(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • A home to call your own – even if it is a slum

    Kibera is the largest slum in Kenya, home to more than 250,000 people. Yet it has only one graveyard and only one group of people are buried here. While others are laid to rest in their ancestral lands up-country, the Nubians are the only ethnic group that considers Kibera their homeland.

     

    A tiny community, Nubians were only officially recognised as a Kenyan ethnic group as recently as 2009, and for decades had been denied full citizenship rights.

     

    Originally from Sudan, they were recruited by the British over a century ago to serve as colonial troops, and were rewarded for their service with land in what was then a remote area, miles away from the centre of Nairobi. They called it Kibra, the Nubian word for “forest”.

     

    In a nation where ethnic identity and political power remain closely linked to land, Nubians’ exclusion from formal land tenure not only impeded their struggle for recognition but kept them powerless in the midst of land grabs as Nairobi urbanised.

     

    Within a matter of decades, Nubians watched as their farms and once thick, dark forests transformed into one of the most well-known slums in Africa.

     

    Now a wrong has finally been righted for the 13,000-strong community. In June, President Uhuru Kenyatta granted Nubians a communal land title deed for 288 acres in Kibera, a watershed moment in a long fight for rights to their land.

     

    But this victory for one oppressed minority doesn’t resolve the broader challenges thrown up by Kenya’s rapid urbanisation and neglect of its informal settlements.

     

    Multiple forms of marginalisation intersect in slums like Kibera, where residents lack access to the most basic of services, and reforms have repeatedly stalled.

     

    Memories of home

     

    Ahmed Adam, 75, is a member of the Kenya Council of Nubian Elders. His grandfather was among the original colonial King’s African Rifles regiment who first settled in Kibra, recognition by the British for their role in two world wars.

     

    Even as a grandfather of 20 children, Adam has only a small, plaster-walled house on a slope of shanty-houses that overlooks the area where his childhood home once stood, across the now-foul river.

     

    “There, life was good,” Adam said, reflecting on his childhood home. “Not like here where you can’t even breathe and there is dirt everywhere. Everyone lives close together. It smells… Our life here on our land is not good.”

     

    In 1979, Adam was living in the house built by his grandfather decades before when he was given notice by the government to evacuate. After seven days, bulldozers arrived at dawn to demolish his home.

     

    For every estate that was being built within Kibera – many in the name of “affordable housing” – Nubian families like Adam’s were evicted, without compensation or resettlement to this day. Nubians for years also faced discrimination in getting statutory documents like IDs.

     

    “I have been actively fighting for these 288 acres for six good years, but I am not the first. I am the sixth generation,” explained Shafi Ali Hussein, chairman of the Nubian Rights Forum, a paralegal organisation based in Kibera.

     

     

    The Kenyan government owns the land on which Kibera stands but for many years did not officially recognise the settlement. Kibera always seemed on the cusp of demolition, and as a result was deliberately and systematically denied public services like a permanent water supply.

     

    Nubians were “squatters on our own land,” said Hussein. Not only did the Nubian community face chronic government neglect, they also had the particular misfortune of fighting for indigenous land rights within one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa.

     

    Kibera became bloated with low-wage migrant workers sucked into the city looking for work. Today, the river running through the slum, black and foul, is barely distinguishable from surrounding plastic waste. But as recently as 30 years ago, its banks were lined with sugarcane, and the river even hosted a sailing club.

     

    Newcomers

     

    Land in Kibera, unregulated and thus tax-free, was illicitly acquired and developed by civil servants, businessmen, and even churches. As Nubians’ privileged military status became obsolete after independence and the arable land in Kibera shrank, their economic situation deteriorated.

     

    They resorted to building low-income shacks and renting them out. To this day, rent is still the main – albeit precarious – source of income for many Nubian households. These are not absentee landlords: in most respects they share the same struggle as the slum dwellers they rent out to.

     

    Kenya’s long-standing land grievances remain a contentious and emotive issue. Where political power is still heavily informed by ethnicity and belonging, the rhetoric of land disenfranchisement is a powerful tool for mobilising mass support.

     

    It was what fuelled the post-election violence in 2007-2008, the worst ethnic clashes in the country’s history. Land reform became a priority as Kenya reworked its constitution in the aftermath of the unrest.

     

    Veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga played a major role in developing the politically unifying National Accord, which included Agenda Four, a set of policies created to address “long-standing issues” like land reform.

     

    However, throughout Odinga’s two decades as an MP representing Kibera he was by no means on the Nubians’ side.

     

    In fact, most Nubians consider him the greatest opponent to what they regard as land justice. They especially resent the influx of people from Odinga’s Luo ethnic base in western Kenya, allegedly to build himself a “vote reservoir” within Nairobi.

    Odinga and his political allies have deliberately used Nubians’ status as landlords as a wedge issue to mobilise political support among tenants, in a community in which there are multiple political players.

    Nubians have also opposed the low-income housing projects that activists have promoted as a means to support the urban poor. They regard them as the permanent settlement and development of others on their own land.

    Development for whom?

