Despair, Hope Over Squatters Housing Rights in Addis Abeba

The land rights of urban citizens is a struggle fought in many cities around the world. With rapidly expanding populations and limited legalised land, informal settlements are more often than not the only option of the vast majority. Addis Abeba is no exception, and recent tactics have led to conflict and even fatalities, as the police and authorities battle squatters. In the midst of this despair, however, there is some hope, with many believing that soon their land will become legal. Differentiating between the 'speculators' and the 'survivors' is, however, crucial reports TESFA MOGESSIE and Nardos YosePh.

On the evening of May 17, 2016, anxious heads of families came together in the field where their children have been playing for about four years on average. It was not to recount their days or discuss some development issue for the area, but rather to collectively decide upon a plan of action for the upcoming D-day.

It had been three days since they all received a notice to leave their homes of five years, as they are illegal. The meeting was concluded with a collective stand – “we are staying”.

“We have all agreed to continue to support our family, even if they call us illegal,” said the chairman of the meeting. “We call it survival.”

That is the message that Esayas Yohannes, the breadwinner of a family of five – two children, his brother and wife – took home.

His 19-year-old brother, Brook, was determined to do what his brother told him. He was among the frontline at a standoff with the police and code enforcers that came to bulldoze the close to 3000 illegal land holdings in the area.

The standoff soon turned violent, with stones flying in the direction of the enforcers, while the police began beating the crowd. The residents ran in different directions to escape harm.

“I wanted to take my family as far away as possible, but could not find my brother,” Esayas said, recounting his experience. “He had a big bruise on his chest, when he came back after two hours.”

That was the first time Brook has been involved in violence over the demolition, since he first arrived three years ago. He grew up in a remote wereda of the Wolayta zone, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region. He was convinced that he would have a better life, as evidenced by his brother, who managed to own a house and run a family after just three years.

He tried to carry out a variety of activities in order to make a living, with the most recent being seller of nuts, or qollo, around taxi stations and in local bars to enjoy with Tella and Tej.

After the violence and standoff subsided, with the police displaying their dominance, Brook came home gasping for air. He had difficulty breathing from the chest pain he was suffering, having been badly beaten by the police.

“I had to see him suffer for three days,” Esayas said, rubbing tears from his cheeks. “We were afraid to take him to the nearby public health centre and the Yerer General Hospital, which is a kilometre away, is too expensive.”

Unfortunately, Brook ultimately succumbed to his injuries and passed away.

Fortune met Esayas sitting in a tent, which had been erected for friends, family and neighbours to mourn their loss.

“The demolition team allowed me to stay for a week, after they found out that I had lost a brother,” he said.

In the meantime, he has been looking for temporary shelter for his family, who will move to the Kotebe-Yeka area.

His two children will be forced to quit school, which was a 30-minute walk from their Weregenu house.

Such a 360 degree turn in the fabric of Esayas’s family is, however, not unique for him.

The surprise and shock were also visible on the faces of other inhabitants, who were busy collecting wood and other materials from the demise of their houses.

Although the demolition of squatters’ shelters falls within the legal framework, the process through which this was conducted was not strictly as the law demands.

The Addis Abeba City Government Code Enforcement Service Regulation No.54/2012 states that the code enforcers, a.k.a Denbs office, has to serve a written notice, informing the squatters to vacate the space.

If the squatters fail to do so, which is usually the case, the case has to be presented to the wereda court, which might decide to order them to pay a 5000 Br penalty for their acts.

Demolition by code enforcers comes as a last resort, and it comes hard.

The law demands that the squatters pay for the logistical aspect of the demolition mission too.

None of the squatters knew about this legal framework.

In one area on the outskirts of Addis Abeba known for its huge population of squatters, commonly called Tsebele Mado in the Kolfe Keranio district, house demolition is a fact of life.

A mother of three, who has lived there for over two years now, however, is surprisingly relaxed at the thought of the Denbs demolishing her temporary shelter.

“I used to have sleepless nights from nightmares of my house being demolished,” she said in a relaxed tone. “Not anymore.”

They changed their house structure in such a way that it is easier to rebuild the next time.

In this area, it is common to see demolition missions at least twice a month.

Other inhabitants, like Hareqe Redwan, are anchoring their hopes on the aerial mapping recently conducted.

“Officials in the district informally informed me that we have a high chance of being regularised into the city structural map soon,” he said, optimistically.

The aerial map is a photograph of the city settlement as it is, taken from an aeroplane. Regularization is a process in which illegal settlements are endorsed into a legal system, if it does not fall under those areas restricted for other social purposes, such as green space and roads.

Over the last two consecutive years, over three hundred thousand  square meters have been regularized by the city government, and more are expected to follow suit. This is so long as they fall under the regularisation regulation, 18/2014, issued last year.

Land holding in urban settings, particularly in the capital, is one of the unsettling transitionary phenomena that has led to sporadic violence, and at times larger public protests.

The recent public protest in the special Oromia Zone was a case in point.

The ever expanding borders of the city into special zones – a not well defined category – has resulted in recent protests. Making this more complicated still are the ‘illegal settlements’ rampant in these areas.

“We know that the government will come and relocate us anytime soon,” an elder, sitting in his fields adjacent to a G+2 residential building, said. “All of this was our land, which the government gave away.”

