Addressing Evictions Before Push Comes to Shove

by James Tayler

A Commentary On A Recent Spate Of Evictions To Affect Federation Groups In West And Southern Africa.

In the last fortnight the SDI Secretariat has received reports from a number of our affiliates about large-scale evictions taking place in settlements in which the SDI network has a presence. Current estimates are that over 40,000 people have been evicted in Badia East, Lagos (Nigeria), Crab Town, Freetown (Sierra Leone), Old Fadama, Accra (Ghana), and Caledonia Farm, Harare (Zimbabwe).

In their desperation to find a way to stop the destruction of Crab Town, the SDI affiliate in Sierra Leone reached out to the network. A lively correspondence has ensued. It is a revealing and enlightening communication between slum dwellers and support professionals that reminds us that the SDI network has its roots in a struggle against evictions and that over thirty years later struggles for land and security of tenure still lie at the heart of the movement.

We invite you to read the full correspondence, included below, and to contribute to the discussion. SDI will continue to support community efforts to get ahead of the bulldozers and invites its partners to intensify efforts to find workable solutions.


On Sep 7, 2015, at 6:36 PM, Samuel Sesay, SDI affiliate in Sierra Leone wrote:

Dear All,

It is sad to inform you that one popular slum in Freetown situation at Aberdeen Beach axis has been absolutely demolished and about 9,000 slum dwellers made homeless in the middle of the heavy down pour of rain in West Africa. The entire exercise started on Saturday 5th Sept. 2015 and the demolition work is still going on. The entire deal was driven by the Ministry of Tourism with the intention of taking away all the coastal slums and make them attractive for tourism. The government intend to continue in this until they get rid of all coastal slums in Freetown. This has created a very serious alarm. Fedurp and Codohsapa went on the ground and bull dossers, caterpillars and vibrant youth were hired for the exercise.

Sorry we couldn’t provide pictorial evidence because the entire area was heavily covered with military and police presence and picture and videoing was not allowed, if you are caught, then you will be charged to court for various offences. So, that is the situation we are faced with right now and the exercise is still on going. So that is that the SDI family.


Samuel Sheka Sesay,

Programme Coordinator

Centre Of Dialogue On Human Settlement And Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA).

REPLY From: Joe Muturi, National Leader Kenya Federation


Date: 11 September 2015 at 11:52:57 AM SAST

Dear Samuel,

On one of my visits to SL, you took us to a part of kroobay where the families where evicted and I remember telling you that you should never take visitors on field visits to showcase your failures. This is exactly what I meant. If you appeal for sympathy after evictions happen then they will continue to happen. You must do something to make sure you raise the price of evicting a community. 

As I say this I want you to know that my and all of SDI’s thoughts are with you and we feel you. We know how cruel it is and we also know how difficult it is to deal with these situations. 

The immediate problem is that when a community is evicted and they do not stay on the land, they end up losing because they are already hard hit and cannot afford to re-invade the land. And when they leave the settlement everyone ends up looking for a place to go by themselves and it is very difficult to bring them together again. 

Nigeria, has had an experience of going to court and getting compensation for the evicted families. So I am copying in Megan who can share on the Badia East experience. I am also copying in Jane, who could share a Kenyan legal precedent where the courts granted compensation for evicted families in a settlement called city carton.

These cases are however exceptions made possible by the involvement of the world bank in Nigeria, and in Kenya we had new laws and the judge was previously muungano’s lawyer. It is easier if you had done an enumeration but I think you had only a profile. And therefore this is the info you will need to fight for the settlement. These cases are long and hard and if there is a legal NGO in SL you could try getting them to take up the case.

Whatever else you do make sure that this eviction does not go away quietly. You must make sure that it is in the media and that there is a petition to government, delivered with people power and some oomph. Demonstrate or do whatever you have to make sure everyone knows that there are consequences. And all settlements in SL need to see you as the movement that fights for them.

This is easier said than done, because you are always trying to build a relationship with government. In Kenya we say we work like a rat, “we bite and blow”. You fight and appease at the same time. You fight over one settlement with ministry of tourism and you build a project in another settlement with another ministry. You should never allow an eviction to happen without a noise. 

SDI can help in making a noise if you help us document the eviction and keep us updated on what you are doing. The secretariat will post on its website and all of us will highlight it wherever we are, So keep sharing with us on a daily basis.

