Kenyan and international law. Regarding the 4 May removals, for instance, officials say verbal notice was given two days prior. Kenya’s 2009 Evictions and Resettlement Guidelines require notice be written or published in the official government gazette 90 days ahead of time.
More to the point, forced evictions cause severe trauma, reduce a community’s standard of living, and worsen the economic situation of vulnerable and marginalised groups. At their core, they violate basic human rights, chiefly the right to adequate housing, irrespective of the type of “ownership” residents have. The removals also interfere with other rights such as to food, water, health, property, security of the home, and freedom from cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.
The UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement provides that evictions should be carried out in a manner that respects the rights of those affected, particularly women, children, older persons, and people with disabilities. They should not be carried out at night, or during bad weather. Evictees should be given a chance to salvage their personal belongings. Kenya’s own constitution stipulates that “every person has the right to accessible and adequate housing”. This is backed up by other legislation such as the 2012 Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Act and the Land Act.
Adhering to these laws is a matter of common sense, common decency, and fundamental human rights. The Kenyan government needs to immediately suspend such evictions – whether by the government, corporations, or individuals – during the pandemic. Once the current crisis ends, it must ensure that Kenyan law is upheld and guarantee that support is provided for people evicted so they can meet their basic needs in the short- and long-term.