Class divide still determines Kenya’s urban development

“One minute I am making tea and the next minute the Cats (Bulldozers) were there. Then it was painful to see my house down”.

In advanced years, veteran of previous evictions and property lost to fire, Mary Mumbi looked weary when recalling events leading up to the eviction of 1,000 people from Mlango Kubwa, Mathare, in 2015. It left a mangled trace of homes: A community levelled to clear the way for one of the EU-funded ‘missing links’ roads. These were intended to ease congestion and improve safety, under the mandate of Kenya Urban Roads Authority.

What right to the city do most of its residents have? And how does this particular story relate to a large and incomplete building quickly developed on the Thika Highway, just where the originally planned version of the road would have emerged, and reportedly belonging to a prominent politician?


The ‘missing links’ programme is integral to a broader infrastructural vision of “creating a sustainable world class living and working environment”, aligned to Vision 2030 and the Nairobi Integrated Plan. Physical infrastructure is regarded as a prerequisite for creating a competitive business environment, and economic growth. It captures our imagination, as forward looking and progressive, seemingly win-win and therefore irresistible. It has as much allure for city planners and political leaders as for those who sit frustrated in traffic every day.


Mathare’s ‘missing link’, from Juja road, cutting through Muratina road and up to Thika superhighway, illustrates a serious challenge — costs and benefits are very uneven: In building the city of tomorrow, who are we doing this for and who is deemed to have a right to that city?

The colonial origins of Nairobi segregated Africans in lower rent areas, beyond formal planning controls, and so deprived of state funded services. Infrastructure and transport, such as trunk roads, were skewed to wealthier parts of the city. As urbanisation rapidly increased, particularly after Independence, official neglect overwhelmed these marginalised areas to render them ‘slums’. Poor infrastructure has arguably always been a particular gap in Nairobi planning, especially characterised by the persistent shortfall in low-cost housing.

Another key issue is more global, and concerns how cities are being shaped. Geographer David Harvey identifies the ‘lopsidedness of urban development along class lines…where there are emergent concentrations of marginalised populations alongside high-modernist urbanisation and consumerism for an increasingly affluent minority. Nairobi’s economy is driven by property prices, rising five-fold between 2007-14. Urban development accommodates the high end — upper class estates and shopping malls. As the city is fitted for the affluent minority, slum areas still are not recognised as an equal and integral part.

When these two cities, of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, collide during infrastructural development projects, we should be asking what legal, policy and rights-based measures can prevent, or, at least, mitigate, disadvantages to the marginalised majority. If an historical problem has been that the grassroots are left out of formal state-led planning, can these safeguards close the gap between elite interests and popular demands for an inclusive right to the city?


Residents should be protected by the Constitution, particularly its progressive provisions for socioeconomic rights, such as housing. Jurisprudence on socio-economic rights is also growing in Kenya. Important cases include Onjuro and others v Attorney General & 5 others(2015) (the ‘Railway case’), whereby residents and NGOs tried to prevent evictions from land beside the railway in Kibera and Mukuru slums. It invoked rights concerning evictions, which the judge recognised as valid, including the chance to find alternative accommodation. But the petitioners were ultimately unsuccessful because he was not satisfied that the authorities had not respected the UN guidelines on evictions.

There are several provisions in the Constitution for participatory action potentially widening accountability. And there is legislation such as the Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Act, 2012. This is supposed to protect people against arbitrary displacement, including because of large-scale development projects. People should be displaced only because of compelling and overriding public interest. As far as possible, this should be only with their “free and informed consent” and there should be “adequate and habitable sites of relocation”.

Mlango Kubwa’s missing link process, however, shows several challenges in protecting rights. There is no good track record of deliberative inclusive processes in slums, because of powerful local actors, notably area chiefs and their intermediaries. At an initial public meeting in 2014, rather than vital information being shared or attempts made to win consent, people were told to ‘make way for the road’. At a follow-up meeting, the area chief vetted, on behalf of the settlement chief, residents who came forward to act as representatives, in effect selecting the local road project committee. Soon after it was formed, residents were labelled ‘squatters’ and their informal status used against them to make eviction easier and restrict claims to those for resettlement only, rather than larger amounts covering compensation. But the use of their ‘illegal’ residence status against them, and the subsequent announcement that all would be evicted and a highly flawed remuneration process, lacking transparency, were all designed to exclude the people.

‘X’s denoting demolition were daubed on some but not other shacks, even if adjacent, causing acute anxiety to Mumbi and hundreds of others. Some were excluded from the count by the administration, which allegedly preferred finding people with title deeds to get a slice of higher payments. Other effects were that some structure owners evicted tenants in order to claim compensation for themselves, thus depriving the genuinely displaced. Anxiety led to anger, as residents continued to be omitted from the payments list, with accusations many were ‘ghost’ claimants. The area MP intervened to quell anger by getting more residents on the list.

A related factor was undoubtedly political. President Uhuru Kenyatta came to this predominantly Kikuyu area of Mathare to open the Outer Ring Road, using it for political capital by claiming to benefit a historically neglected part of the capital and to take, he said, “development to the areas where the majority of Kenyans live”. The local administration used this political connection to apply pressure by telling people it was ‘Uhuru’s project’ and to defuse anger, also threatening to withhold compensation as another means to crush dissent.


The starkest effect of powerful interests marshalled against residents was the controversy surrounding the direction of the road. Some claim they knew nothing about the change until 2014, after enumeration of potential claimants had started. Others were aware that by 2012, there would be a new routing: “We went to the town hall but they were influenced. Rich people can buy everything. The road was diverted into poorer areas,” one resident said.

Residents shared rumours about “that new and prominent building” — Muthaiga Square, a multipurpose office, residence and restaurant complex. Residents say this is what caused the road to zigzag through hundreds of mabati shacks. The road and its original planning was already compromised because as soon as it enters the slum, the width alters, planned pavements and cycle lanes disappear; irregularly acquired buildings and land deflect it.

The real ‘opening up’ of the city through infrastructure appears to be more about the benefit of the better placed and those exploiting land resources in the slums. It is residents who pick up the pieces. As another, who lost several structures without receiving a shilling, shared, “We want to see a developed Mathare but they can’t have a process hurting us and stigmatising us. Just because we are slum people, why assume you can give me Sh15, 000 and then it is okay to send the bulldozers?’ A starting point to stop the damage is to demand greater transparency, monitoring, substantive participation, underpinned by a broader coalition: A genuine right to the city.


The writer is an associate professor at the University of Oslo


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