     

    The pressure of urbanisation on settlements like Kibera is unrelenting. Just over 60 percent of urban households in Kenya live in slums, according to the World Bank. These poorly serviced informal shanties were meant to be temporary, but over time have become permanent homes.

    nubian_family_in_kibera.jpg

    A man carries his daughter in Kibera
    April Zhu/IRIN
    Nubian family in Kibera

    There have been high-profile attempts to improve living conditions in Kibera, like the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme, a collaboration between the government and UN-Habitat that began in 2001 spearheaded by then-prime minister Odinga.

     

    But the decanting site completed in 2008 – meant to temporarily house slum residents as their areas were redeveloped into modern high-rises – was left empty for over a year and then gentrified as poor coordination and legal opposition from prominent Kibera landlords stagnated progress and created an administrative void.

     

    Today, many of the high-rises are rented out to other tenants by the intended beneficiaries, who have themselves moved back into the slums.

    “They will become concrete slums before they’re even commissioned, because they’re not designed with the intention of creating homes,” said Sheikh Issa Abdulfaraj, chairman of the Kenya Nubian Council of Elders. “They are just dormitories for people working in industrial areas.”

    Abdulfaraj highlights the important difference between the Nubian vision for a new and improved Kibera and the government’s top-down development plans.

    Nubians want a better Kibera, but more importantly, their own Kibera – a motherland for the Kenyan Nubian diaspora.

    “There is a difference between these mushrooming housing projects... and creating a metropolis which is a home and town for the Nubians,” said Abdulfaraj. “All those other people have their own reserves, up-country homes. The Nubians don’t have such things. This is all we have.”

    Although some Nubian elders agitated for the land title to include the full 700 acres of Kibera, the final compromise gave 288 acres to the Nubians and left the rest under government ownership.

    Consequently, Nubians continue to advocate against housing projects that establish permanent housing on their land, including a World Bank resettlement project that has introduced multi-story housing to resettle Kibera residents whose homes lie along the new railway corridor.

    “Whatever the government does for them on their land is between them and the government,” said Hussein. “But the 288 is our portion.”

    In his address to a delegation of the Nubian community in June 2017, Kenyatta promised to work with them to formalise Kibera’s infrastructure, including roads, sewage, water, and electricity, so that Kibera “will not be a tourist venue for people coming to see African poverty, but rather a place where the whole world can see how the poor man takes himself out of poverty to become a rich man.”

    That is the hope for all who live in Kibera – that the government, alive to its responsibilities, will deliver on building a better community for everyone.

     

    az/oa/ag

    Nairobi’s Nubian community has won recognition of their land rights, but can other slum dwellers?
    A home to call your own – even if it is a slum
    Part of an in-depth series exploring the consequences for the urban poor as the rapid growth of African cities outpaces policy reform
  • Election leaves western Kenya angry and bitter

    After tyres finish burning, what is left is a matted mesh of singed black wire. In Kenya’s western city of Kisumu, they hug curbs and roundabouts, leaving dark, circular footprints where the road melted underneath.

     

    This is the Nyanza heartland of opposition leader Raila Odinga, where demonstrations have erupted since August against the Independent Electoral and Borders Commission’s perceived bias, and again today as Kenyans go to re-run elections – polls the opposition have boycotted.

     

    The protracted election crisis has accustomed people in Nyanza to defiance. Here, the explosion of a tear gas canister is met with cheers. Protesters run into the white fumes. They salvage undetonated canisters and throw them back at police the next time. Even as live rounds crack into the air, in the distance a spinning slingshot always emerges.

     

    It was in some ways no surprise then that on the eve of the 26 October election, Odinga – twice a losing presidential candidate – announced he was transforming his National Super Alliance (NASA) into a National Resistance Movement to confront the “electoral dictatorship” of the ruling Jubilee Party.

     

    The trigger was the inability of the Supreme Court, in dramatic televised failure on Wednesday, to reach a quorum and rule on a petition to postpone the poll re-run.

     

    The court had earlier nullified the August presidential election over procedural failures. Few neutral observers believed a divided IEBC had been able to fix its problems over the past 56 days.

     

    Residents of Mamboleo, a neighbourhood outside Kisumu City, certainly did not. Like protestors throughout Nyanza, they set up roadblocks to prevent ballot papers from being delivered on Wednesday. All along the shoddy, pot-holed dirt road, piles of stones and bricks – even a telephone pole – were laid out.

     

    As paramilitary GSU escorted a convoy of vehicles, screams and hoots, wild and crude, came from protesters hiding behind gates and in between corrugated metal shacks – and from police themselves. Tear gas and rocks were exchanged, insults too. Doors were kicked in and shots fired in the air.

     

    Turnout was so low today in four counties in Nyanza that the IEBC postponed the vote.

     

    These are alien scenes for Kenya, a middle-income regional leader. But they offer a disturbing glimpse into the possibility of the abyss beyond this disputed election.

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    Raila Odinga
    April Zhu/IRIN
    Raila Odinga addresses a NASA rally

    Victims

     

    Odinga has voiced an anger that has been swirling here over the perceived manipulation of the institutions of the state by President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the alleged victimisation of a region and people seen as opposing him.

