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Nairobi, Kibera-Langata Roads Project

Nairobi, Kibera-Langata Roads Project

The beginning of the road

For over 60 years there have been plans to build the Kibera-Langata link road. In 2016, the final go-ahead was given by government. In the meantime the plans for the road have changed over three times. No matter which plan is instated, the road will cut through Kibera, dividing it in two. In response, members of the community have led the resistance agaisnt the project. Yet, the resistance movements are highly divided, making it hard to createa a single voice for the community.

The state of the road

Nairobi, Kibera-Langata Roads Project

A picture of the markers KURA put down forcefully to demarcate the road

For 60 years, different governments have had plans to build the road that would link Ngong road to the Southern bypass. In-between lies the infamous Kibera “slum”. In 2014, the final go-ahead was given by the government. The Kibera-Langata link road is one of the last roads to be completed as part of a city-wide scheme to ease the traffic in the areas surrounding the CBD. The other roads that have already been complete, create a belt shape around the city, acting as a mini-Nairobi ring road. Some of the roads that have been built, have been partially funded by other countries, such as the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. Yet the Kibera-Langata link road is to be fully funded by the Kenyan government. It has been 2 years that the project has started and the construction is still in infancy stage. The Kenyan Urban Roads Authority (KURA), with H. Young as their sub-contractors, have asphalted a fragment of the road, leaving the houses untouched. Nonetheless, the official timeline is that it will be completed within the next year and a half.

The main source of contention concerning the road, is that the plans have changed over the years. When comparing the official KURA plans for the road project and the shape of the road today, it is very clear that the road is not following its intended path. From what I could gather from the inhabitants, there have been at least 3 separate plans for the road, with some claiming even 4. In addition, KURA discloses very little information about the roads project and rarely comes to meet with the affected people. In turn, the affected peoples must source their own information through unclear channels, creating confusion on what the initial road plans were and why they have been changed. However, the confusion created by the KURA also benefits them as it means they can operate without a lot of transparency and accountability.

Re-considering development and the need for the road

Nairobi, Kibera-Langata Roads Project

Kibera, Development Porjects, Infrastructure, Resistance

Today, the effects of the link road are unclear, yet an estimated 3000 people will have to leave the area they currently occupy. On this stretch of land there are a host of different ethnic communities, community based organizations (CBO), religious organizations, and regular inhabitants (both structure owners and tenants). In the eyes of the government and KURA, the people that make up Kibera are not the legitimate owners of the land, no matter how long they have lived there. It is therefore also the fear of many residents, that the government will use violence to evict them in inhumane ways and fail to compensate them for the damages incurred. When asking the KURA how the evictions will unfold, an unclear response was given as to whether any compensation, or sufficient compensation is required. What the KURA did say however, is that this project is a necessity for Kibera. In their eyes, Kibera has remained isolated from the city for too long. This road will “also be for their benefit”, as it will allow fire trucks and ambulances to access Kibera, drainage along the road will improve, businesses will be able to thrive and services can be delivered. This discourse is understandable, there is a serious need to deploy greater services in slum areas. Nevertheless, resiliency discourse is also a way in which we dehumanize and sterilize the opinions surrounding infrastructure projects. The importance we give to resilient neighborhoods, cities and economies is overstated. It is globally accepted as a priority, and consequently puts all other considerations: human cost, democratic procedure, accountability, amongst others, as secondary to the completion of the projects and policies defined and perceived as resilient.

The difficulty of resisting

Resisting projects aimed at “resiliency” is what places many opponents in precarious positions, wrongly targeted as being: anti-development and as part of the opposition parties (in Kenya, resisting is largely associated with the discourse of the Orange Democratic Movement and National Super Alliance). It is also these precarious positions which propagates the lack of trust amongst the opponents of the link road. As mentioned, obtaining information is not always an easy task. Consequently, the diffusion of information is also something that is quite limited, as it might weaken the withholder of that information. This is the case of Peter Nyagesera, a school administrator who is leading a petition against KURA. Peter runs the Egesa school, one of the organizations set to be demolished if the road goes through. Peter and his team of petitioners were one of the first groups that went to court, a move that has bought a considerable amount of time for the rest of the affected community. Subsequently, they were able to get their hands on key information, serving as the main sources of evidence for their case. The initial aim of their court case was to divert the road back to its original path. In recent times, the egesa petitioners have carried out valuation of their properties. This move was done in order to have a clearer idea of what their properties were worth and thus have a stronger bargaining position. The Egesa case set out to be a community wide case, brining on board as many affected people as possible. In 2016 efforts were made by Peter to cooperate with the Nubian community (historic settlers of Kibera) to create a joint case. Yet Peter Nyagesera accuses the Nubian community of having used his information in order to create their own petition. The reason being that the Nubians felt they could mobilize their ancestral claims to the land in Kibera more effectively than the case Egesa was leading.

