Sunday, July 21, 2024
In DepthThe perpetual challenge

The perpetual challenge

Addis Ababa stretches on approximately 52,000 hectares and this is part of the land bank that was established back in 2013. The bank was established to facilitate the lease process overseen by the city cabinet, the highest executive body of the administration. However, acquisitions of plots that are in contradiction with the line map and plots that have been illegally occupied after 2005 have been a source of problem for the administration. Now any construction on these lands will be demolished and the land will be taken away. That is creating anxiety for some illegal settlers, write Tibebeselassie Tigabu and Mihret Aschalew.

For many football fans, the FIFA World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime moment and is eagerly awaited by many. The 2014 World Cup, which was held in Brazil, was no different. Many traveled to Brazil to be at the center of the global footballing showcase.

While the rest of the world was absorbed with the World Cup vibe, poor Brazilians were resorting to mass squatting. Pushed away because of the rise in rent prices, which came after the construction boom in Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of poor Brazilians took matters to their own hands and occupied an abandoned building to make it their home.

That area became an alternative home for hundreds of squatters. Similarly, thousands of homeless families from Sao Paulo moved to a site just two miles from the opening venue of the World Cup.

According the reports, they were bussed to the site by the Landless Workers’ Movement, which said that the occupation aims to highlight the failure of the government and promises to improve social housing.

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By the same token, in the 1990s, some 2,500 squatters in Venezuela occupied a 45-storey skyscraper that was being built by Venezuelan entrepreneur, David Brillembourg, at the heart of the booming financial district of the capital, Caracas.

Squat is not exclusive to South American countries, rather, squatters exist all over the world. They form groups to find houses in abandoned or unoccupied areas. They inhabit land and buildings to escape the worst form of homelessness and disregard obtaining legal permission.

Robert Neuwirth, an American journalist, investigative reporter and author of “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World”, says that there were one billion squatters globally in 2004 and forecasts that there will be two billion squatters by 2030. All over the world homeless people squat but that does not usually end well. And that was what happened in the last couple of weeks in the wereda 12 Bole International Airport area also known as Weregenu. The skirmish came after a government task force started to demolish the homes of the squatters (illegal settlers).

On Wednesday, demolishers were engaged in dismantling roofs of residents. It is not just roofs; houses were without windows and doors exposing the interiors. In one of the houses, a placard that says “Edget Behibret” (Growing Together) was hanging which seems ironic when compared to the actual reality.

Surrounded by her neighbors, a woman, who was carrying a baby on her back, was in shock. She gazed at the people who were going in and out of her house but seems to be confused about the whole situation.

The scene was chaotic. There were those who were in a rush taking their roof and other belongings while others were watching solemnly. The area looks like funeral place. Women—wrapped in their netela—were crying and sobbing. They consoled each other while continuing to cry. Another woman’s eyes were red and puffy. She continuously murmured and sobbed.  Her neighbors asked her what happened by pointing at her eyes and she says “It’s because I haven’t stopped crying for the past few days.”

Everyone was compassionate including a woman whose house was not demolished. She was crying loudly because she cannot bear the thought of separating from her beloved neighbors who she considers are her family. She says that when she was hospitalized for 20 days it was her neighbors who were there for her.

Fences and roofs were destroyed but there were also those who did not move an inch. Passing from house to house, one can observe the sad ambience. A woman who was baking injera in front of her half demolished house was one such scene.

They were all worried. They say that they do not have anywhere else to go to adding that this has been their home for years. Many of them have given up hope but there were others who repeatedly said, “God will not forget us.”

The vast area in the outskirts of Addis Ababa has been home for the settlers; however, most of them do not have the proper documentation or title deeds. Still, there were perplexing stories. For instance, there are those who claim that their houses were legal but ended up being demolished while the demolishers, who faced harsh resistance from members of the community, did nothing to other houses that were constructed in the same period.

Though there were reports of death, Diriba Kuma, Mayor of Addis Ababa, said that the conflicts were intense but there was no death.

Eviction notices are not taken easily even if they are for development purposes. Neighborhoods such as American Gibi are witness to that. So how does the government evict citizens who are considered legal or illegal? What are the procedures and what should the groundwork be before eviction?

“We knew it is illegal but we hoped that one day it will be ours. This was better than the hardship of paying the ever escalating rent prices,” Ayele Degu, a resident of Weregenu area, who has lived there for six years, says

This was also the assumption of many of the illegal settlers in that area. Many of them bought these lands from farmers who had legal ownership of the land. In the past, there were also instances where these illegal settlements eventually became legal settlements.

A father of two, Ayele is a construction worker. His eldest daughter is in grade two while his little one is in kindergarten. This became a home for them after buying the land from a farmer for 8,000 birr.

He initially built a small house and later expanded his plot to build a bigger house. The main house, which rested on the expanded area, has now been demolished but the small house survived the demolition because it had the proper documentation. That is the case across the board. The original small houses were left from being demolished.

Ayele says that basic infrastructures such as water and electricity were not provided. They requested the government for the provision of the services but their case was declined because they were illegal settlers. Despite the government’s refusal to provide them with electricity they illegally extended a power line from neighboring houses. They also share water from a supplier in the neighborhood.

The other resident The Reporter talked to is Tisge Yemane, a mother of three, who moved to this area a year ago. Like many of the residents of Weregenu, she bought a 250 square meters plot for 50 thousand birr from a farmer six years ago and consequently built a home a year later.

Since water and electricity were not available, she rented a 4,000 birr compound around Gerji area where she used the space for her bakery business. However, since rent increased by a thousand birr, she was not able to afford that so she moved to her Weregenu home.