Lastly, since you know the evictions for coastal slums will continue. You need to take preventative steps. One way is to create a coastal slums federation – a daughter federation of the  big federation. A federation that is just focused on building advocacy and proposals for the coastal slums. If I remember well there are plenty of coastal slums, mo wharf, kroobay, Susan’s bay, colbolt etc. when doing this remember you must mix the positive and negative. Do advocacy and the building local solutions for the communities.



REPLY From: Megan Chapman SDI affiliate in Nigeria


Date: 14 September 2015 at 10:10:57 PM SAST

Dear all,

Very sorry for the slow reply, Samuel, and very sorry to hear of the demolitions and displacement in Freetown. How are the people coping? Can you provide any further details about the background to the evictions — was there any prior statement of intent to demolish by the Ministry of Tourism? Was there any notice? Any prior attempts at engagement between the affected community/communities and the government? Any action in court? Any protest or action since? Media attention?

Indeed, Nigeria has plenty of experience with forced eviction — large scale and ruthless — and, sadly, little experience of success in getting compensation or justice through the courts. Decades of losing in court and continued demolitions is what led us to seek partnership with SDI so as to try new methods — namely mass mobilization and proactive engagement — aimed at changing the politics towards bringing an end to forced evictions in Nigeria (both by raising the costs, as Muturi explained, and practically illustrating win-win alternatives). 

We have tried many different approaches to dealing with forced evictions through litigation and advocacy. Generally, it is always best to start working preventively before the worst happens. Trying to get compensation, resettlement, etc, after the fact is an up-hill battle. We have, literally, dozens of demolition/eviction cases before Nigerian courts, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and regional human rights courts — the most successful ones are those where the community is able to continue to stay united and mobilized, bring a lot of media attention, and pursue various political and legal angles at once.

Of all these cases, we have only had ONE instance of after-the-fact compensation — the Badia East 2013 case that Muturi has mentioned. Indeed, there was no opportunity for prior engagement in that case, since the rumors of possible demolition came less than 48 hours before the demolition and the Lagos State Government denied its intention to demolish just the day before they came in and demolished 267 structures affected 9,000+ people. 

After the demolition, we followed many angles very very quickly. The community protested two days after the demolition. We filed a case in court seeking an injunction against demolition of the rest of the community. We petitioned the NHRC, which came to investigate a few days after. We got a ton of media attention, including New York Times, Huffington Post, and other international news. And — most importantly — we petitioned the World Bank, which was simultaneously funding an infrastructure upgrading project in Badia East and argued that the WB had a responsibility to the intended beneficiaries of its project.

The last angle was the one that ultimately led to a modicum of relief for the people. World Bank’s involvement was the game changer because we were able to make a compelling legal and political case (with risk of public embarrassment) that the Lagos State Government should have followed World Bank safeguard policies on involuntary resettlement to come up with a “resettlement action plan” (RAP). Ultimately, our continued pressure on World Bank and World Bank’s continued pressure on the Lagos State Government led to a retroactive RAP that involved modest financial and livelihoods assistance amounting to $2mill, which went to landlords (without title documents) and tenants alike — a first in Nigerian history.

That said, the process was messy and imperfect. All of us wish the risk had been identified beforehand and the community had started preparing years in advance. Based on this experience (and dozens of others with even less successful outcomes), the Nigerian Federation is now mobilizing communities at risk of eviction to organize, build strength through savings, profiling, legal awareness, strategic alliances, and proactive solutions. 

Happy to chat more on Skype or phone, including discussing the specifics of potential legal claims and/or looking at the political landscape to think about strategic advocacy options. For legal assistance, perhaps you could reach out to Timap for Justice (we can put you in touch if you do not already have contacts)? Just let us know how we can help. 

In solidarity,


Megan S. Chapman

Co-Founder / Co-Director

Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria



Residents of Bogobogoni village in Kibarani, Changamwe watch from a distance as buldozers demolish their houses as police gaurded the demolition of the houses without a court order to pave way for a private developer. Over two thousand people were left homeless. Photo by Gideon Maundu.


This is nothing new for us. Violence, displacement, and legal disempowerment perpetrated by entrenched political and market interests are systematic realities in the lives of slum dwellers the world over. In all of these cases it is clear that the desperate efforts of poor people to cling onto miserable pieces of land end up clashing with vested interests of people with money and power. Local politicians and businessmen resorted to violent means to assert their claims to the spoils of development that should be going to those who often end up being its victims – informal settlement dwellers themselves.

A demolition scene at Mitumba Slums near Wilson Airport Nairobi as several Houses were demolished on November 19,2011 , in the ongoing government exercise to clear settlements said to have been illegally constructed on a land belonging to Kenya Airports Authority (KAA)..,government bulldozers rolled into the Slum ,Two Primary Schools and SDA Church were demolished . William Oeri (Nairobi)


But before we go any further we need to get some facts straight – starting with some facts about poor people and about cities.

