It was early morning when John heard the bulldozers arrive. He barely had time to wake his wife and gather his two children before their home was demolished.
As they fled outside, they could see their neighbours also desperately struggling to save what they could from the bulldozers, armed police and dogs.
John’s home was one of hundreds levelled in one night last October in the first of a wave of demolitions of homes and other structures located close to airports and airbases in Nairobi.
John says there was no official notification, only some leaflets dropped from an unmarked vehicle. His community had thought they were protected by a High Court injunction preventing evictions until a pending court hearing.
Now there were only crumbled walls and piles of rubble. John and his family and hundreds of others were homeless and their children were sleeping in the cold. There were no plans to resettle them.
Over a billion people — one sixth of the world’s population — live in informal settlements; crowded, chaotic places lacking planning and essential services. As urbanisation continues, this will only get worse.
Nearly three out of every four people living in African cities live in informal settlements. Most of them work, pay tax, vote, put their children through school and contribute to the community and the city’s economy just like other residents. Most have no choice but to live in these areas, the only affordable places in the city. Many have lived there for decades.
But people living in these settlements have little of the comfort or security enjoyed by many of their city neighbours. They often have little or no access to water, schools, health clinics or security. And they are often at risk of eviction because they lack legal documentation for the places they live.
Evictions shatter lives: people not only lose their homes, but also their possessions and their community. Many adults can no longer find work, and children are forced out of school. Many are driven into a deepening spiral of destitution and homelessness.
Evictions are often carried out in the name of “beautification”, “development” in advance of large infrastructure projects; or in the name of “safety” or clearing “illegal squatters”. Often it is the very poorest who are worst affected, as if poverty somehow negates the rights that belong to everyone.
All governments have the responsibility to protect and fulfil housing rights. And yet time after time, people are let down by their governments’ failure to develop planning and housing policies that prioritise their needs.
Too often, governments across Africa have acted in violation of international law, flagrantly and sometimes violently. And time after time, it is the poor who have suffered the most. Evictions are a problem, not a solution.
Governments in Africa must do more. They must end evictions and instead prioritise the needs of people living in poverty in their housing and land policies.
And they must actively involve those people who are most affected in developing solutions that help break the vicious cycle of poverty and human rights violations.
This week, political leaders from Africa have the chance to do just that as the fourth African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development takes place in Nairobi to “discuss how urban development can create opportunities and employment, attract investors, and help cities serve as the powerhouses of their countries.”
To help remind them of their obligations, thousands of people in Kenya and other countries in Africa are joining Amnesty International and other organisations in a petition demanding that these ministers propose a declaration on adequate housing to the African Union that is human rights-based and prohibits forced evictions.
Among those who will be watching is John who is now struggling to support his family. The sudden loss of his home and other property has left him deeply in debt. He has had to start again from scratch. He has monthly rent to pay and the belongings destroyed to replace.
He says he is waiting for those responsible to be held to account and do what is necessary to help them rebuild their lives.
Mr Nyang’aya is Amnesty International Kenya Country Director.