Kisumu traders displaced for the Africities Summit

As preparations begin for the massive event being sold to Kenyans as a way to revive the ailing economy, the government is forcibly removing traders to ‘beautify’ the city.

Kenya’s port city of Kisumu will host the ninth Africities Summit, a four-day pan-African event, which will be held from 16 to 20  November. It is anticipated that it will not only help resuscitate the city’s economy, which is still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus, but also aid in healing its deep political wounds.

The reality on the ground, however, is very different. Small-scale traders, who haven’t recovered from the financial blow of the pandemic, have been hit hard by the government’s programme to beautify the city, which holds aesthetics above livelihoods. 

Nonetheless, those in power insist the summit will benefit traders. Atieno Atieno, Kisumu county communications director, told CGTN Africa: “There are many investment opportunities for the people living in Kisumu [including] accommodation [for] anybody in the conference. Service providers will get an opportunity.” 

An estimated 10 000 guests, including exhibitors from across Africa and beyond, are expected to descend upon Kenya’s third-largest city. Touted as the largest democratic gathering in Africa, Africities is a brainchild of United Cities and Local Governments of Africa. It focuses on the need for the continent to learn about, promote and present a new approach to sustainable development and is premised on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

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For Kisumu, Africities is part of the goodies emerging from a peace deal, known as the Building Bridges Initiative or simply “the handshake”, brokered between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his nemesis Raila Odinga in the wake of the 2017 disputed presidential election, which saw chaos and killings, including in Kisumu.

Thanks to the handshake, Kenyatta, who was once an enemy in these parts, is now received with open arms when he visits the city strongly associated with Kenya’s opposition politics.

This will be the second time Kenya is hosting the summit after Nairobi, the country’s capital, staged the fourth edition in 2006. But Kisumu’s version is getting more attention, with President Kenyatta a constant figure in the city as he personally inspects various projects geared towards making the summit a success.

Infrastructural projects include construction of the summit’s venue, a 30 000-capacity stadium; rehabilitation of the port of Kisumu, a once vibrant shipping hub serving the entire East African region; and expansion of Kisumu International Airport, which is already complete. As the county government races against time to give the city an overall facelift, Kenyans’ lives are being disrupted in ways they never imagined.

Aesthetics over livelihoods 

Branded “Cabronomics” by naysayers, the city’s beautification programme has seen makeshift business structures razed to make way for a non-motorised transport system (for walkways and cycling), recreational parks and modern markets. 

Sitting under the scorching equatorial sun with a large umbrella, Lawrence Ongoma sells groceries on the muddy surface of an open-air, temporary market just outside Moi Stadium, a short distance from Kisumu city.

Ongoma is among hundreds of traders evicted from the nearby Kibuye Market – one of Africa’s largest open-air markets – so it could be renovated at a cost of $5 million. He is pondering what’s next for him and his fellow traders who have endured terrible hardships since their shops were dismantled months ago.

At Kibuye, the father of two, who is in his early 30s, rented a shop for around $35 a month for his wholesale business. Over the years, he had built a reliable chain of retailers to sustain his trade. 

 “I’ve lost my distribution chain since my customers were evicted and most of them are yet to resume business or have moved to other towns. This has badly affected my sales volumes,” says Ongoma. 

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But some good has come from the change in his circumstances: “We used to pay rent to ‘cartels’ who overcharged us and were never accountable to the county government. Here we don’t pay rent, and I’m sure when the renovation work is done and we move back, the county government will charge a reasonable fee for stalls.”

A few metres away Stella Marris is selling clothes while looking after her six-month-old baby. Not long ago she sold food supplements at a shop in the city until one morning bulldozers destroyed it. They were told the building sat on government land not prioritised for traders.

Marris represents traders moved from the city centre and its surroundings. The authorities declared the temporary structures the traders built after their evictions illegal. 

“They don’t mind that we just moved here just the other day and lost customers in the process. Neither do they mind that we’re undergoing tough economic times. They are careless. All they demand are taxes,” says Marris. 

The government’s spin 

Despite all of this, Kisumu county governor Peter Anyang Nyong’o is positive the government’s resettling plan will benefit affected traders. 

In an interview with the Standard Newspaper, Nyong’o said the government has built a trading centre with 10 000 small units complete with modern amenities. It is also erecting modern market stalls and replacing makeshift structures.

“The new units will take care of traders displaced by the recent demolitions to pave way for the new Kisumu port and other infrastructural developments on course,” Nyong’o said. “We [will construct] a further 1 000 units under phase two of the project once we are done with the construction of the 10 000 units.”

Traders’ patience is running out, but a recent attempt to protest in the city to stop further demolitions and agitate for speedy resettlement was foiled after the area police chief declined to grant the organisers a permit, declaring it illegal. The traders are unhappy that the demolitions preceded any attempts to resettle them.  

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The new-found close working relationship between Kenyatta and Odinga – and by extension Nyong’o, a close friend of Odinga and the secretary general of his party, Orange Democratic Movement – means that not many people in the county are critical of these changes. 

Odinga’s support in the region, which has stood by him throughout his chequered political career, is near fanatical. His word is generally considered law, except in a few instances, and those he anoints seldom fail in elections, while those who oppose him dig their political graves.

Nyong’o has also launched a media campaign, especially on social media, with an aim of portraying himself as someone who performs. Under the slogan “tich tire”, a local phrase meaning “work is going on”, his media team highlights gains and responds to critics.

With dissenting voices slowly fizzing out, the county government now holds the yam and the knife. Whether it will honour its word and expeditiously relocate traders in time for the summit remains to be seen.

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