The latest information concerning the case of the Nubians was that they had negotiated in private with KURA and the government to settle the case. When I visited the KURA offices, I was told that the court had instructed KURA to settle the matter in private. In 2017, president Uhuru Kenyatta had issued a title deed of 288 acres of land in Kibera for the Nubian community. Today, in Kibera, the gossip spreading around is that the Nubian community was presented with two options. Either they accept the title deed and allow a portion of it to go to the road project, or otherwise no title deed and the road will still go through. Besides the deal that was made between KURA, the government and the Nubian community, this case demonstrates how divided the opposition to the road project is, and how subsequently there has been increased distrust between the different factions leading the resistance in Kibera. In response, the Egesa petitioners have now become more private about their affairs. This has drawn its fair share of criticism, with other members of the community saying that Egesa only speaks for its own petitioners, those that have financially contributed to the costs of the court case. This mode of practice is replicated in the way they are currently carrying out the valuation scheme of the properties. The church leaders, organization leaders and structure owners are each valuing the properties of their “constituents”, and if you are not represented, you have to pay individually for your valuation fees. Such methods reflect their modus operandi, meaning that an “average” inhabitant (read tenant) is not directly represented in the Egesa court case, but is represented through his church leader, community organization leader or structure owner. It is a questionable practice, but at the same time, in the face of such tough opposition, one needs to be efficient rather than effective. Nevertheless, the lack of direct representation does mean that many members of the affected community feel disempowered from deciding their own fate

Resistance efficiency versus inclusive representation

So far we have seen that there are three factors that cause division in the way Kibera has led its resistance. The first is the lack of transparency and difficulty of obtaining information, the second is the alternative motives from different factions and the third is the questionable way of operating within resistance structures. However, there have been efforts to ameliorate the coordination between the different struggles. Ben Ooko from Amani project in Kibera, along with a photo journalist and Change Mtaani leader (a CBO in Kibera), and Brian Inganga, have tried to create neutral spaces to convene different represented and unrepresented parties to garner a community wide strategy against the road project. The key decision here was to involve outside parties such as Kenyan National Human Rights Coalition (KNHRC), Amnesty International and the Kibera MP. The reason as to why I label these members as “outside parties” as they are individuals or groups not directly affected by the project. These third parties were brought in to garner more community involvement and empowerment. However, the intended objectives were never attained. Parties involved in these negotiations fear working with others and the negative consequences it could bring, such as betrayal. Others state that these meetings don’t help advance the court cases, as these gatherings usually result in arguments and differing opinions about the strategies used. Furthermore, the involvement of KNHRC and Amnesty International did not last long, as the Egesa team did not trust their involvement and felt that Amnesty International was not keen on supporting the Egesa case the way they wanted to be helped.

A community wide response, and a single court case would probably be the most effective form of resistance, rather than different groups fighting different court battles and settling accounts in different manners. On the other hand, it is surely more efficient to work within small community groups that one trusts and can rely on. An example of a small, and easy to “govern” court case, is an offspring from the Egesa case, where a select group of structure owners have discovered that they are on the property of the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. The Golf Club has a wall surrounding its property, but just beyond the wall, a small piece of land is occupied by some residents of Kibera. This land is going to be demolished when the road passes. The group of structure owners have now created a third court case, where they are demanding advanced title claims. In Kenya, if you squat someone’s land for over ten years without any complaints or demands to leave, you have the right to demand the land from the private owner. This is what a group of structure owners are doing. The third court case is perhaps the “easiest” to win, as they are facing a less important opponent, the golf course rather than the state. If they succeed in obtaining the title deeds of the land, they will be more comfortable in negotiating with the KURA, as the “legal” owners of the land. Nonetheless, this tactic employed by a select few will only be to the benefit of a minority of affected peoples.

The story of the struggle against the Kibera-Langata link road, describes two mutually exclusive dynamics. On the one side, the organizations resisting the road have the need to be efficient and have a group of people that can be trusted in order to create consensus. As a result, resisting groups chose to divide themselves amongst ethnic lines or socio economic lines (structure owners, church leaders and other powerful men of the community). I state this, as I somewhat cynically believe that it is easier to create unity in a group that is “like-minded” and shares the same ultimate objectives, whatever these objectives might be. It is also essential for a resistance movement in these conditions to have local “elites”[1]  on board. These group members find it easier to mobilize resources that serve to create unity and employ expensive tactics and tools of resistance essential to the survival of their cause. More importantly, the local “elites” also have the capacity to extract information from their connections and their social capital will advance them much further in their quest for resistance than their poorer counterparts. On the other hand, we have the very real reality that by organizing their resistance as has been done so far, it will lead to only a handful of people obtaining forms of compensation, relocation or other forms of indemnity.

The actions led by Ben Ooko and Brian Inganga, and more recently Peter Nyagesera (currently in dialogue with Ben to create community wide talks) are essential to try and bring the community together and create a single case that will benefit the majority of the affected people. Having spoken to some residents of Kibera that are not represented by people such as Peter or others, you get the sense of disillusionment. The majority of the inhabitants also feel that they rely on powerful figures such as Brian, Ben and Peter. These community leaders are essential in mobilizing people who would otherwise be unrepresented and easily removable. To do so under one movement would undoubtedly be the fairest solution, but requires the time and plenty of dialogue. We have to always bear in mind that we cannot romanticize what a community represents. Just because a community faces a common problem, does not result in cohesion and a common vision. A community is comprised of people that are from different classes, ethnicities, genders and perform different roles. It is also therefore that it will be extremely difficult to create a single voice for the estimated 3000 affected people of Kibera.


Articles concerning the road project

General articles

  • A great chapter in a book by Sarah Bracke which explains how resiliency discourse silences opposing voices. Bracke, Sarah. “Bouncing Back: Vulnerability and Resistance in Times of Resistance.” Vulnerability in Resistance, edited by Judith Butler et al. 2016, pp. 52-75.

[1]  I use the term elites to represent the people in slum areas that are local leaders, elders and in more financially stable positions than their neighbors. I use the quotation marks around the term elite, as they are by no means the elites in a global perspective.


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