BY JUSTUS NYANG’AYA
Caught in the jam like other Nairobi residents, I was intrigued to hear a conversation between those heading to last week’s international show at Jamhuri. One resident mentioned that he was almost arriving at his home in “Lower Karen”. I came to learn that Lower Karen is actually Kibera slums.
The conversation comes to mind as I reflect on the meaning of Habitat Day and its implications for the world today. Even as Kenya marked the arrival of its newly minted middle-income status on September 30, 2014, media reports indicated that many Kenyans were “yet to feel it”.
It is remarkable that one of the factors behind Kenya’s new status is the ever expanding real estate sector. Despite this, adequate housing still remains a major challenge, especially in urban areas where the threat of forced evictions is among the residents’ biggest concerns.
Inadequate or poor housing is not unique to Nairobi. Consider that one in every three people lives in a slum. Whether in Africa, Europe or Asia, slums or informal settlements co-exist with palatial homes in upmarket places. In stark contrast, one finds “favelas” next to Rio de Janeiro’s upmarket residential areas, just like Johannesburg’s “townships” and New York’s Harlem and the Bronx.
So how should governments, policy makers and ordinary citizens approach the challenge of inadequate housing? There are three major approaches to the challenge of inadequate housing. The first approach is to eradicate slums, whether by demolishing them or by forcibly evicting the residents. So-called “developers” often employ bulldozers, hired gangs and armed police.
Both short and long-term measures must be employed to build lives as well as provide or improve housing. This is done through investment in informal and small enterprises targeting the poor who make the majority of slum dwellers. For example, women’s groups have come together to establish curio shops, sell water kiosks or run kindergartens in the slums.
There are other more nuanced approaches as well. For example, Article 43 Kenya’s 2010 Constitution recognizes adequate housing as a human right. It says “every person has the right to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation”. Contextualized in the bill of rights, this approach shows that housing and other human rights are inter-connected and inter-related. It shows an attempt to recognize that slum dwellers are people too and they also have rights.
As the world marks Habitat Day, forced evictions remain a threat to those dwelling in informal settlements. The brutality of bulldozers bringing down homes and breaking communities apart cannot be described in any less forceful terms. That armed police paid by taxpayer money are often employed to watch is disconcerting, to say the least.
Forced evictions are unlawful evictions and are a human rights violation. However, forced evictions have been a regular occurrence in Kenya for many years in part because there is no law governing evictions, and explicitly prohibiting forced evictions.
As the World celebrates Habitat Day, Amnesty International reiterates its call to the Government of Kenya to enact an evictions and resettlement law. We are concerned that commitments to enact appropriate legislation have not yielded any results.
A diverse range of actors, including communities living in slums and informal settlements, civil society groups, international experts and monitoring bodies such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and the UN Human Rights Committee have been calling on Kenya to enact legislation on evictions for almost ten years. While the Kenya government has consistently accepted the need for legislation, not much has happened.
A taskforce established in 2006 to formulate a framework for evictions, and which presented a bill on evictions and resettlement in 2011 did not successfully go through the legislative process. Although it was tabled in Parliament in June 2012 as a private member’s bill, the term of Parliament lapsed before it could be considered. Following renewed pressure, a second taskforce was established in 2012 to develop an evictions and resettlement bill.
In March 2014, the Cabinet Secretary publicly expressed her commitment to ensure a law on evictions and resettlement is enacted. However, more than six months later, the bill has not yet been tabled in the National Assembly for debate.
The delay in enacting legislation to regulate evictions and provide for appropriate resettlement in line with human rights standards when evictions do occur, means that communities residing on land for which they do not enjoy security of tenure live in constant fear of forced evictions. In the absence of such a framework, these communities have to rely either on self-help measures such as resistance or on the judiciary to stop demolitions.
Both measures have usually proved inadequate to stop the forced evictions. Communities challenging the forced eviction in court have often already suffered significant harm and losses due to inadequate notice that the eviction will occur, combined. As a result of forced evictions, people have been rendered homeless, their livelihoods devastated and driven deeper into poverty.
The right to housing remains a mirage if slum residents continue to face the threat of forced evictions. At a practical level and beyond, the World Habitat Day must mean more for the woman, man or child living in Mukuru. The threat of forced evictions must be dealt with from a legislative perspective and the moment to enact the legislation is now.
(Nyang’aya is the Kenya Country Director, Amnesty International)