     

    You hear it at the People’s Parliament in Kisumu’s city square where the supposed words of Thomas Jefferson are approvingly repeated: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.

     

    The “resistance” already has its martyrs. Last week, 18-year-old Michael Okoth Okello was killed in the violent aftermath of anti-IEBC demonstrations in Kisumu – shot in the neck by police.

     

    The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights released a report highlighting cases of violence in the wake of the annulled 8 August election. The report documents 37 deaths, 35 of them committed by the police.

     

    Kenyans living in NASA strongholds like Nyanza and pockets of Nairobi – especially those like Odinga of Luo ethnicity – were disproportionately represented among the victims.

     

    There have been high-profile condemnations of ethnically targeted police brutality, like the campaign “Luo Lives Matter” championed by Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o.

     

    Many here in Kisumu point to the difference in police response when Kikuyus – the country’s largest ethnic group and generally seen as supportive of Kenyatta – demonstrate.

     

    “You don’t see police shooting the ‘Nairobi Business Community’ who come out armed to defend their businesses, families, and even Uhuru’s presidency,” said George Siwa, an electrician in Kisumu who attended Monday’s anti-IEBC demonstrations.

     

    Odinga, 72, a polarising political figure in Kenya, made that link to ethnically targeted violence in his address on Wednesday.

     

    “As we speak, truckloads of paramilitary and police officers have been deployed to commit massacre, especially in western Kenya and Nairobi with the sole purpose of protecting an illegitimate hold on power,” he said.

     

    “We have seen them rope in militia, dress them in police attire, arm them, and unleash them on protesters with deadly consequences,” he alleged.

     

    The reference to militia is a nod to a belief here that a criminal Kikuyu militia, known as Mungiki, has been revived and has infiltrated the police.

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    Kisumu protest
    April Zhu/IRIN

    Memories of election violence

     

    It harks back to the violence of the 2007/08 elections, when Mungiki and rival Kalenjin militia were accused of ethnic killings, although many of the 1,500 people who died were shot by the police.

     

    Both Kenyatta and his then-opponent, William Ruto, now deputy president, were indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged roles in the violence.

     

    The charges were withdrawn due to insufficient evidence, after both men had formed the Jubilee Party to defeat Odinga in the disputed 2013 election.

     

    Whether Mungiki is in fact back in operation, the important point is that it is a widely held belief in Nyanza. It draws on the idea of official consent; it’s symbolic of unresolved but familiar conflicts that stretch back to independence.

     

    In the midst of this heightened ethnic tension, acting Cabinet Secretary of the Interior Fred Matiang’i said at a Jubilee rally last week that he was an enkororo – a member of the outlawed Kisii ethnic militia, Chinkororo.

     

    His comment, spoken in Gusii, was meant as a threat to anyone planning to interfere with IEBC voting centres. But the more disturbing implication – especially for Luos – is that even the head of the police may not be above the use of non-state ethnic militias to create “order”.

     

    Demonstrators in Kisumu now shout “Mungiki” at the GSU. Anecdotes and “fake news” encourages the belief that it was not the police who killed Okoth but the Kikuyu militia in police uniform.

     

    “Why would the government hire militia groups? It is training them to satisfy their own interests,” said Smith Hempstone Otieno, a student at Kisumu Polytechnic. “You understand that this is the kind of government that is trying to oppress the will of the people.”

     

    Protesters now say the struggle is no longer about sharing or rotating power between ethnic groups, but ending what they see as an intractable pattern of Luo disenfranchisement.

     

    What is less readily acknowledged is that Jubilee ran a slick and well-funded campaign that appealed to swing regions of Kenya. NASA’s, by contrast, seemed less strategic.

     

    Guns

     

    But in Nyanza, Jubilee’s determination to go ahead with the election, ignoring widespread calls for a postponement, feels like the cynical zero-sum calculation of past elections.

     

    In recent rallies, NASA supporters have shouted to politicians “Bunde! Bunde!” (“guns” in Dholuo). Asking for weapons is a startling step-change in resistance.

     

    “All we have now are stones and tear gas,” a young demonstrator told IRIN. He pointed to the blue hills behind the flyover at Kondele. “Beyond that is our border with the Kalenjins... So, the lasting solution is you keep your side, we keep our side, so we can move forward.”

     

    That the idea of secession is being talked about by some in Nyanza is an indication of the depth of frustration.

     

    “They are doing things as if they are in their own republic. We need peace and a lasting solution,” said an elderly man at the People’s Parliament who did not want to be named. “In fact, where we are heading, if we want peace and we don’t want to be killed, then at least let us divorce.”

     

    That has the support of some senior politicians. Governor Nyong’o, on the day before the election, told international media that he may propose to host a conference in Kisumu to discuss possibilities, risks, and opportunities of forming a “People’s Democratic Republic of Kenya”.

     

    Judged from the government buildings and gleaming office towers of Nairobi, that would seem an unsound and impractical idea.

     

    But “when a government fails to enact the will of the people, rebellion is justified,” said Nyong’o. “Secession is justified.”

     

    az/oa/ag

    Opponents of the ruling party believe today’s vote is a fix
    Election leaves western Kenya angry and bitter

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