Nairobi’s incendiary displacements
Urban displacements greatly diminish the living conditions of already desperate populations living on the brink of poverty in Kenya's capital.
On November 15th, 2021, Minoo Kyaa, a community activist from Mukuru kwa Njenga, South Nairobi, tweeted the above quote. At the time, Minoo was living in a tent on the site of her former home, along with some 40,000 other forcibly evicted Mukuru residents. Their dwellings had been demolished to make way for a link road connecting the city’s industrial zone to a contentious new expressway, plunging them into a humanitarian crisis. A pet project of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta—intended to be another symbol of his “legacy”—the seventeen-mile toll-road, dubbed “Road for the Rich” by critics, aims to facilitate speedier movement between Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport and the Central Business District.
Last November, the authors of this article convened a meeting with activists and community representatives from across Nairobi to understand the causes and consequences of displacement in urban contexts. We wanted to get a clearer sense of the circumstances under which poor urban residents are regularly compelled to leave their homes. Four of those who attended, roughly a third of our participants, were and remain directly affected by events in Mukuru, which they recounted in disturbing detail, providing troubling insights into the conditions of extreme precarity under which Nairobi’s poorest residents are repeatedly forced to rebuild lives and livelihoods following forced evictions.
The first wave of displacement in Mukuru, they told us, began abruptly on October 10th, just two days after a public announcement that they should move to make way for the road. Some say they received notice only moments before the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) and the Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) bulldozers appeared. Others were caught unaware: “We only saw bulldozers, the General Service Unit [the paramilitary force known as ‘GSU’] and men in blue [regular police officers],” said Rukia, a Mukuru resident also living at the time on the site of her demolished home. She continued: “[It was] like they were marching at Nyayo Stadium,” in reference to the military parades these forces perform before dignitaries at the National Stadium during state functions—with forceful intent and an exactness in implementing an agenda.
Within a short time, heavy machinery razed to the ground residences, businesses, places of worship and schools under the watch of the police and the GSU. According to local residents and reports in the media, at least one person was killed by a police bullet during the protests that followed. There are reports of others being buried under the rubble as they sought to salvage their belongings, or dying of heartbreak.
Evicted households were offered neither compensation, nor alternative housing arrangements. Consequently, with nowhere to go, and in a bid to protect the spaces they had known as home for decades from land grabbing “cartels” and thieves, many found themselves encamped on the rubble of their former homes. Their temerity and resistance in the face of evictions and the looming private developers continues to inspire.
Who are these “cartels,” as locals refer to them? They are well-connected citizens with interests in property development that can, because of their likely links to the government, prompt land grabs in areas considered informal. Their association with the state, though difficult to prove, is evidenced in the continued role of the police during Mukuru evictions where they respond to demonstrators with teargas, water cannons, and live ammunition. During the most recent unrest, which was sparked by attempts to clear the area of residents and demarcate the space with beacons on December 27th, two residents were shot dead and scores of others were injured. Today, months after the first eviction in early October, many of the displaced remain homeless and are unable to re-establish livelihoods in Mukuru in the face of a formidable alliance of enemies: property developers backed by the police and the government.
None of this is unique. Of the fifteen activists and community representatives from across the city who participated in our November focus group—from Mathare to Mukuru, to Baba Dogo and Kayole—two thirds had faced the reality or the threat of development-induced displacement. Each case involved populations in informal housing settlements having to make way for concrete structures—roads such as the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport-Westlands expressway, or residential high-rise buildings.
And yet these “formal” evictions—in which official involvement is often signaled by the presence of bulldozers flanked by various police forces—are just part of the story. We also learned of fires that residents believe are intentionally started to clear slums. It is virtually impossible to prove that these conflagrations are started with the deliberate intention to grab land. However, there are good grounds for the perception that these fires serve as “informal evictions.” Crucially, they have occurred in locations where the poor reside on desirable land; where land-title arrangements are contested, and/or where proximity to the city attracts the construction of more lucrative housing than the shacks that once stood upon these sites. As one activist commented, “In almost all places where there is a fire, a high-rise building will come up.”
