Like baby Jesus, a child will be born to displaced parents in Mukuru kwa Njenga this Christmas. How the area went from a Jubilee Administration flagship project to a pile of rubble, 40,000 displaced and an intense court case deserves our attention this Christmas.
The 10 September 2020 cabinet decision to implement the ambitious Mukuru Social Housing Project was received by public excitement and featured two days later in this column. One of the most substantive projects since the passing of the constitution, the Government committed that day to invest Sh15 billion to build 13,000 serviced housing units for these residents. Given the high levels of poverty, indignity, and sub-standard living conditions, the Cabinet decision offered great promise to Mukurans.
Last month, more than 40,000 people were rendered homeless and propertyless after one of the most expansive and violent evictions of the COVID-19 period. Reclamation of the 30-metre road reserve to make way for the Catherine Ndereba expressway suddenly veered into the invasive clearing of 270 metres of land occupied by thousands of 3 by 3 metre mabati homes, kiosks, schools, health facilities and places of worship.
Government tear gas, armed police officers and excavators was the response to residents’ screams of disbelief, anger and attempts to protect private property. At least one resident, Bernard Mogaka was killed trying to retrieve and protect his young family’s property. Walking in Mukuru days after the violence, the effects of the eviction were still clear. The tattered backpacks and torn schoolbooks of children. The vacant stares of the elderly who wore their national ID cards in plastic wallets around their necks. The pleading eyes of mothers no longer sure how to feed their families. All around was the sense of bitterness and betrayal. That this violence should have happened in the name of Catherine Ndereba is more than vexatious. Rightly described as one of Kenya’s greatest women marathoners, she is an internationally respected peace ambassador.
Days after the violence, Nairobi Metropolitan Services Director General publicly announced that a terrible mistake had occurred. He further conveyed the commitment of the Office of the President to supporting affected persons to rebuild their homes. Within weeks of this announcement, 207 individuals, churches and companies filed a legal injunction to stop humanitarian efforts to provide temporary shelter, food, and the reconstruction of homes for 40,000 affected people. The petitioners have sued fourteen respondents including Nairobi County Government, NMS, Interior Ministry, and human rights organisations among others. The case will be heard in mid-January.
Unless something happens, this community may remain displaced and without the very basic of protection at a time when COVID-19 infections have reached an all-time high of 29 per cent. The prospect of thousands living in makeshift tents, unable to rebuild their homes and still not compensated or resettled must trouble us deeply this Christmas.
How a flagship Cabinet project unraveled into a violent eviction remains a permanent scar on the national conscience. A public inquest into how clearing a road reserve turned into a forceful mass eviction that has permanently damaged the lives of thousands is needed. Without this, national government will predictably repeat this injustice. Kenyans of goodwill can do no better this weekend than to visit and share their Christmas with these families of Embakasi South. Until a permanent solution is found, this community remains in distress and the Cabinet promise of social housing in complete disarray.
The birth of Jesus Christ is the most inspirational story in the bible. Hunted and without option, Jesus was born in a humble structure built for animals not human beings. For Christians, the nativity of Jesus marks the coming of a new humanity. It is universally worshipped as a story of hope. Perhaps this can allow us to dream a little, that the babies born in Mukuru kwa Njenga today, may grow to be miracle-workers and justice-carriers one day.
If not here, then where? Happy Christmas Kenyans.
This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard on 25 December 2021