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NIGER: “The Capital Does Not Only Belong to the Rich”

Ousseini Issa

NIAMEY, Jan 18 2007 (IPS) - The new year is looking much like the old for certain residents of the “Pays-Bas” shantytown in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Four months after seeing their homes demolished in the name of safety and security, they are still waiting for resettlement at an alternative, developed site promised by authorities.

“I am currently living with a neighbour whose home was spared, by chance” said Binta Tchindo, a divorced mother of five. The lack of privacy is terrible, she told IPS. Still, she cannot bring herself to rebuild her own house, as she fears it will only be destroyed again.

Home to more than 5,000 people, Pays-Bas derives its name from the French “bas-fonds”, a term for a slum, according to resident Alpha Seydou. It is located in the south-east of Niamey, on rugged ground along the road to the airport.

Claiming that the take-off and landing of planes made the position of the informal settlement hazardous, municipal officials decided to clear Pays-Bas by means of an operation that began in September, with military assistance.

“Catastrophes must be prevented. It’s for this reason that the residents of Pays-Bas must leave this dangerous zone that they are living in – illegally,” Soumaïla Yahaya, a municipal official, told IPS.

The operation was later postponed while a new living area was sought for residents, but not before violent confrontations had taken place between the inhabitants and security forces that led to about 20 youths from the area being questioned and jailed. Most are now out on bail.

“If we have settled on this site, from which they now want to chase us away, it’s because we are poor. (But) what I know is that the capital does not only belong to the rich; we also have a right to it,” Seydou told IPS.

It’s an argument that Yahaya dismisses: “We cannot continue to tolerate this anarchy consisting of people coming to set up homes without authorisation in vacant areas belonging to local authorities if we want to make a modern capital of Niamey.”

In an ironic twist, expulsion of shanty dwellers may also reflect how their areas are become more desirable places to live.

“Today, as the area (the settlement of Golf) has become up-market, they want to chase us again, chop down the trees and sell plots to wealthier Nigeriens,” said resident Zoubeirou Adamou.

In addition, informal settlements are accused of being security risks.

“These areas are dens of thieves who disturb the sleep of peaceful communities of the capital. The residents who live there did not ask anyone for authorisation before settling; as a result, they will be cleared off,” says Boubacar Ganda, president of the Council of the Niamey Urban Community (Conseil de la communauté urbaine de Niamey) – a body of elected officials.

But, this allegation is queried by Hamadou Boulama Tcherno who directs the Nigerien Social Forum, which has taken to heart the plight of thousands of people who have lived in the slums of Niamey for decades, and who are now being are cleared off or threatened with eviction – often without the offer of alternative places to settle.

He claims that the large majority of residents in Pays-Bas and certain other shanty towns are people who left their villages because of hunger or poverty, in the hope of finding a better life in Niamey, and that they’re not disturbing anyone.

“If rural areas are losing more and more of their youth to urban centres, it’s simply because of the poverty created by neo-liberal policies, which is today much more evident in rural areas than in town.”

According to a study done in 2005 by the National Institute of Statistics (l’Institut national de la statistique), the incidence of poverty at national level in Niger is 62.1 percent in urban areas, against 65.7 percent in rural areas.

Tcherno believes the solution to these problems is through the construction of social housing that the state could rent out to deprived communities at low cost, a suggestion government does not appear to endorse.

“We are in a free market; it is therefore illusory to believe that the state can meet this request,” retorts an official in the Nigerien Ministry of Town Planning, Habitat and Real Estate Registration, in Niamey.

The Nigerien Social Forum unites groups to pursue at national level the goals of the World Social Forum (WSF), which opposes globalisation in its current form. The seventh WSF is about to get underway in Nairobi, Kenya (Jan. 20-25).

Even for those who are allowed to remain in informal settlements, however, the future can be bleak. The slums in Niamey are afflicted by a severe shortage of social services, obliging residents to defecate outdoors.

“This situation exposes them to certain illnesses like cholera,” Illiassou Maïna, a doctor based in the capital, told IPS.

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