Participants at our November meeting counted 14 episodes of displacement since the beginning of 2020, either through the construction of infrastructure or by the setting of fires. These took place in Shauri Moyo, Deep Sea, Kariobangi, Korogocho Market, Nyayo Village and Kisumu Ndogo, Baba Dogo, Njiru, Ruai, Gikomba, Viwandani, Mathare, Kibera and Kangemi. In total, these violent episodes involving either arson or demolition by bulldozers have deterritorialized, either permanently or temporarily, thousands of Nairobi residents over the last two years.
Despite their diverse causes and contexts, urban displacements share a common set of consequences. Above all, they greatly diminish the living conditions for already desperate populations living on the brink of poverty. While they do not take place across borders, those who are affected live and suffer in ways that are comparable to the plight of refugees. Evictions typically involve the demolition of property, arrests and fines, and often feature brutal violence of the kind described earlier—the expulsion of entire communities from their homes, a disruption of livelihoods, and loss and damage of personal effects, such as belongings and identity documents.
And, certainly, this impact is gendered. Women, habitual caregivers, have had to take care of children in situations of greater precarity than usual in Mukuru. In the absence of housing structures and a community that can protect each other, the threat of sexual and gender-based violence looms larger than before, as but one example of the gendered impacts of forced evictions.
The hardship experienced by those displaced in urban contexts is persistent, with many being forced to move on more than one occasion. In several of the aforementioned sites, evictions have occurred more than once within relatively short spans of time. For example, Dagoretti Centre was demolished several times by the City Council between 1971 to 1978. During that same period, Soko ya Mawe (1975), Mafik (1979) and the villages of Light Industries (1980) also faced evictions. Indeed, the history of displacement in Nairobi is as old as the city.
As early as 1902, four years into the emergence of Nairobi as a railway town, the “Indian Bazaar” was demolished for being “unhygienic”—a result of racialized projections that would lead these evictions to recur twice by 1907. Africans, whose very presence in the city was conditional upon their registration as workers, had to contend with the regular demolition of their dwellings, legalized by the 1922 Vagrancy Act.
During the emergency period, between 1952 and 1960, whole settlements in the Eastlands area, such as Mathare and Kariobangi, were flattened as they were perceived to harbor anti-colonial agitators and undesirable city dwellers. Fifty years since the colonial evictions, post-colonial urban governance continues to borrow from a similar toolbox: from Mji wa Huruma, to Muoroto to Kibagare settlements, thousands of Nairobi residents have been forced to make way to concrete: usually roads, buildings or housing for more prosperous citizens.
Today, over 60 percent of Nairobi’s population lives in its informal settlements, which make up just 5 percent of the city’s residential area. Many homes in these “slums” are built with corrugated iron sheets, and residents lack access to adequate sewage, electricity, or water systems, denied to those without the titles that would confer on them tenure rights to their dwellings. Over the years, justification for the violent displacement of the “informal” (we would say informalized) sector workers and residents has included concerns over tax evasion, trespassing, traffic congestion and food safety. Yet the highway that displaced Mukuru residents was equally informal: it did not feature in the 2014 Masterplan for Nairobi and nor was a strategic environmental assessment of its costs undertaken. It, however, continues to be defended by the government, including the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA), as a viable means to “decongest the city.” Evidently, concerns with order, modern aesthetics and “hygiene” have always prevailed over the principles of equity and inclusion in the governance of Nairobi, and it is probably for these reasons that the Evictions and Resettlement Procedures Bill—introduced to Parliament in 2012—has not been passed.
Despite a legislative framework from which to draw upon, such as Article 40 of the 2010 Constitution that upholds the protection of property, the majority of our elected representatives do not prioritize the formulation of policies that protect those at risk from the inhumane consequences of urban displacements. Evictions have been widespread over decades, and, as we have noted above, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest they may be taking increasingly sinister forms, with fires being deployed to expel and intimidate those living in areas considered “informal.”
If documents such as Kenya Vision 2030 are anything to go by, the present scenario, in which the poorest elements of urban society are being repeatedly displaced in violent, unjust and often illegal evictions, is likely to worsen. This development plan, which is used to justify an ever greater proliferation of concrete infrastructure, is frequently referred to by technocratic proponents of large-scale hypermodern architecture. And as the infrastructure it portends is materialized in order to realize Vision 2030 or presidential legacies, more communities will likely be forced to move. All of which underlines the need for an urgent response from civil society, which must scrutinize the role of the state, county governments, and private interests in inflicting incessant housing insecurity, and psychological and physical trauma on already marginalized communities.