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Friday, 7 December, 2001, 15:59 GMT
Kenya's slum war
Kibera residents flee violence
Kibera matters now elections are approaching
By Tom McKinley in Nairobi

This week Nairobi bore witness to the most horrific violence it has seen in years.

Fighting broke out, early on Tuesday morning, in Nairobi's largest slum, Kibera.

Police in Kibera
Police spent two days quelling violence
Gangs of tenants, armed with machetes and clubs, clashed with landlords over a disagreement in rent.

This "disagreement" resulted in as many as 12 deaths, hundreds of wounded and an estimated 100 rapes.

Ominously, the violence had also taken on a tribal dimension.

The majority of tenants are Luo, whilst their counterparts are of Sudanese descent.

By Wednesday afternoon, when the police managed to gain some control of the situation, scores of houses had been burnt to the ground and thousands of people had been displaced.

Who's to blame?

But why did a rent dispute, that has always been a subject of hot debate, boil over?

Fleeing Kibera resident
Many fled the violence and are refusing to return
Kenya's opposition MP's have blamed the President, Daniel Arap Moi.

On the face of it, this might seem unfair. However they do have a strong argument.

In October, Moi incited Kibera's tenants when he told them that they were paying too much rent. On Monday his cabinet minster, Raila Odinga, repeated these remarks.

He told Kibera's tenants that their homes were on government land and that, therefore, the landlords had no right to charge so much rent.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Minister Odinga took this line.

He is, like the majority of tenants, a Luo and Kibera holds ripe voting potential.

So, without any discussion, he instructed the landlords to decrease their rent by 50%.

Predictably, they refused.

Although they do not own the land they argue that they were allocated the land at the beginning of the century and that they built the houses on it.

So, when one of them went to collect his rent on Monday night, his tenants wouldn't pay. A squabble erupted into widespread fighting.

Size matters

Kibera is one of the largest slums in Africa with over 700,000 people living in an area of only four square kilometres.

Burning Kibera house
The fighting took on an ethnic dimension

Originally it was much larger.

During World War I, Kibera was allocated as temporary residence to Nubian soldiers from the Kings African Rifles.

At that time Kibera stretched over a much larger area.

Over the years, huge swathes of land have been taken over by the government to build new housing estates.

Ironically, those living in the slums have not benefited from any of this modernisation.

They have been crammed into smaller and smaller areas and government investment in Kibera remains minimal.

To put this in perspective, almost 750,000 people have to share 600 toilets.

As a result one is warned to beware of "flying toilets" in Kibera - plastic bags are used as toilets and then thrown as far away as possible. Poverty and Disease are rife.

Why then, have Moi and his government taken a sudden interest in Kibera? The answer, according to opposition MPs, is simple:


Multi-party elections are around the corner and Moi wants his party to get the "popular" vote.

With so many people living in Kibera it's not surprising that it's been targeted.

But, if President Moi is playing the dangerous game of populism, it may have backfired.

One opposition MP called on the president "to put out the fire he started".

In Thursday's parliamentary session, there were calls for him to retract his statements on rent.

Indeed, now that the issue has caused so much violence, many of Kibera's residents share this sentiment.

One displaced Luo tenant, asked me: "Why has President Moi just said these things and then left without organising an agreement - it would have been better if he'd said nothing at all."

Negotiations on the rent, which started somewhat belatedly, are now deadlocked.

Landlords have said that they will settle on a 20% cut.

However, Minister Odinga and his fellow tribesmen, the tenants, are still demanding a 50% cut.

Without a solid agreement, Kibera's displaced are refusing to return to the slums, for fear of another wave of violence.

See also:

06 Dec 01 | Africa
'Hundreds raped' in Kenya clashes
04 Dec 01 | Africa
Brutal killings in Nairobi slum
01 Dec 00 | Africa
More unrest in Nairobi
08 Aug 01 | Africa
New Nairobi mayor
18 Aug 00 | Africa
Nairobi's taps run dry
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