Development environment

7 December 2016 | Romola Adeola

What does development-caused displacement look like in Africa?

While internal displacement caused by conflict and disasters in Africa has been reported fairly constantly in the international media, development-based internal displacement in the continent is yet to gain such prominence. Guest blogger Dr Romola Adeola explores the prevalence of this root cause of internal displacement in Africa and why it has largely gone unnoticed in discussions on humanitarian protection by regional and international agencies.


Displaced people go through their demolished homes in Badia East, Lagos, Nigeria. 
Photo: Andrew Maki

Every year on 6 December, the African Union comes together to celebrate the anniversary of the Kampala Convention, which came into force in 2012 following acknowledgement of the need to address internal displacement. The convention is the world’s first continental instrument that legally binds governments to protect the rights and wellbeing of internally displaced people, forced to flee their homes by conflict, violence, disasters and development projects. This week also marks the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Development by the UN General Assembly.  These anniversaries give cause for reflection on the state of development-based displacement in Africa.

Multiple causes of displacement

While conflict and disasters in Africa have been reported fairly constantly in the international media, development-based internal displacement in Africa is yet to gain such prominence. Development-based displacement is the forced uprooting, removal, evacuation or movement of individuals and communities from their homes or place of habitual residence to make way for a development project domestically or internationally orchestrated either by a state or private actor, or a combination of the two. Some of these projects include dams, natural resource extraction, agricultural investment and infrastructural development.

Prevalence of the problem

It is estimated that each year 15 million people are displaced by development projects worldwide, but there is no figure for Africa specifically. When African countries began gaining independence in the 20th century, the implementation of development projects was considered a significant step in improving people’s economic status. A vigorous drive towards economic development led to the construction of several large-scale dams and are likely to have caused the displacement of millions of people, though dam-specific displacement figures are not available for the continent as a whole.

Construction of the Aswan High dam in Egypt in the 1950s displaced 100,000 people belonging to the Nubian tribe. In Ghana, 80,000 people were displaced by the Akosombo dam constructed along the lake Volta in the 1960s. In Mozambique, 42,000 people were displaced by the Cahora Bassa dam in the 1970s. In the 1980s, 26,000 people were displaced to make way for the Dadin Kowa dam along the Gongola river in Nigeria. In the 1990s, the construction of the Katse and Muela dams as part of the Lesotho highland water project affected close to 20,000 people. The Inga dam III, construction for which has been planned for decades, is set to displace more than 10,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides dams, infrastructural projects have also been a trigger of development-based displacement on the continent. In 2011, more than 15,000 people from Mitumba village living in the vicinity of the Wilson airport in Kenya were evicted without adequate rehabilitation. In Egypt, approximately 2,000 people were displaced in 2014 without adequate compensation to make way for the Suez canal project. In Nigeria, over 10,000 people were evicted in 2015 from the Badia east community in Lagos state to make way for the Lagos metropolitan development and governance project without adequate compensation and resettlement.

The Kaweri coffee plantation case in Uganda is an example of agricultural investment as a displacement trigger. In 2001, the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe concluded an investment agreement with Ugandan authorities for a large-scale coffee plantation. Ugandan authorities acquired a large expanse in central Uganda from a freehold title holder which it leased to the company for the project. Negotiations were not properly coordinated and consequently, more than 2,000 people were displaced from four villages in Mubende district to make way for agribusiness without adequate compensation and resettlement.

Towards solutions 

What makes development-based displacement a significant challenge is that those displaced to make way for these projects are often treated as ‘necessary sacrifices’ for development and as such they are not properly consulted and compensated in the processes. Nor are their subsequent movements and fate monitored, so we have no indication of where these internally displaced people (IDPs) are now and whether they have progressed towards a durable solution to their displacement. While development has been a major driver of large-scale population displacement on the African continent, it has largely gone unnoticed in discussions on humanitarian protection by regional and international agencies.

Article 10 of the Kampala Convention commits states to preventing development-based displacement, exploring alternatives and conducting socio-economic and environmental impact assessments prior to project implementation. However, the Kampala Convention has so far not helped these IDPs. There is a need for adequate implementation by state parties and advocacy by civil society organisations. There is also an urgent need for comprehensive data on the prevalence of development-based displacement in Africa and the fate of the displaced.  At the moment, available data is mostly from news articles, research documents and reports of civil society organisations working with displaced population. A comprehensive continental study on the scope and scale of this displacement as well as its long-term impacts on the displaced and society at large should be conducted. One can hardly address a problem, the nature of which is not well known. It is time to uncover the scale and scope of the problem. 

About the author

Romola picture

Dr Romola Adeola is a Steinberg Fellow in International Migration Law and Policy at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, Faculty of Law, McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Her areas of expertise are development-based displacement; law and policy aspects of migration, IDPs and refugee protection.

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