We can make mass evictions less painful for the affected

Residents of Kibos in Kisumu County salvage their properties after their houses were demolished by the Kenya Railways. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

One week ago, 3,500 men, women and children were forcefully evicted from a settlement they had lived in for 83 years. The evictions are part of an ongoing programme by the Kenya Railways Corporation and other state agencies to expand national railway, water, sewage and road networks. The devastation must leave us wondering. Is there not an alternative that does not have homes, hustles and hopes flattened as Kenya upgrades infrastructure?

Kibos lies between Kisumu East and Muhoroni sub-counties. One of Kisumu County’s four sugar factories can be found here. Kibos is one of the homes of the many railway communities across the nation. Several books, podcasts and films could be written about the Nubians of Kibos.

Nubians were brought to Kenya as soldiers, drivers and construction workers in 1890 to serve the British Empire. Initially stationed along Kisumu’s Dunga beach, they were moved in 1896 after plagues and other disease outbreaks.

In 1937, they were displaced again to make way for the building of Kisumu airport. Some were moved onto 109 acres in Kibos where they cleared the snake infested bush and built a mosque. In 1950, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) took several acres which were then reportedly grabbed by private individuals. Kibos was thrust into national spotlight last week. Despite presenting a court notice for a February 10th hearing to settle the issue of ownership between the people of Kibos and Kenya Railways to the County Commissioner, the state officer proceeded to organise the eviction.

Within hours of that stormy meeting, electricity was disconnected and tens of armed police officers accompanying tippers and excavators descended on the community.

The attack started within an hour of the night curfew. Six hours later, millions of shillings and lifetime of savings had been destroyed. An infant was killed as the family house roof fell on her, neighbours say. At least 500 homes, an 83-year-old mosque and two nurseries were also flattened. Some 3,500 persons have spent this rainy week in makeshift tents or under trees provided by the Red Cross on temporary land availed by Kisumu County Government.

Sadly, Kibos is not an isolated case. In 2020, the county governments of Kisumu and Nairobi have led or failed to protect mass forced evictions to facilitate or enforce Kenya Urban Roads Authority, Kenya Highways Authority, Prisons Service and Kenya Railways projects.

No less than 21,000 people have been displaced in just eight incidents according to research released by Amnesty Kenya and Pamoja Trust this week. A further 1,100 persons are at risk.

The study “Homeless in a Pandemic” demonstrates clear violations of the presidential moratorium on evictions during Covid-19 announced by Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i last year.

The moratorium was a bold statement of leadership in line with UN Habitat’s advisory that during a pandemic, losing your home could mean losing your life. The right to life and right to housing are intrinsically linked in the time of Corona.

What is most shocking with the recent evictions carried by Kenya Railways and security agencies across Nairobi, Bungoma, Nakuru and Kisumu among others, is not the violence and abandonment. What is unconscionable is that there are legal, policy and administrative alternatives available to the Kenyan Government.

Both the Lands Ministry and UN Habitat have guidelines on how to carry out evictions and resettlement without infringing on peoples’ rights. Kisumu East MP Shakeel Shabbir has a Bill in Parliament that seeks to stop the mass trauma that development currently brings to hundreds of people.

Two ironies tragically repeat for Kibos. The very colonial infrastructure they were conscripted to protect has also historically driven multiple evictions.

Last Friday, at least one family of a police officer watched their husband and father participate in an operation that brought down their home. Secondly, last weeks’ displacement, like that of 1896, also took place during the time of a health pandemic. 

Infrastructural development need not displace communities. The destruction is too high a cost for our nation, especially during a recession and a pandemic. All state agencies must uphold the Covid-19 evictions moratorium until safeguards are in place.

Kenya Railways must suspend mass forced evictions until new eviction and resettlement guidelines are agreed. We also need an independent enquiry to establish what went wrong in Kibos, who is accountable and what compensation they deserve. This would be a true Valentines’ Day gift to the people of Kibos and elsewhere.

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. [email protected]