Over the past few days, tens of thousands of Kenyans have been made homeless. This is not the result of some terrible natural disaster, but rather, the deliberate action of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration. Nearly 10,000 have been kicked out of their homes in the Mau forest in a bid to protect the country’s largest water tower. Another community of 30,000 in Kibra, the largest slum in Nairobi, saw their homes, hospitals, shops and schools flattened to make room for a road.
“Development” and “conservation” have always been pretexts for displacing Kenyans. One-hundred twenty years ago, the so-called Lunatic Line was built. It was the railway link to Uganda that opened up Kenya’s hinterland to colonial settlement and exploitation at the turn of the 20th century. The development of the railway resulted in the massive alienation of land and dispossession of the natives.
Roads and railways are important — and so is conserving the environment and wildlife. Ecologist Mordecai Ogada and journalist John Mbaria have recently argued that the particular brand of wildlife conservation practiced in Kenya separates indigenous people from their land for the benefit of a small cabal of conservationists and conservation thinkers. Kenyans must ask about the price being paid and who is paying it. Generally, it is the poorest who bear the brunt of the costs but receive few of the benefits. The folks in Kibra are a good example; now they must endure nights in the cold so that wealthier citizens don’t have to sit in traffic.
For far too long, policymakers and do-gooders have tended to regard Kenyans, and especially poor Kenyans, as obstacles to the realization of development and conservation, rather than the reason for their pursuit. In fact, the government seems to feel no sense of responsibility toward them.
The recent evictions followed a familiar pattern. Decisions are made on high with little reference to the people who will be most affected. An eviction notice is issued with affected communities having limited recourse and without the state making any arrangements for alternative shelter. Bulldozers turn up accompanied by armed police and destroy everything, sometimes even refusing people the opportunity to recover valuables from their condemned homes.
In recent years, a spate of building collapses in the capital, caused by shoddy construction especially in low-income neighborhoods, has seen similar evictions carried out without concern for where the stranded families would spend their nights.
Unsurprisingly, the country’s notoriously fractious politicians are also more concerned with furthering their own interests than looking out for those of the citizenry. The Mau region is a stronghold of the ruling Jubilee Party, while Kibra voted overwhelmingly for the opposition National Super Alliance coalition. But rather than forge common cause, politicians representing the two areas shout loudly about the plight of their constituents while keeping mum about — or even encouraging — evictions elsewhere.
Sadly, in Kenya notions such as “development” can countenance making people homeless because they really have little to do with improving the lives of the very poorest. Years of economic growth have not provided decent jobs. The much-feted road-building binge has not only displaced many poor, but also is killing them in droves. So far this year, according to figures from the National Transport and Safety Authority, pedestrians account for about 40 percent of road fatalities, by far the worst-affected category of road user. Indeed, the roads were built without much consideration for how the vast majority of poor Kenyans (many of whom pretty much walk everywhere) would navigate them.
Even when it comes to education, Kenya’s poor get a raw deal. In 2003, when the government introduced — to great international fanfare and praise, including from former president Bill Clinton — free primary education in a bid to improve enrollment, a million extra kids turned up for class. But because there was no investment in increasing the number of schools, and even more stupendous, the policy was implemented during a teacher hiring freeze, the system was predictably overwhelmed. As standards plummeted, there was an exodus into private schools, which drove up their cost and locked the poor into a failing public system.
Another indication of the government’s cavalier approach to the rights of its less wealthy subjects was its reaction to the public outrage over a rape in June at a prestigious secondary school for girls bordering Kibra. Without providing any proof, the authorities demolished all shops surrounding the school, claiming that they were hideouts for the suspected rapists, who to date have yet to be identified, much less caught. It seemed very much like just another case of scapegoating the poor.
Kenya runs on a template that was designed to prey on the country’s least fortunate — a government structure that from colonial times has been both suspicious of and condescending toward the poor, preferring to see them as unpleasant and inconvenient wards rather than as full citizens to be engaged with and not just bossed around. In short, Kenya is no country for the poor.
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.