There are hot questions regarding the recent fire that gutted Kijiji Slums in Lang’ata, Nairobi: Was the fire caused by arson or a plain land grabbing ploy?
The over 6, 000 residents who lost homes and livelihoods in the January 28 evening fire have no answers yet, but claims are rife that it was an intentional tragedy to push them out and pave way for private developers.
Attempts to evict them have been raging for the last four decades with the recent fire the most callous. It left six dead and properties worth millions destroyed, besides the countless landlords who are still servicing bank loans.
Cyrus Gachoki, a resident, told The Nairobian arson is high on the list of possible causes.
“After the fire broke out from the upper side, we pulled down some houses to create a gap to stop it but another one broke out on the lower side behind us. This was definitely a case of arson. We get piped water every Sunday but on the fateful day we missed. Why? Fire fighters’ response revealed a lot. Who is behind this and what was the motive?” he posed.
Residents also told The Nairobian that the section which was not gutted was also being targeted. “We are spending nights out because since that tragic day, we have been receiving warnings of another fire. Unidentified people have been raising false fire alarms at night,” lamented a resident who identified herself as Eunice.
The purported forcible eviction of those living in Kijiji dates back to the mid-1970s, years after people settled there when Lang’ata was a vast, uninhabited bushy land. An Asian who said he was bona-fide owner of the 10-acre piece of land ordered inhabitants to vacate but they moved to court in 1976 on grounds that they had stayed there long enough to deserve occupancy.
Michael Gikonyo, a landlord at Kijiji for over 30 years, said the Asian who was influential in the first two governments was unable to bulldoze the residents and instead asked them to buy the land from him for Sh150 million after a group of private developers tried to grab it.
“We had agreed to his idea and since then no one has ever claimed ownership of it save for an incident in 1996 when a private developer flattened our houses. But when we protested, we never heard of him again. We were waiting for that Asian (now deceased) or his children to give us an ultimatum to vacate after a specified time but we learnt he acquired it illegally and government had repossessed it,” explained Gikonyo.
Kijiji slums is surrounded by the state-built Rubia estate, Onyonka estate, Civil Servants estate, Southland estate and privately-owned Park 1 & 2 estates. The slum stands at space that was meant for Phase Three of Park estate.
Mary Wachui, 74, who owned six rental houses in Kijiji, claims the fire was not accidental but a ploy to eject them from the place by an individual or individuals. She says she has experienced seven fire incidents in Kijiji but the recent one was mysterious.
“This was calculated. Some people were sent to torch our houses. It is improbable how we subdued the fire in some areas only for it to explode minutes later unless some people crept back to ignite it” Wachui claims.
An icy relationship between the slum dwellers and immediate estate residents who blame Kijiji for drugs, prostitution and crime has apparently fueled the tussle. Some residents took to social media to support the eviction.
Jackline Kimeto, a resident posted; “All Lang’ata residents have been trying to get rid of this Kijiji slum for years. From nowhere it grew in the middle of estates bringing crime and drugs which have affected Lang’ata children especially young teen boys. I say let it burn down and the area be fenced off”
Two days after Deputy President William Ruto visited the victims on January 29 and promised Sh70 million to rebuild the slum, Area MP Nixon Korir told victims not to link him with an alleged ploy to grab the land, fueling speculations.
Already some tenants have vowed to decline a decision by government to rebuild their houses saying it will create an avenue to eventually push them out or trigger clashes with tenants who want to have their houses there.
More apprehension has been triggered by presence of armed police officers guarding National Youth Service personnel using two bulldozers to clear the rubble.
“Our wish is re-built our houses and the government should only assist us with building materials and compensate tenants by helping them to buy new household goods” said a landlord identified as Ogeto.