February 27, 2019

Wetland Encroachers Demolishing Their Businesses, Homes Themselves Before Government Bulldozers Come

Structure of APABENA, the NGO looking after orphans in Kigali, is demolishing the buildings itself, like hundreds other

Workers wielding hammers and other tools are hard at work. They have been slicing portions of this structure since beginning of February. They must do it fast because of a looming deadline set by government officials.

The workers have been instructed by the owner of the building to salvage building materials that could be kept. They are looking for valuables like tiles and steel rods.

This building is one of more than 7,200 structures located in what government and Parliament have gazetted as wetlands and swamps all across the Kigali. But some of the structures have been here for decades and the owners have valid permits.

Existing laws refer to these sites – stretching as far as the eye can see, as water catchment areas. As result of the depletion that has been going on, when it rains in Kigali, the swamps fill up quickly – causing flooding upstream. 

One particular worst affected area is Nyabugogo stretching all the way past Kinamba – on to Remera. Nyabugogo is more marked as it is the lowest point of Kigali city, and convergence point for thousands of people every day because of the location of the biggest bus park.

Whenever there is a downpour, chaos follows as traffic comes to standstill in Nyabugogo and many roads located near wetlands.

It is this state of affairs that the City of Kigali and the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) wants settled once and for good.  

On January 28, the Mayor Rwakazina Marie Chantal escorted with uniformed police guards and civilian city bureaucrats spent the better part of the day going from compound to another. She delivered personal notices giving owners of the structures in wetlands only two weeks.

REMA head Eng. Coletta Ruhamya, Mayor Rwakazina Chantal and her deputy Busabizwa Parfait Kigali, during the tour of the encroachers

Her directive is clear: do it yourself, pick all the materials you can keep – because when we come, you may lose it all.

A census done on all the structures, some of which have been there for decades, shows that 78% are residential houses. About 10% are commercial structures housing businesses that include warehouses, garages and mini factories. The remaining 3% are duo business-residential such as shops.

When The Chronicles toured the areas targeted by the demolition deadline, it was all grim faces.

In Nyabugogo, we found Paul Muhozi who owns four residential houses. The tenants left already and he was pulling the structures himself to retrieve some of the metals used.

“My dear brother, you cannot imagine how painful it feels to destroy your own houses on which you spent millions,” he said. “My parents lived here and gave me this land as inheritance.” 

Farther away, we find a local non-governmental organization, the Association of Parents for the well-being of Unaccompanied Children (APABENA), has hired workmen to dismantle its buildings in a compound that was built in 1995. It has some dormitories where school-going children sleep.

At the moment, the NGO says it take care of 35 children. As the demolitions take place, the children are not witnessing the action as they are attending boarding schools.

Muhire Bernard, an accountant with the NGO told us they were demolishing the structures to remove some valuables they could use if they find a new place to build.

“The City of Kigali sent us a letter informing us that if we do not demolish ourselves they will do it themselves and we will be required to pay the cost of the exercise. We are doing it ourselves with precaution to salvage anything we can,” said Muhire.

 APABENA claims it spent more than Rwf500m constructing the structures and has catered for more 800 orphans, some of whom have gone on to become useful citizens of the country.

“Some children will be traumatized if they find out their only home is no more,” said Muhire.

However, some are not willing to go without a fight with the authorities. Seruviri Andre, whose house seems in relatively good condition, tells us he will not leave until government finds him an alternative.

The government had given deadline January 27, 2019 to all encroachers carrying out illegal activities on wetlands to have gone.

Demands for some of compensation in cash or new land from Kigali city has been met with angry dismissal.

A survey that was conducted in July last year indicated that 2,078 establishments around the city located in wetlands posed the biggest problem. There is no turning back no matter what it will take, the city says these have to go.   

According to Mayor Rwakazina Marie Chantal, all these identified encroachers have no single document allowing them to construct in those areas which are protected by law.

During her ground tour visiting each of the structures in Nyabugogo, two days after deadline had elapsed, Rwakazina told some owners she encountered as the media watched, that discussion on compensation will be conducted after they have left.

“Some will be compensated if they meet the criteria. Right now, most of them have no permits to have built in these wetlands. If any compensation is to be made, it will follow the law,” she said.

But by press time of this article, not much had changed on the ground. Those demolishing were taking their time, and those resisting were staying put unbothered.

“What we are doing is not destroying peoples’ houses or businesses. Our obligation is to keep them safe and protect the wetlands as well,” says the mayor.

Government says 13 percent of the land area in Kigali must be wetlands – which have been depleted for years.

Wetlands protect biodiversity including reducing the impacts of floods by taking in rainwater, absorbing pollutants and improving water quality, says the city, which claims encroachers are dumping soil, waste and other materials.

The private sector federation told The Chronicles that it has pleaded with the city to give the affected people more time, to which Kigali and the central government have pushed back strongly – reminding anyone trying to oppose the move that many deadlines had been given in previous years. They were ignored.

“Many of the people being moved have bank loans,” said Bapfakurera Robert, chair of the federation. “The demolitions will lead to not only losses for the business people, but also the banks.”

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