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Safari Ants

In many parts of Africa, urban development is often anti-poor. In support of local and international capital, urban governments condemn and demolish property owned by impoverished people, pushing them into misery. The residents of Gulu Municipality in northern Uganda have come together to resist eviction meant to pave way for “modernization” of the city.

Gulu Municipal Council gave Gulu property owners a 14-day demolition notice in the name of urban development. Grass-thatched houses, shipping containers that are converted into metal lockup shops, and other structures where people live and work were painted with a red ´X´, marking them as condemned.  If residents could not sell the property within 14 days, it would be demolished at their expense.  Does the municipality want to demolish homes of mostly impoverished residents, who can’t afford to immediately meet municipality standards, as part of a gentrifying project? 

The lives of many of these residents are difficult:  the average fruit vendor struggles to make ends meet. They are often strapped for cash to afford important school fees so their children can receive an education to increase their chances of becoming successful in life; and selling items in kiosks can be a precarious livelihood. Despite the hardships, there is time for things like playing in brass bands for local radio stations and giving live performances; dancing to Acholi traditional and gospel music in market places on Sunday morning as they trade mangoes, pineapples, and potatoes; and enjoying the company of friends for lunch in grass-thatched mud huts which remain cool even when clay stoves are cooking cassava, mixed greens and delicious meat stews. 

A Gulu resident explained that grass-thatched houses are used by people in Gulu (and throughout Uganda) not only because they are more affordable to build but because the grass roof naturally cools the house.  A person can live comfortably in Gulu’s heat, which has an average annual temperature of 36 degrees Celsius, without having to pay for a fan or air-conditioning unit.  But people living in grass-thatched houses are especially vulnerable when it comes to the demolitions.  “The government,” says the same woman, offers “small” compensation for the demolition, but “doesn’t pay for your plot . . . it only pays [for] the grass-thatched houses”.  Property owners who live in burnt brick houses can save some money by moving the bricks and roof to another location before demolition.  However, poorer property owners living in grass-thatched mud brick houses “can’t move the bricks or the roof” so there is no way to save any building materials for a new house. 

Many property owners held a meeting in February where they formed the Gulu Municipality Property Owners Association (GMPOA). One of nine chairpersons of the organization, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls how they wanted to “spearhead and lead” an organization that confronts the issues facing residents of Gulu, and which “embraces all the people who are affected by the demolition.” The Association has taken Gulu Municipal Council to court. The case will be heard on this Friday, 19 May.

The association and their advocate argue that the condemnation, demolition and eviction of over 1,600 families is violating both the principles of natural justice, which gives aggrieved persons the right to a fair hearing before the condemnation, demolition, and eviction is carried out, and Article 26 of the Constitution, which establishes the right to own property.

The ssociation’s advocate, Tony Kitara, pointed out that, historically, the municipality kept expanding itself into places which were originally designated villages and not under the control of the Municipal Council.  This meant that rules of property ownership have changed for villagers over time.

The Municipal Council already gave trading licenses to the lockup shops for the last financial year and assessed them for the coming year, before issuing them a demolition notice. Kitara argues that:

“Then why are you collecting revenue from them? You can’t come with one hand and collect revenue and with the second hand to push away the business. You are killing that person. We are just recovering from decades of war.  There are people who are displaced from the villages and are settled here.  They are slowly and gradually trying to find their way back to their villages.  They have students, children, who are studying here.  The parents cannot just move and leave children of only seven, ten, eighteen years, you know, on their own in town.”

The average family in Uganda has over six children. One local argued that families “can’t afford six children” in a village and would “leave their children in the city”, which may potentially increase crime levels in Gulu.  Though there was never a straight answer, some residents referenced “slums” as a place families would live in after being evicted.

But why the push to condemn houses and places of business now?  Gulu is earmarked to become a strategic city in the next year, according to the National Development Plan II. This means the municipality is set to receive more funds from the central government.

A resident of Gulu commented that, “They want to exploit poor people and bring in that [which] you might see in . . . USA or London.”  Another local, who lives in a grass-thatched house, said the government stigmatizes houses made of mud brick (grass-thatched), rather than burnt brick, claiming they “dirty the city” and need to be hidden from visitors and tourists so the city looks “urban and developed” for “aid organizations, urbanization groups, or other wealthy groups who live in permanent [brick and mortar] houses.”

One common story that kept emerging from residents, advocate Kitara and chairperson Odoki is that foreign and wealthy groups were investing in Gulu through the government, rather than conducting business transactions directly with local people. 

Aid groups, development organizations, and business people invest in Gulu Municipality, which banishes poor people from town.  However, residents also spoke of neighboring Amuru District’s mothers, who undressed in protest against wealthy investors planning with the state to build a sugarcane plantation on their land, as an instance where poor residents stood up to the government.

Gulu’s situation is not unique to Africa.  Urban development as an anti-poor project is occurring in many cities, funded by local and international capital and supported by government.  For example, a Guardian article written in April 2017 showed elites expanding their enclaves through governmental violence used to demolish and evict impoverished communities in Lagos, Nigeria.  The enclaves were praised by Nigeria’s government as signs of “development.”  A June 2016 Daily Maverick article described wealthy investors in Cape Town, South Africa, grabbing property in the course of a “development boom” made possible through the forced relocation of predominantly impoverished, Black and Coloured communities.  The local state supported investors.  Some South Africans questioned: “development for whom?”  In a “developing” section of road connecting Malindi town to Garsen town in Tana River County in northeastern Kenya, residents showed Xs painted on condemned poor roadside property.  When asked what happens to poor people after the demolition, one Kenyan answered, “They vanish.”

One of GMPOA’s chairpersons commented, “They are looking at Gulu becoming a city.  A city for who?”

* Aran Valente is from North Kingstown, Rhode Island, USA.  He has a degree in political science from the University of Rhode Island.  Aran taught Social Studies and Library Studies for two years at the Kabale-Bukinda Primary Teachers' College in Bukinda Subcounty, Kabale District, Uganda.



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