Last summer, former Rwandan army soldier Twagiramungu Theoneste returned to his Kigali home and found a red cross daubed on the front wall.
“That was the authorities telling me: ‘Don’t build any more. Don’t change anything about your house. It is going to be demolished soon,'” he told Reuters.
Theoneste was not alone.
Every house in his neighborhood, which tiptoes up the mountainside, was similarly marked with a red cross.
The sign indicates that a house has been deemed dangerous by city authorities so is marked for demolition.
A father of three, Theoneste moved into his one-room, mud and straw house in 2011 after leaving the country’s southern provinces in search of work.
Perched on a steep mountain slope, part of an informal settlement known as Agashubi, the house overlooks a river valley toward the modern city center on a distant hill.
Now his new life is under threat as the city aims to check the growth of informal settlements or bulldoze dangerous ones.
“All of this is illegal,” said Christopher Ndebo Mugaju, an official for Kigali’s slum upgrading program, as he gestured at the hillside settlement. “They built the houses without a permit. We are fighting illegal construction day by day.”
City of challenges
Kigali has one of the most challenging urban environments on Earth: It is wet and crowded, and the hilly terrain makes building precarious, expensive and often dangerous.
The city is also faced with rapid population growth and last year’s census projected that if the current rate of 4 percent continues, the city’s population will triple in six years.
In May, major landslides hit the country, killing dozens of people. Last month, three more people died and hundreds of houses were destroyed when heavy rains paralyzed the capital.
Natural disasters of this kind have become more frequent in recent years as the impact of climate change becomes evident.
The Kigali city master plan, which took inspiration from Singapore and was introduced in 2013, aimed to manage these risks and build an environmentally sustainable city by stipulating that only 35 percent of Kigali’s land would be available for development.
The ambitious plan was praised by urban planners for its focus on sustainable land use, and won several awards, although its strict implementation drew fire from human rights groups.
The city’s steep slopes in particular were singled out for protection, as were its valley wetlands, which were put under the auspices of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority.
“We make sure nobody is encroaching on these areas,” said Coletha Ruhamya, its director general.
The authorities also pledged that by 2040, the city’s numerous informal settlements would be a thing of the past, so the city embarked on a large-scale clearance of slum housing.
Alongside this “massive mobilization,” areas that are deemed safe will be upgraded in an equally comprehensive program, said Fatou Dieye, an urban planner based in Kigali.
This year alone, the Rwanda Housing Authority (RHA) plans to move some 40,000 households across the country.
Whose market rate?
All homeowners are to be offered compensation or relocated.
However, many in Agashubi are suspicious of the plans. Few understood the detail; many question the authorities’ motives.
“They say it is dangerous, but I think it is in the government’s own interests,” said Twahirwa John-Peter, who has rented his house for nine years. “They’ll just put expensive houses here once we’ve gone.”
An Expropriation Bill passed in 2007 set out the principles of fair compensation. Homes and plots were to be valued at market rates and, in 2015, an additional “disturbance” fee of 5 percent was introduced to compensate for any further hardship.
But expropriation remains controversial.
“There is some resistance in the mindset,” said Augustin Kampanya, head of human settlement at the RHA. “People say, ‘Our grandparents lived here, so we want to stay.'”
Residents fear any compensation will not be enough.
“I’m not in a position to say ‘no’ to any amount,” said Mukamugara Josepha, an elderly widow who inherited her home.
“People don’t like to be expropriated by the government, because the government always underpays,” said Dieye, the urban planner.
Confusion over “market rates”, the government’s desire to keep land costs down to encourage investment, and a lack of independent valuers has also contributed to discontent, said a report published by USAID in 2014.
Scarce government finance, too, is an obstacle.
“Money is a big, big deal. The expense will be astronomical,” said Dieye.
The government allocated 4.5 billion Rwandan francs ($5.42 million) in the 2015-2016 fiscal year to help people in high-risk areas across the country.
“It remains a peanut,” said Kampanya.
Limited resources also mean that moderately well-off residents in risky parts of the city will be left to fend for themselves because for now, the demolition process will target the poorest first.
“The government doesn’t have the money to deal with everyone,” said Ndebo Mugaju, the city official. “So we close our eyes and just leave them.”
Nowhere to go
Those with the most to lose from the Kigali master plan, say planning experts, are not landowners but their tenants.
While all of Rwanda’s land is now registered and most has been titled, the majority of slum dwellers rent their homes and enjoy few rights.
Theoneste rents his shack from a man who lives in the north.
When eviction comes, his landlord will be compensated but he and his family will receive nothing.
Theoneste and his fellow tenants in Agashubi said they have nowhere else to go.
“We are jobless. We came here for cheap houses,” said John-Peter. “Now we are going to be thrown out.”