At 5am on 9th January 2021 a clearance operation to evict people from the New Town Airport District began. The community is near Douala Airport, Cameroon’s busiest airport located on the outskirts of the port city. Authorities said that the operation was to ‘ensure the rights of way’ for Douala Airport. A group of young people protested demolition of their homes and a mosque; Police charged at them and dispersed them with teargas. The violence was followed by arrests and authorities warned that the clearance operation would continue in the following days.
Yassu Anne, a woman who had lived in the area for 37 years, said she had lost everything, saying:
"We came today to protest this because the airport was said to be dirty. They told us they're going to fix the airport, hence the operation. But they come to demolish without warning. They come one morning to surprise us. I mean, surprise us and our children. My things are buried there.... you can't die for your possessions, my things are over there, the pots all buried,"
Another resident of the area affected by the demolition, Koulanya Doko, said:
"It's not a hundred people that you see, They are thousands. And the people have been there for more than 30 years. Like me, I have lived here for 32 years. I have big children. Where will they go? But for me this way is not right. They should first come and mark the houses".
Africanews correspondent Joel Kouam reported that in response to the demolition some families had vacated the area while others remained, attempting to ‘save what they can, while they can’ .
A representative of the administrative authority of the Wouri division said the government had no plans to provide resettlement for about 500 people whose homes had been destroyed. Assistant Senior Divisional Officer for Wouri Division, Hector Fame, said the affected people had been occupying state property illegally and that the demolished area was part of the land belonging to Douala Airport. Scores of buildings had been destroyed by a Douala City Council bulldozer. A Douala II resident who witnessed the demolition said, “I ask myself the question of where we are sending all this population. We built the houses, it’s not been two days they come to break us”. A parent whose home was destroyed said, “They came to break us, take us away, we don’t know where to go. For example, I have I’m a head of the family, I have 05 children. The others are there. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start”. The future livelihood of the evicted people was uncertain, several affected people were roaming the streets of Douala in a state of confusion not knowing where or how to start rebuilding their lives. The government was enlarging the road leading to Douala Airport but at a great cost to citizens, seen as a necessity due to Cameroon hosting the upcoming African Championship CHAN football tournament .
HIC (Habitat International Coalition) reported that three organisations - the National Observatory for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ONDESC), the National Network of Inhabitants of Cameroon and the Platform for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - had noted with indignation the official notifications preceding the forced eviction, issued by the Prefect of the department of Wouri between 1st December 2020 and 6th January 2021. The notifications obliged occupants of space claimed by the airport to leave premises in the area before 8th January 2021, with the risk of forced eviction at their expense. The forced eviction then took place on 9th January despite calls for mediation and numerous complaints from affected people. Nearly 200 families were evicted from their homes, in spite of the additional risks of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic .
On 12th January 2021 it was reported that more than 200 families had been evicted and affected people were sleeping without shelter, out in the open. A hundred houses that had been erected on the edge of Douala Airport had been crushed. According to the owners the houses had been built ten years ago. The victims said they had been evicted without warning and had no hope of being resettled by authorities, which claimed they were ineligible for resettlement as they had settled in the area illegally and the land belonged to Douala Airport. Authorities stated that the reason for the eviction was expansion of Douala Airport .
Homeless with no place to relocate
Just over a month after the forced eviction, in mid-February, several families whose houses had been demolished were looking for a place to resettle in. They had watched helplessly as their homes were torn down and said they had been living in the area for ten years and had been evicted without a warning or quit notice which would have given them time to relocate. Some families were squatting on the site and it was unlikely that they would be given another site to relocate to. The demolition exercise had been supervised by Assistant Senior Divisional Officer of the Wouri, Hector Fame, who said that warnings had been given and that the eviction was carried out legally. He said:
“The administrative authority, in concertation with the technical services, carried out the demolition as it should and in accordance with the law. Warnings to evacuate the area were made beforehand by the Divisional Officer of Douala II who was there personally and with the forces of law and order, including the gendarmerie and the police force.”
Authorities said people had settled illegally on the site and that works on expansion of Douala Airport were expected to begin in the ‘distant future’. The civil administrator said “There are no measures of resettlement of these populations. They illegally occupied the land of the airport.” .
On 15th February 2021 HIC (Habitat International Coalition) issued an alert about the forced eviction of over 100 families in the Newtown Airport District area, accompanied by photos of the demolition exercise. The alert reads:
"Since 9 January 2021, more than 100 families have been forcibly evicted from the Newtown Airport district in Douala. Thousands of families could suffer the same fate in the coming days."
