The president of Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara, appears to have kept his promise to modernise Abidjan – the country’s economic capital – by restoring stability and calm.
Among the major achievements of his first two terms are the construction of a highway between Abidjan and Grand Bassam, a coastal town in the south-east, and a third bridge over the Ebrié Lagoon, which divides the capital in two. Ouattara has also started the construction of two more bridges, as well as a metro.
Though President Ouattara’s curriculum of new infrastructure seems to inspire dreams of a modern, emergent and growing economy, it is, realistically, only the wealthy who have benefited.
For example, the construction of the highway has freed up space to build a path along a stretch of coastline that will be used for private sports facilities and a heliport – but it has also left 22,000 people homeless.
As you drive through the modern highway that connects Abidjan with the former French colonial capital city of Grand Bassam, it’s hard to believe that 4,000 homes used to stretch across the panoramic ocean view.
Just before the highway, opposite the coastline, is one of Abidjan’s largest suburbs: Adjouffou. About 25,000 residents live in this constantly growing village, right next to the international airport.
On the 8th of January, a 14-year-old boy was found dead in the undercarriage of an Air France jet travelling from Abidjan to Paris. For the government, there was only one explanation: the young man had accessed the runway by crossing a common wall between the air strip and Adjouffou. Authorities had all the excuses they needed to demolish the village, under the pretence of stopping people from illegally accessing the airport. Residents were given a 24-hour notice to leave the neighbourhood.
The verdict wasn’t a surprise; the government had been waiting for a reason to demolish Adjouffou for some time. In 2017, Ivorian authorities announced their intention to expand the airport, starting in 2020, with work scheduled to be completed by 2022.
Many who could not find a place to live within the 24-hour deadline were forced to sell everything they owned – including the roofs over their heads – to raise money, only for the government to later announce that they would postpone the evictions by six months. Not only were schools, businesses and houses in Adjouffou left roofless, but the power and running water had been cut off. Ever since, residents have had to take baths, wash their clothes and drink water from a single well.
Behind the airport, a few miles away from Adjouffou and hardly reachable by car, is a small district called Aéro Canal. This suffered the same fate as its neighbour just a few days later, when, at 5AM, several bulldozers and 80 police officers turned up without prior notice to demolish people’s homes.
There has been some respite since, as the COVID-19 pandemic – coupled with the upcoming presidential election in October – has led to the temporary suspension of all demolitions.
Komara Issif, president of the National Syndicate of Small and Medium Traders of Ivory Coast, used to manage the markets in the Koumassi suburb before it too was demolished. “All of our savings were used to find a new place to live,” he told me. “We don’t have the means to revendicate our rights, we have no rights.”
Issif added: “If you provide compensation to the people, it is comprehensible. But they evicted us as if we were animals.”
As the former market manager finished his sentence, a group of “gros bras” – strongmen rumoured to work for the mayor – arrived. It is common for citizens to fear reprisals if they speak openly about the forced evictions.
In 2020, the Ivory Coast ranked as the third fastest-growing economy in Africa, behind South Sudan and Rwanda. Ever since its independence in 1960, the country has become one of the leading producers of cocoa, coffee and palm oil.
Much of the country’s economic success has been credited to Ouattara, who has benefited from the support of large Chinese companies financing most of his construction plans. When it comes to the forced evictions, he proudly describes them as a way to fight “unhealthy, illegal, anarchic installations” and to “regain public space”.
In 2019, Bruno Koné, Minister of Construction, Housing and Urbanisation, announced that the government would demolish several “precarious districts” in the capital city. Abidjan has about 5 million inhabitants, and 1.2 million of them live in those neighbourhoods. This is roughly a fifth of the population openly being sentenced to homelessness and a deeper level of poverty.
According to United Nations Human Rights Watch, all citizens who are forcibly evicted have the right to adequate housing or remuneration. But too often, basic human rights are violated in these forced evictions.
Most follow the same pattern: at dawn, without notice, bulldozers arrive, and police order people to leave their homes. Sometimes, they use tear gas – and they don’t allow mobile phones or cameras to capture it. Because there are no proper follow-up procedures to reallocate citizens after the demolition, people often return to the area, waiting for answers.
Like Issif, Adama Dramé saw his home and business vanish one morning. He used to be an electrician in the Port-Bouët-Abattoir district, near Abidjan’s largest slaughterhouse. “I can understand that they evict people from one district if they provide compensation and in the following weeks they start a project on the field,” said Dramé, a member of the Collective of the Evicted of the New Abattoir District. “But we still don’t know why we were evicted.”
In 2019, Amnesty International raised concerns about the lack of consultation prior to evictions. “They also fail to provide people with information about the reason for an eviction, adequate notice or legal remedies, or adequate housing options for resettlement,” reads their report.
Unlike other evictions, nothing has been built on top of the ruins of the abattoir district since its demolition in 2018, when almost 6,000 people saw their homes and businesses destroyed.
A group of 16 victims decided to create a collective to ask for answers and proper compensation. Together, they collected testimonies and images of the evictions, such as a house being destroyed while there was an elderly man inside, and how bulldozers continued to demolish the district as a woman gave birth. Since then, animals from the slaughterhouse have occupied the ruins, threatening to make sanitary conditions worse. The municipality did not respond to their report.
Minister of Tourism and Recreation, Siandou Fofana, has promised the government will provide alternative accommodation to 100 of the 429 families affected. Yet residents told me that no such assistance has been provided.
Despite the conditions under which these evictions were carried out, there is hope for the people living around the construction of the fourth bridge linking Abidjan’s largest district of Yopougon to the commercial centre of Plateau, which will require the destruction of 14,000 of the 60,000 houses in the area.
The African Development Bank (AfDB) has reportedly allocated £41 million to be distributed among the population living in the construction area. This project is handled by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC).
“Technically, we settled in an anarchic way,'' said Koné, secretary of the collective for the Boribana District Evictions in Yopougon. “There is no title deed [because] people have been here since long before independence.”
Most people in the Ivory Coast have a “village certificate”, which serves as an unofficial local title deed. Legally, however, this gives them no rights on the land they occupy.
According to Koné, all landlords of the demolished homes have been offered the opportunity to be relocated to a temporary home or receive some sort of monetary compensation, varying from £68 to £4,120. It is unclear, though, whether tenants – who represent 90 percent of the inhabitants – received such offers.
Cissé Adama, a tenant in the district of Boribana, has rented his home since 1985. “I haven’t personally received any remuneration,” he said. “But the house has been paid for.”
Though Adama believes the construction of the bridge is a positive thing, he refuses to leave until he receives financial help. “They said they would give me money, and whenever I receive it, I will go elsewhere.”