Thousands homeless after demolition in Ivory Coast’s main city

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Dame Touré rushed to quickly gather what she could as bulldozers rolled into her neighborhood in Ivory Coast’s fast-growing economic hub of Abidjan. Her three children joined her, stuffing plastic bags with clothes and whatever other items they could grab, before their home was reduced to rubble as armed security forces looked on.

The Touré home was among hundreds crushed in a February wave of demolitions targeting Abidjan’s underdeveloped areas.

The government says it’s because of public health concerns as the poor areas — built along a lagoon in this port city of 6.3 million on West Africa’s southern coast — suffer deadly floods during the rainy season. More than 300 people have been killed since 2005, and officials say the deluges become breeding grounds for diseases.

“My children and I now sleep under the sun,” said Touré, 50. “We don’t know where to go.”

Demolitions in low-income neighborhoods are nothing new in Abidjan, where rapid urbanization has led to a population boom and housing shortages, with nearly one in five Ivorians residing in the city. It’s a challenge in many parts of Africa where economic woes pushed more people into cities in search of better opportunities, straining an already overstretched infrastructure.

However, the latest Abidjan demolition — mainly in impoverished suburbs in the Gesco and Sebroko districts — is one of the largest in years, with an estimated hundreds of thousands of residents affected since it began in late January. Evicted families and rights groups say that this time, it’s being done without prior notice or compensation.

Analysts say many African governments struggle to manage population explosions in cities and meet growing infrastructure needs. Chimezie Anajama, a policy researcher and founder of Blooming Social Pen development nonprofit, says few administrations have managed to solve the developmental problem.

“There must be a strong commitment by different African governments to come up with creative solutions to address the infrastructure gaps in African cities,” Anajama said.

Local authorities have defended the demolitions, and say relocations of families left homeless to safer areas has started.

Some 35% of Ivorians are poor. Water shortages are a daily curse, with many forced to fetch water from streams for their daily needs. The country has also had to contend with other challenges, such as jihadi attacks that have spread to coastal states in West Africa, including Ivory Coast.

“The aim is to provide a decent … living environment for these people,” the Ivory Coast’s communications minister, Amadou Coulibaly, has said of the demolition campaigns. He claimed in February that some of those evicted in neighborhoods like Boribana are being resettled in at least 1,000 houses built by the government.

Many families, however, remain homeless, stranded in several parts of the city.

The demolitions are being carried out in “a brutal manner … causing disastrous consequences for many families already vulnerable,” the Ivorian League for Human Rights said in a statement. It urged authorities to halt the campaign.

Among those affected by the demolitions were nearly 2,000 schoolchildren of Cha Hélène College in the Yopougon neighborhood, which was reduced to rubble in February.

The school was not informed it would be demolished — neither by the Ivory Coast’s ministry of construction nor the national education ministry, said Sévérin Okpo Abe, the school’s founder. The children were eventually enrolled in other nearby schools.

Most of the evicted residents who are not sleeping out in the open have either relocated to other parts of Ivory Coast or are squatting with residents elsewhere.

“We have been made homeless in our own country,” said Aimée Ouédraogo, a spokesperson for women affected by the forced evictions.

The evictions broke up families and the homeless were scattered across the city, she added. “We no longer have a home, we no longer have our family, we no longer have our children next to us.”

Amid the outrage and protest from the evicted, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara has asked Abidjan’s local authorities to “show solidarity … to preserve cohesion and social peace.”

However, city’s officials say the demolitions are part of a broader project to reconstruct and provide basic amenities in the areas. Plots of land would be leased to those evicted for up to 25 years, for about $16 a month, they say.

On April 8, the government announced it’s started to compensate affected households and that each would get about $405 to support the relocation. In a country where the minimum wage is about $121 a month, some believe it’s not enough to afford the growing cost of housing.

“All displaced people will receive the necessary support for their relocation,” said Belmonde Dogo, the minister in charge of efforts to alleviate poverty.

The Yopougon municipality, mostly of working-class residents, also announced plans to help those affected.

But many like Touré say they were overwhelmed by helplessness watching bulldozers rampage through their neighborhoods.

“I don’t have anyone in Abidjan and I don’t have money to buy a house,” said the mother of three, not knowing how she would go on. “I can’t do it.”

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