Indeed, in December 2020, the Prefect of Wouri sent a formal notice via the head of the New-Town Airport district, in which he invited the inhabitants of this district to take steps to vacate the site that they have been peacefully occupying for more than 35 years. On 9 January he forcibly evicted more than 100 families, without any respect for the relevant procedures, such as :
The exhaustive census of thefamilies concerned and the transmission of the formal notice to each of his families;
The taking into account of the COVID-19 pandemic which is still raging in our country, and whose populations, now homeless, will certainly be left to the contagion and spread of the virus;
The promotion of real frameworks for consultation with the victim populations and civil society organisations in order to help them understand the stakes of the measure, and to find together the means of psychological support and supervision for the populations forced to leave, most of whom have been living on the disputed site for decades;
Taking into account the precarious state of the victims of forced evictions;
Taking into account the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, in particular Annex 1 of the report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living A/HRC/4/18;” 6. Forced evictions constitute egregious violations of a wide range of internationally recognized human rights, including the right to adequate housing, food, water, health, education, work, security of the person and security of the home, the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment …“.
The HIC alert notes that the Project for the Protection of the Right to Housing and Support for the Improvement of Popular Districts (AQP) had denounced the situation. It also provide historical context, explaining that many of the inhabitants of the New Town Airport District were victims of the Lake Nyos disaster of 1986, when a limnic eruption killed 1,246 people along with 3,500 livestock .
Previous reports of illegal settlement and evictions
Over an 11-year period preceding the January 2021 forced eviction there were reports of the authorities complaining of illegal settlement on land claimed by Douala Airport, and of evictions. There was news of impending eviction of people in the New Town Airport District inJanuary 2010. An article in Cameroon Postonline stated that the community that had developed in the security zone close to Douala Airport runway would soon be destroyed following many complaints about human activity. There had been reports of people and animals crossing the runway. It appeared that the government would destroy houses and farms which were claimed to be illegal, on land that had been reserved for the airport and that a fence would be constructed to enclose the security zone and keep ‘intruders’ away from the runway. Sources at the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority (CCAA) said that bulldozers would soon be sent to demolish all the buildings and farmland in the area reserved as a security zone, but that affected people had been given a little time to enable them to pack.
Shortly before the demolition exercise, on 12th January 2010, the Littoral Governor’s office distributed cheques to 191 persons identified as having houses and farmland in the airport security zone. These people, referred to as ‘squatters’, received compensation of between FCFA 150,000 to a little over FCFA 1 million depending on the property they owned. The 3rd Assistant DCO for Wouri, Ely Besinga, who oversaw the distribution of the cheques, said the government, acting through the CCAA, was not paying compensation to the persons who illegally occupied state land. He said the administration had been informed of more than 160 persons who complained they had not been counted during the previous exercise but had run away when government officials were sent to identify them .
In June 2012 the houses of several families near Douala Airport, in the New Town Airport District, were destroyed following a decision of the first deputy prefectural of Wouri demanding eviction of people from homes within a 200 meter perimeter around the airport apron. There were safety concerns; the company supplying kerosene to Douala Airport had discovered an underground leak in the space occupied by some of the inhabitants of the district. Six months later, in November 2012, the evicted families were still homeless, exposed to bad weather. They were still looking for an area to resettle. The eviction site was abandoned and overrun with weeds. The head of block 12 of the district, Eboum Ebosse, said, "The agents of the Hrs company worked one to two weeks after the eviction and they abandoned the site”. There was uncertainty over whether there really was an underground kerosene leak. Head of block 6 of the Newtown airport district, Koulagna Doko, said: “The authorities said that it was a dangerous site which contained kerosene and which was dangerous for the inhabitants. But we have no proof that there really was a kerosene leak”.
Koulagna Doko also spoke of the plight of the evicted people: “The company in charge of the works and the State have made no gesture in favour of the evicted. We are not even talking about resettlement and the families concerned are now homeless. There is no initiative for a possible disinterestedness. They are in the hands of God.” Evictees’ requests for support from the authorities went unanswered. One victim of the eviction said, “We have been left to ourselves, nobody cares about our situation”. Residents living near the eviction site said that their neighbourhoods had become insecure. The head of block 12 said: “The thugs took advantage of the absence of residents in this area to settle. They assault during the day and at night, armed with knives, guns and machetes, the hunt down the inhabitants” .
In June 2018 the Director General of the Aeronautical Authority, Paule Assomou Koki Epic, complained of pressure on the land reserves of the Douala Airport site, saying, “of a little more than 1218 ha representing the total area originally granted to the airport, barely 800 ha protected by a metal security fence are used in the occupation aeronautics. About 400 ha are illegally occupied”. She said this impaired airport operations and was dangerous: “Today, there are more than 15,000 buildings erected inside the airport area, for a population of about 130,000 souls. In addition these populations are themselves insecure. For example, you have populations within the safety margins around the oil pool”. On the basis of these concerns an awareness campaign on the preservation of land reserves at the airport was organised. She explained that it was necessary to remove a number of uncontrolled and unauthorised activities from sensitive areas; protecting the airport from runway incursions and protecting aircraft from obstructions were necessary for safety and development. Addressing safety concerns would enable Douala Airport to develop including increasing the size of its apron .