Reality number 1. People are leaving the rural areas for good reasons. Changes in how land is farmed and owned and increasingly tied to global markets are leaving more rural people in crippling debt, without land, work, money or any hope of surviving. At the same time, increasing numbers of natural disasters are destroying rural livelihoods and impoverishing more and more households. With TV, cheap mobile phones and easy communications, people in the most remote villages now know what cities have to offer, and their choice to migrate is usually a well-informed one.

Reality number 2. In cities they find job opportunities as well as markets for their own informal businesses, making and selling cheap goods and services. And the money they can make in cities can usually be enough to support themselves and their households, as well as send money home to relatives still in the rural villages. In cities they have better access to schools, health care, culture and opportunities for a future no village could ever offer.

Reality number 3. Cities need large supplies of cheap labour. This is imperative for various city-based economic activities in many different sectors such as industry, construction, the public sector and the informal sector. This cheap labour toils in the factories, staffs the crews that build houses, bridges, roads, and shopping centres. They sweep the streets, carry away the city’s garbage, prune its trees and maintain its sewers. They are the housemaids, the taxi drivers, the cleaners, the delivery boys, the clerks. And where would our cities be without the markets and the street vendors, selling prepared foods, fruits, vegetables, clothes, shoes, and so on?

Reality number 4. These important inhabitants of our cities often have no choice but to live in slums. Land prices in cities have skyrocketed and the poor find themselves increasingly priced out of any formal land or housing market. In most cities in Africa and Asia, planners and governments, at all levels, have been unable to cope with this influx of poor people and with the natural growth of urban poor populations. It is hard to find cases where governments have been able to intervene successfully in these markets with programmes to help meet the land and housing needs of their poor populations.

Reality number 5. Slums are solutions to housing problems. Policy makers, city managers, urban planners and many citizens tend to see the growth of slums in their cities as unsightly and lawless blights that should be cleared away or at least hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the city. Nobody would argue that a crowded, dirty, unplanned settlement is anybody’s idea of an ideal living situation, with its poor quality housing, its bad infrastructure (or no infrastructure at all) and its insecure land tenure. But if you go beneath their admittedly grim outer layer and take a deeper look at what is really going on in slum communities, you will often find them to be places of support and hope and growth and not places of despair at all. In fact, these makeshift settlements evolve quickly into vital and complex life-support systems for the poor, which can help meet a variety of their needs and give them a base for lifting themselves out of poverty. They may fall short when it comes to design, status, comfort and resale value but they generally tick a number of boxes that are critically important for the urban poor, such as location (proximity to jobs, income opportunities, transport hubs, schools), space for home-based economic activities, community support systems in the form of networks of friends, neighbours or kinsfolk, and affordability.

A demolition scene at Mitumba Slums near Wilson Airport Nairobi as several Houses were demolished on November 19,2011 , in the ongoing government exercise to clear settlements said to have been illegally constructed on a land belonging to Kenya Airports Authority (KAA)..,government bulldozers rolled into the Slum ,Two Primary Schools and SDA Church were demolished . William Oeri (Nairobi)


Given these simple facts one would imagine that city leaders would recognize poor people as valuable contributors to the smooth functioning of our cities and slums as the foundation stone for good urban development. But this is often not the case. In fact as the tragic events in Caledonia Farm, Badia East, Old Fadama and Crab Town demonstrate many city governments make decisions that force poor people out of their homes and off their land. One has to ask the question: “Why?”

Those who are responsible for evictions or choose to justify them often present them as the process by which people who have illegally occupied a piece of land belonging to someone else are removed from that land by due process of law. In this view, the squatters are the criminals and the property owners are the victims. This does not capture the human reality of an eviction, which is always painful, violent and impoverishing for the evictees. And it also does not capture the unjust systems of land use and property ownership in many countries that allow a few to enjoy great property wealth and leave many with little or nothing at all.

There are cases, it must be noted, where evictions cannot be avoided, and this may apply to some of the current crises. But even when health hazards or environmental risks make evictions necessary, suitable alternatives, negotiated with the affected communities, need to be provided. It is not in the interest of the city authorities and the better off to treat poor citizens like leaves swept into a corner only to be blown far and wide by the winds of desperation and necessity. Once evicted the urban poor do not disappear. They do not rush off to the rural areas. They find other parcels of land in the city to settle on once again.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the courts, the constitution, and flimsy barricades are the only recourse for those who face evictions. But it is because of the very power relations described above that we know (not just theoretically, but from bitter experience) that laws, pyrrhic victories in courts, and unfocused public demonstrations do not and will not turn the tables — will not restrain those with power and resources whose intention it is to grab the spoils of development. This does not mean that SDI disregards constitutional rights, litigation, and the courts. However, we know that these are reactive or defensive tools, often applied after evictions have already happened.