According to Tsige, it was not the first time that the government demolished the houses in the area. Three years ago, many houses were demolished. “We knew it is illegal but we were forced because of the rising rent prices,” Tisge says. “They left us for a couple of years and when we prepared to register for condominium houses they refused. So we assumed our settlement would be legal through time,” she adds.

Through the years, even though the government is engaged in demolishing the houses, the community also tirelessly reconstructs these houses. After demolishing these houses there is no follow up from the government. So the areas will be abandoned and the community will rebuild the houses.

Observers say that this process has actually become a vicious circle of demolishing and rebuilding. Looking at the escalating number of illegal settlers, who build houses and stay there for a couple of years, one would assume that in time their settlement would become legal.

On the other hand, many of these settlers claim that they were organized by local officials to construct gravel roads in the area. According to the settlers, being involved in these projects made them think that it was some sort of acknowledgment by the government but that was not the case.

The Addis Ababa City Administration passed a directive regarding illegal houses built from April 1996 to June 2005. This directive stated that the illegal settlements would be incorporated into the legal framework.

According to the directive, houses that are built in accordance with the master plan would have legal recognition while settlers that do not qualify will be provided with alternative plots.

This justification was made since the government could not alleviate housing problems and also was unable to provide land for construction of houses. The government did not want to waste the efforts of various communities in different parts of the city.

Following this, some 45 thousand households benefited. This was interrupted after the government introduced various housing schemes. Despite the government’s prohibition of occupying land illegally in areas such as Woregenu, Nifas Silk and Kersa Tomka areas, many illegal settlers occupied these areas. It is not only related to illegal settlers; the issue of land, house, and evictions gave rise to other anxieties.

For instance, grievances were heard among the community regarding compensation, the alternative proposed condominium housing, lack of basic infrastructures and other complications.

Many old neighborhoods of Addis are undergoing redevelopment and one of those old neighborhoods is Cazanchis and Mahlet Abebe is one resident who is going to be relocated.

Since her house is a privately-owned one she received her share of compensation a year ago. Though many left the neighborhood she and a few others are still living in the area, which has now become a pile of demolished concrete blocks and garbage and a hideout for delinquents at night.

Living in this risky situation is creating anxiety for Mahlet and her neighbors. So if she received compensation why not leave the place? “We were provided with an alternative plot which is located around Yeka Ayat area. We visited the place but they came up with reasons. They said that there was a mistake in coding and that the place is going to be sold on lease. So it is taking a long period of time,” Mahlet says.

Though she is tired of the bureaucratic red-tape, she has been repeatedly going to the administration offices trying to get a solution.

According to Mahlet, she goes to the appropriate office three times a week but that has not been fruitful. The relocation has affected her in another way as well. “I used to earn some of my income by renting shops,” she says.

Now, the city administration is in the process of clearing 360 hectares of land and Deputy Manager of Urban Renewal, Compensation, Research and Implementation at the City Administration, Girma Birhanu, says that the decision has been made after conducting through discussions with the community. Girma is convinced that the community supports the development. The areas that will be cleared have been allocated for building condominium houses, green areas, health centers, embassies, and other government projects.

In areas such as Yeka, Kirkos, Abuare, Cazanchis, Lideta, Gola Michael, Geja Sefer and American Gibi, mobilization works have already started.

In these areas there are three groups—private owners, kebele house renters and businesses that rent government-owned shops.

According to Girma, the compensation is also being done in line with the regulation. Girma says that starting two years ago 11,000 birr has been given for every kebele house renters and private owners, which they can use for transport purposes.

Additionally, Abate Sitotaw, Deputy Mayor, says that previously there were problems related to relocated communities for development purposes. According to Abate, the government designed a scheme where renters of shops from government and kebele house residents will be provided with condominium housing.

For private house owners they are provided with compensation as per the current market value and a one-year rent expense money. Abate believes that this will make the process smoother.

Though there are complaints from the side of the community, government officials believe they are working to resolve these issues.

Diriba Kuma this week presented a nine-month report to the Addis Ababa City Administration Council and one of the issues that were raised was illegal settlement and why the government was sluggish in resolving the issues.

The mayor responded by saying that an investigation would be conducted as to why the wereda administrations were negligent when illegal constructions were being undertaken. He also added that there will be no negotiations regarding illegally occupied lands. He also said that the administration would take all necessary measures to solve the problem.

Chief Executive of Bole Sub City, Tamrat Asnake, compared the vastness of Weregenu area with Kirkos Sub City and said that it was difficult to control the area.

In addition, Tamrat said lack of logistics is one problem they were facing. Similarly, constructions were being undertaken on weekends, holidays and during election and that according to him was the other hurdle.

The city administration explained that the majority of settlers in this area do not have ID cards. Businesspersons, members of the federal police force, officials in various government offices are involved in illegal occupation of land, the city administration officials say. They also say that people bought 300 square meters plot for as little as 400-500 birr aiming to make a ridiculous amount of profit.

The Addis Ababa City Administration Land Development Management Bureau Administrator, Solomon Haile, says that though demolishment started in Weregenu and Kersa Tomka areas, others will follow on a larger scale. He also reminded the community to support the measures taken by the government. According to Solomon, they faced resistance in Kerasa Tomka.

“The informal economy has proven to be a challenge to restore order,” Diriba says stressing that his administration is working to control the situation.

Ed.’s Note: The names of the residents have been changed as they requested anonymity. Wudineh Zenebe of The Reporter has contributed to this story.

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