Guest Post: “We are digitalising our campaign”

The following post was kindly provided by Richard Wilson, Trusts and Corporate Fundraising Officer, at Amnesty International UK

With support from the Indigo Trust, Amnesty activists in Kenya have launched a unique online project aimed at stopping a spate of violent illegal evictions that has seen thousands of families forced onto the streets and homes destroyed. The “Furushwa” website (www.furushwa.co.ke) will serve as an emergency alert system, enabling Kenyans to mobilise housing rights activists via a simple text message when an illegal eviction is threatened or underway. It will also systematically map and document the attacks, increasing pressure on the Kenyan government to implement long-promised reforms to protect housing rights and end the violence.

A few weeks ago I was in Nairobi for a training workshop with the activists using the new system (expertly delivered by Akira Chix, the Kenyan company who built the website). I was keen to learn more about the situation for housing rights campaigners in Kenya and the difference that Furushwa will make to their work.

Kenya has a vibrant activist community, buoyed by a new constitution, enacted in 2010, which gives robust protections for basic human rights. Local activists were instrumental in ensuring that housing rights were explicitly protected in that constitution, and are now working to ensure that the rights guaranteed on paper are realised in practice. Recent successes for Kenya’s housing activists include persuading the World Bank to reform a major development project that had threatened to make thousands homeless, and repeatedly winning court cases on behalf of those illegally threatened with eviction.

But the speed with which an illegal eviction can happen means that by the time campaigners are alerted, it is often too late to act. Time is critical in stopping violent evictions, and this is where Furushwa could help make a decisive difference.

“We are digitalising our campaign”, one Nairobi activist told me, explaining how the online system will speed up the ability of activists to mobilise their networks and secure legal support in the crucial hours before a planned demolition.

Speaking to some of those on the front line in the struggle for basic housing rights I got a clearer sense of the human reality that the phrase “forced eviction” barely comes close to capturing.

In Kenya, I was told, it is possible to be thrown onto the streets and see your home destroyed, even when you are legally fully entitled to live there. With property at a premium and corruption endemic, those seeking to appropriate land can go to extraordinary lengths – from paying local officials for false documentation to hiring armed “goons” to enforce the claim on their behalf. In other cases, a family may have paid money in good faith to buy their home, only to learn much later that the person who sold it to them was not the rightful owner.

International law requires that such property disputes should be settled in court through legal argument, not through violence on the streets. But in Nairobi, those carrying out illegal evictions will often show up in the middle of the night, with little or no warning, precisely to ensure that the family being forced from their home are unable to make their case in court before their home is demolished.

What I’d missed until now was the sheer brutality that can accompany such evictions. As if forcing people from their homes in the middle of the night wasn’t cruel enough, those carrying out such attacks will also often set fire to the house to make doubly sure that the family cannot return. I heard horrific stories of children being killed after their home had been set alight, of families being viciously beaten by the thugs who had been hired to evict them, and of people losing not only the roof over their head but the possessions that allowed them to support themselves economically. One activist told me of how his business, gathering and recycling waste paper from the streets of Nairobi, had been wiped out overnight when his premises were destroyed in an illegal eviction.

But amid all the challenges, what struck me most was the courage and determination of those seeking to end the abuses being committed within their communities. One slum resident told me of the death threats she had received after supporting two families in pursuing legal redress against a powerful local businessman who had forced them from their homes. “I will only go to the morgue once”, she told him. “But if you kill me, many others will follow in my place”. Another activist spoke with pride of how she had won a housing rights case in court against the country’s notorious former President, the once all-powerful Daniel Arap Moi, and of how she was helping to organise a protest that would mobilise 30,000 slum residents on the streets of Nairobi to press for reform.

One thing that could make a significant difference, activists say, is the passing of a new law, the Eviction and Resettlement Bill, which aims to bring Kenyan housing policy into line with international best practice. After a long and determined campaign, the Bill has been tabled in Kenya’s Parliament, but there is still a long way to go before it reaches the statute book, and supporting local activists in their campaigning on this is a key focus of Amnesty’s work Kenya.

Another important factor is international pressure – and this is where we think that the Furushwa website can play a particularly valuable role. In 2010 a global Amnesty campaign action helped prevent a threatened mass-eviction that put 50,000 Nairobi slum residents at risk, and the Kenyan government has been responsive in a number of other cases. As the Furushwa website develops, it will help Amnesty to highlight the scale of the violent evictions taking place in Nairobi and mobilise people around the world to take action.

For now, though, Amnesty’s focus is on spreading the word within Nairobi about Furushwa and supporting the activists we have trained as they begin to make use of it. There was a palpable excitement among the people I spoke to about this project, and I am looking forward to seeing how it develops.