There has been a gradual evolution in how community organizations handle evictions. For decades their main tools, as mentioned above, were organizing to bravely and often quixotically resist settlement specific evictions through demonstrations, marches and barricades and by filing court cases to stop demolitions. But during the violence, fear and dislocation of an eviction it is hard to think clearly and negotiate alternatives. Once a crisis erupts, the tools available to communities reduce sharply. So the question for poor communities has got to be how to create a more pro-active, longer-term process to resolve these eviction conflicts. Instead of waiting for the eviction squads to come and then trying to stop them, what if communities could find space to focus on the longer-term goal of securing tenure and gradually building houses long before the evictions happen?  Litigation and confrontation are always a last resort, but more and more community organizations have developed, refined and scaled up a number of long-term strategies to stop evictions and change their relationships with their city governments, and these strategies are now starting to bear fruit.

In a seminal document prepared for Cities Alliance, our colleague Tom Kerr summarized the experiences of slum dwellers in SDI and its sister organization the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and came up with 5 tools or strategies that communities have used to negotiate alternatives to eviction.

Strategy Number 1 – Ever expanding networks.

Karl Marx pretty much summed up the state of affairs more than 150 years ago when he declared that the poor are weak because they are not united and they are not united because they are weak. In Europe and the United States at that time the primary terrain of conflict was the industrial factory. While their dwellings were just as squalid, unplanned, overcrowded and insecure as the shantytowns and slums of today, the overwhelming majority of the urban poor worked in these factories. There was not much of an informal sector and so the urban poor and the working class were pretty much synonymous. They were also more easily able to organize since they were concentrated in close working proximity. They were able to come together and secure the occasional victories. But as Marx pointed out “the real fruit of their battle (lay), not in the immediate result”, but in their ever-expanding union.

The urban poor are now defined as much by their physical vulnerability and their living conditions (if not more so) as they are by their direct exploitation as wage labourers. Nevertheless the first and most critical strategy remains the same – to build a movement – that is to federate illegal slum communities at the city, national and international level. With that strength comes unity and with that unity comes strength. Local, national and global solidarity is the number one macro strategy to force negotiations for decent alternatives to evictions. No household or community alone can negotiate with the city for alternatives when organized and well resourced vested interests are pushing for projects that lead to wholesale dislocation. Only when the urban poor negotiate together, in organizations which have the collective force of big numbers, does it work. To make change, there needs to be a “critical mass” of people breaking down resistance to change, and dissolving the barriers between poor people and decision making about the allocation and distribution of resources. Community networks also create platforms for horizontal learning, mutual support and sharing of ideas between poor communities, in different parts of the city, different parts of the country and different parts of the globe.

Strategy Number 2 – Women Centred Community Savings.

Collective saving binds people together, teaches them to manage their collective resources and helps them take control of their own development. Savings make room for poor people to develop self-reliance and self-awareness and to make decisions together through a collective mechanism. When small savings groups link into larger networks or Federations, these networks give community members access to greater financial resources and enhanced clout when negotiating for their basic needs, and enables the poor to deal with the larger, structural issues related to their problems — especially eviction and access to urban land.

Strategy Number 3 – Community Enumeration and Mapping

SDI linked federations of the urban poor have very consciously undertaken a strategy of self-enumeration and self-surveying. Federations constantly gather reliable and complete data about households and families in their own communities. Then they codify these techniques into a series of practical tips for their members and have thus created a revolutionary system of information gathering and management that forms the very basis of a real governmentality from below. All SDI federations are now deeply aware of the radical power that this kind of knowledge gives them in their dealings with local and central state organizations – especially when it comes to trying to prevent evictions. In every country and city there is a host of local, state-level and local entities with a mandate to eradicate, rehabilitate or ameliorate slums.  But none of them know exactly who the slum-dwellers are, where they live or how they are to be identified. All slum policies have an abstract slum population as their target and no knowledge of its concrete, human components.  Since these populations are by definition social, legally and spatially marginal, invisible citizens as it were, they are by definition uncounted and uncountable except in the most general terms. By rendering them statistically visible, the Alliance controls a central piece of any actual policy process dealing with upgrading, relocation and resettlement.

