Justifying and Resisting Evictions in Kenya: The Discourse of Demolition during a Pandemic

Amidst a strict Covid-19 lockdown the Kenyan government forcefully evicted thousands of citizens and then demolished their homes. Some local human rights groups believe the pace of evictions actually increased during the pandemic. In addition to the legal and human rights challenges to evictions, the premise of pandemic containment is fundamentally opposed to the disruption of eviction. This blog will grapple with that contradiction by asking, How have evictions in Kenya been justified during the pandemic, and, in turn, challenged and opposed?

On May 4 the forced evictions of over 7000 people from Kariobangi settlement in Nairobi alarmed Kenyans and international observers. The outcry was followed by promises to end demolitions during Covid-19 and a May 11  statement from the Cabinet Secretary of the Interior that “Until we are done with Covid challenges, we should not have any evictions happening” (though even within this statement against evictions, the CS questioned the validity of court orders that halt evictions).

Despite this public commitment, on May 16 thousands more people were evicted from their homes nearby in Ruai settlement. In Nairobi six areas (including Kariobangi and Ruai) were marked for demolition, affecting more than 71,000 residents; Evictions and demolitions also continued outside the urban center of Nairobi, affecting homes in the Mau and Embobut forests and markets on the Coast.

The official justification for demolitions centers on the fight against corruption and the need for development. The government says that demolitions clear grabbed land and enable new investments in public health and economic development.

Accepting the anti-corruption and pro-development logic of demolitions, the question remains, why now? During the pandemic Kenyans’ ability to pay rent and other living expenses is under extreme stress, and police violently enforce Covid-19 restrictions in a way that “substitutes security for care.” Given the multiple ways in which housing is a prerequisite for “controlling the virus and limiting its impacts,” why continue with mass evictions?

A boy stands on debris left after houses were demolished. NAKURU, KENYA – 2020/07/18 SOPA Images.

Public statements by government officials point to the opportunity costs of missing out on international loans for building projects, like those from the African Development Bank set for Kariobangi and Ruai to become sewerage facilities for the city of Nairobi. But these justifications are undermined by alternative theories that connect recent demolitions to political moves against Deputy President William Ruto, who has been linked to owning land in Ruai. And recent Covid-19 corruption scandals about pandemic profiteering – followed by aggressive moves to punish public discussion of the graft – demonstrate other urgent ways to fight corruption without destroying people’s homes and livelihoods.

As the government has persisted in its use of demolitions and evictions, affected communities and civil society have added Coronavirus concerns to their list of reasons to stop evictions, but have continued to use their usual channels for opposition: demonstrations, lawsuits, and pressure from international allies.

Community organizing and demonstrations against evictions face new health challenges around social distancing, and have been met with harsh policing; Nairobi police chief Philip Ndolo – with no apparent sense of irony – captured the inequality of community vs state tactics when he said, “Police responded to a rowdy group [of eviction protestors] that was destroying property on the road… We will not tolerate destruction of property.”

Lawsuits to halt evictions have been uneven in their success. Kenyans have a constitutional right to adequate housing (Article 43(1)), but even when communities win, court orders to halt evictions are not always respected by state actors. The use of the law to challenge government policies is a key part of Kenyan civil society, but for anyone who has already been evicted or had their home demolished, the prospect of justice from the courts at an unknown future date is small comfort.

Local and international organizations who respond to evictions are loaded with new tasks arising from Covid-19. Local civil society and mutual aid groups have worked throughout the pandemic to provide resources to most vulnerable community members. They raise awareness about Covid-19 as well as continue their work of documenting abuses.  

In the discourse on demolitions and evictions in Kenya, affected communities and civil society have embraced Covid-19 as a rallying cry to stop evictions – if only temporarily.  The Kenyan state seeks to justify demolitions while selectively empathizing with evictees, but the act of demolition cannot be divorced from the violence of eviction.

Photo: “A boy stands on debris left after houses were demolished…” by Getty Images is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Eliab Taye is an independent regional peace and security researcher. He is a former Ethiopian foreign service officer, and currently is a Master of Global Affairs candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University specializing in international security.

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