The man explained this when interviewed a few months back on the outskirts of the city. It is this attitude that opened a door for a relatively cheaper informal market.

Others, who cannot afford to buy these low-priced plots, opted for a free option, such as deforestation.

The Keranio settlers, who came from their localities to the capital, heard it from their neighbours who had gone back to visit their parents in the rural areas.

Alemayehu Legesse, a squatter and daily labourer, has some friends who came to Addis earlier and, in 2006, had their living areas regularized.

He is determined to wait for his chance.

His friends, whose land has been legalized, have immediately sold their plots and now have a decent life, in his view.

Lawyers and rights activists, who see housing as a fundamental right, have different outlooks about what takes place in the city.

Such rights – categorized as social and economic rights, under basic human rights – are usually fluid, and have to be considered within a certain context.

“The right to housing is not an absolute right that every citizen asks for, as if the government is a duty bearer,” a human rights lawyer active in the discourse told Fortune, on grounds of anonymity.

Where he sees the issue being problematic is in the discrimination.

“If one simply invokes a constitutional right, it would not go far,” he says, articulating the problem. “But if a citizen makes a claim based on a government practice that favours some and rejects others, then they may have a legitimate question.”

His hypothesis resonates with many squatters that maintain hope, referring to others like them who have previously been regularised, as Alemayehu and others claim.

An urban planner, who has conducted in-depth research on Addis Abeba’s settlement-related socio–economic rights, differs.

He insists on the strict implementation of the constitutional right to housing.

The academic line of argument he follows pushes for the right to be exercised with all its components.

“It is the government’s obligation to guarantee that everyone can exercise this right to live in security, peace, and dignity,” he says. “This right must be provided to all persons, irrespective of income or access to economic resources.”

If such principles are followed, the investments of people like Esayas and Alemayehu have to be protected.

The urban planner also argues that the government has to make a distinction, and categorises the squatters into two – speculators and survivors.

The first group represents those squatters who occupy land in anticipation of manipulating the gaps in the land holding system. These are informed people, usually with inside information of possible moves by the administration or local authorities.

“My husband is a businessman, which is why we decided to move to this new wereda,” a squatter living in a fenced area, close to 400sqm compound, told Fortune, asking for her name to be withheld.

Now expanding on their business idea, they have built four more shops to let, from which they collect 4000Br a month.

Hanamariam, in the Nifas Silk Lafto district, is known for such a form of squatting. Houses are different from those that Esayas and Alemayehu had, and here they choose to be squatters in order to make a better life for themselves.

“It is these kinds of settlements that the government has to target,” the urban planner argues strongly.

On the contrary, however, data from the district office indicates that the highest number of regularised holdings takes place in this district. There is also a plan to double the number next year, as the requests are piling up in the office.

The City Administration has received close to 50,000 applications for regularisation over the last two years.

So far, only 6000 have been legitimised, but the process is set to continue, the administrations report indicates.

Different modalities have also been employed to resolve the issue. The Burayu city administration, for example, had informed Alemayehu and his friends to form an association in order to accelerate regularisation.

“We were advised to form a small and micro enterprise (SME) and ask for land to live and work on as a package,” the coordinator and contact person of some squatters acting on these grounds told Fortune.

Two-hundred households have come together under two associations, Tabor and Mebreq. They have resisted starting an urban farming business simply for the sake of regularisation, however.

They are still negotiating for a formal endorsement as land holders without being farmers.

“We are asking for our rights and demand then without any precondition,” they argue.

The district puts a 2500Br/sqm tag on leasing land. They were asked to pay this in order to be legal holders.

This puts the price of the land they so far occupy – 65sqm to 165sqm – at approximately 157,000 Br to 400,000 Br.

“It’s a joke that we are asked to pay this much,” one member of Mebreq said sarcastically.

Yerasework Admaissie (PhD), a researcher on the issue, agrees that the system is somewhat flawed.

“It is complicated and no ‘one form fits all’ solution can be found,” he said, after thorough research on the area for over a decade.

Illegal settlements, a social ill of cities, are not unique to Addis Abeba or any other emerging urban setting.

Kenya is one of the worst hit countries for the issue. Close to 400,000ha of land has been deforested over the past twenty years.

Upgrading the status of what is called regularisation is the common approach cities adopt to deal with the problem.

Yerasework, however, sees this alternative as an uphill struggle for the administration.

“The houses are not proper houses, with proper sewerage,” said the lecturer. “If such houses are considered legitimate, the city will lose its status.”

Nevertheless, he believes the root of the chaos and deja vu demolition and resettlement is the lack of sustainable and clear land policies.

“It is an area that the administration has left dwindling for so long,” Yeraswork opined. “It has become an incubator for corruption and loss of property.”

The efforts are relentless and multi-layered.

The Land Bank was established by the Cabinet two years ago. The office was mandated to compile detailed data on 52,000ha of land, but has managed to reclaim just 297ha for redevelopment in the inner-circle of the city. At the same time, it has provided only 85ha in the periphery in exchange.


By TESFA MOGESSIE and Nardos YosePh.
Fortune Stuff Writer

Published on Jun 07,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 840]



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