Strategy Number 4 – Participatory Preparation of Alternative Plans

When poor communities are backed up against the wall and demand their rights through protest or defend what they have through resistance they are putting the authorities in a position where they only have two options: to acknowledge what people are demanding or to reject it. Such a situation is often a dead-end for communities – as the evictees in Accra, Freetown, Harare and Lagos will testify. But things can be very different when there is an opportunity for community organisations to design strategies and plans which demonstrate that their situation can be improved and on that basis begin a dialogue with the authorities. Demonstrable and testable alternative ideas backed up with large numbers of people is a strong way for community organisations to establish their credentials as development partners and therefore by association as citizens with defendable rights.

Strategy Number 5 – Urban Poor Funds

Urban Poor Funds or similar community managed development finance facilities are institutions that have been set up in many SDI countries to respond to different local needs, capacities and political contexts. They all build on the financial and organisational assets that are generated by community savings. As a result money is pulled through the system by people’s real needs, not pushed though by the development agendas of other actors. They become the basis for deal-brokering, for leveraging significant resources from within the network and beyond and putting these resources behind alternative plans to evictions that have emerged from participatory planning and are backed up by knowledge derived from mapping and surveying. This in turn is backed up by large numbers of organized, united and informed slum dwellers – not only from the affected settlement – who are no longer victims but empowered people capable of having a decisive say in their own development destinies.

SDI has chosen to put its efforts and energies into these long-term eviction prevention planning strategies – instead of being defensive, waiting for eviction to come and then scurrying to find a way that “they” should not evict “us” too easily. At the end of the day it is all about ordinary slum dwellers organizing themselves community-by-community, coming together at the city level, at the national level, and at the international level. SDI choses to link communities together so that they can equip one another with knowledge, unity and organisation, starting processes of change, working out and proposing alternatives, making governments understand that when there are evictions, everybody loses, barring a handful well connected individuals.

Our colleague Jane Weru a renowned human rights lawyer from Kenya once summed this up with these insights:

“I am sure you must be asking yourselves who we are as Shack Dwellers International. You see people from all over – brown, white, black coming together and I am sure the question as to what brings these people together must be floating in your minds. I was thinking about that question.

First thing that came to mind is that essentially the people in Shack Dwellers International, in the support organizations, and the Federations are mainly people who are discontented. Discontented with the current status quo. From India to Kenya to South Africa we are people who are very unhappy about evictions. People who felt very strongly that it was wrong for communities, whole families to live on the streets of Bombay or to live on the garbage dumps of Manila. We felt very strongly about that. So we the people within Shack Dwellers International are people who are, in a sense, the discontents of our societies.

I think also we the people within Shack Dwellers International are people who have a vision. We are the dreamers to a certain degree. We believe that this world can be better and we believe that working together we can make a difference. So essentially we are pragmatic. And you can see our pragmatism in the approaches we have. This pragmatism has led us to develop social movements. Not only in our countries but across the borders.

We have a vision of an alternative world that we want to see in existence. And that vision is based on our current discontent with what we see in our cities. This vision is backed up by our practices. Backed up by our customs and our ways of doing things. We have enumerations, savings, house models and these are practices and customs that lead to the development of this alternative society that we believe in.

And how is this? How do these mundane customs and practices like savings and enumerations bring change in our society?

I think these practices and customs help develop a new culture amongst us. What is this new culture? I think the culture that we’ve developed within our community is a culture of care and nurturing, because in our saving schemes we interact at a very high level. We save on a daily basis. On a daily basis people move from house to house collecting money and like we say within the Shack Dwellers International network – collecting information, collecting problems and seeing how as a community we can begin to resolve those problems. Using the different resources we have at that communal level we begin to address the problem of the women who does not have food in her house for that day, who is able to come to that community organisation that has developed within that settlement and say: “today I was not able to get work, can you give me a bit from my savings. So I can buy food today. And if I don’t have a bit from my savings, can this community give me a bit of money for today so I can put food on my table.”  So we develop these communities of care and sharing, right from the ground. That is the culture we develop.”

Scene of inferno on Saturday night at Mukuru-Hazina Slum in South B, Nairobi. More than 100 houses were reduced to ashes rendering more than 400 people homeless while an informal school and electric posts were not spared. Area chief Solomon L. Muranguri said the fire was caused by a stove. Photo/SAMMY KIMATU (31.07.2011)

Below is a selection of images of evictions and demolitions that have taken place in the past few years in Kenya and Ghana.