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Epidemic threatens Ilaje-Otumara slum in Nigeria’s megacity

Ilaje-Otumara, a neglected community in Lagos, Nigeria’s foremost commercial city, has an estimated population of almost a million people including women and children. Sadly, for decades, access to water and toilet facilities has been a major problem. Olugbenga ADANIKIN writes on agonies of residents of this slum and their vulnerability to diarrhoea, cholera and toilet infections.     

EIGHTY SIX-year- old Alhaji Ogundele Ibrahim Agbede takes gentle steps — he manages to walk through the filthy wet road heading towards his commercial borehole facility in Otumara community, Mainland Local Government Area of Lagos State.

He sits and watches residents of the settlement, also known as ‘Ilaje-Otumara’, coming in out to fetch water for domestic use.

Alhaji Agbede as he is called by residents never had intended to sink the borehole that is now serving the community. He had attempted,albeit politically to bring succour and facilitate public water supply to the neglected community for about 50 years, but all to no avail leaving the people and the community to contend with poor access to water and sanitation.

“I am 86 years of age and I have nine children. Access to clean water has been a big challenge for us in this community,” says Agbede.

In fact, I joined politics over 50 years ago to clamour for water and road from our local and state governments to Otumara community.”

Residents of Ilaje Otumara near a dirty bathroom fetching water.
Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

“They said we should deliver and we have delivered,” clearly referring to winning the area for the ruling political party, All Progressives Congress (APC).  “But we have not heard from them ever since…they left us because we are in a secluded area.”  

Each household has an average of five persons in a room while others could number up to 10.

But they lack access to good toilet facilities and sanitation. For 16 years, they struggled to run a Primary Health Care facility in the community until it was refurbished last year. 

Safe water and sanitation is a right which residents of Otumara have been denied for decades. They all practice open defecation, except for very few homes built at the entrance of the slum. Those who still prefer to use a toilet would have do so at a cost, which also depends on the sanitary level of the latrine.

“In this community, we pay for toilets and ordinary water,” says Francis Nwuoha, 39, Chairman of Otumara Market Association, who came to the community in 1998.

“One gallon of water is N50, while a bucket is N30.” Approximately, Nwuoha spends about N3, 000 monthly for water and the use of a toilet facility.

Toilet in this area be N50 but in case water no dey, you can get it for N150.

One of Ilaje Otumara residents defecating at ‘pako toilet’ where residents are charged N20 per visit.  Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin,

At times when you go to Pako toilet, na N20, but the brick toilet is N50,” he stressed narrating how residents defecate in a makeshift toilet constructed with planks on a canal  and their vulnerability to toilet diseases.

“In Otumara we are human. If you put a human in a confinement, you will find a way to live comfortably,” Ojo Jude, another resident added. “At the entrance, one (public toilet) is built by the Baale. There is another one on the field and there are other private ones on the lagoon, which is not something strange in Africa”.

“If you go to Eti-Osa or Apogbon, you will see it. People defecate into the Lagoon directly and I think it is very good for the fish,” he noted jokingly, perhaps oblivious of the fact that this could have severe health implications.

Worrying statistics

According to the United Nations, globally, nearly 1,000 children die daily due to preventable water and sanitation-related diseases such as diarrhoea.

The story and living conditions of Otumara residents are no doubt very pathetic and saddening. It negates the vision of Lagos state-planned transition to Africa’s model megacity and global economic and financial hub. Nigeria’s vision to attain the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the year 2030 is also at risk.

The 2015 UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water report, perhaps, speaks volume of the daily experiences of Otumara residents.

According to the report, an estimated 100 million Nigerians lack access to basic sanitation while 63 million do not have access to an improved potable water source.

Open defecation, it states,  is still practised by a third of the rural population in the country while “some 12 per cent of the urban population also practices open defecation.”

“While 75 per cent of the urban population is served by improved water supply, often people will collect water from vendors and carry water a good distance after collecting it in containers.”

As a result, Nigeria failed to attain the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), according to the World Health Organisation.

Meanwhile, the statistics dropped from 100 million to 70 million persons in 2019. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) currently puts the figure at 70 million Nigerians as those who lack access to water, sanitation and proper hygiene. A survey by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and UNICEF in March further showed that 3 in 10 persons still lack access to clean water sources, thus the need for more government action.

Entrance to one of the houses in Ilaje Otumara Community.
Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

So far, the Federal Government has been grappling to meet its water and sanitation need. Suleiman Adamu, the re-appointed Minister of Water Resources, in May told the Federal Executive Council (FEC) that only 21, 000 communities in the country, representing 10 local governments from the 774 LGAs in Nigeria have achieved open defecation free status.

Adamu said Nigeria would require N959 billion, to meet the water need of the citizenry, a sum that may not be realised in the next four years due to the nation’s economic reality and budgetary allocations to the ministry.

Living in squalor with lost hope

Otumara is one community where waste and filth compete with humans for space. Residents children, the old and youthshave resigned to fate, they have lost hope of any help from governments.

While they have grown resilience to adjusting to the inhabitable conditions in the community, often they bear the brunt of floods during the raining season.

Ironically, the large population of Otumara residents is a true representation of Nigeria’s cultural diversity. It is a multicultural community with a convergence of indigenous persons from other parts of the country. They have made the slum their home.

For eight years, James Uleke, a pastor in one Pentecostal church, had lived in the community with the hope of government intervention one day.

He expressed dismay at the neglect by both state and local governments, stressing that the only time Otumara and its people get government’s attention is during election . “We have been neglected. I named here marine kingdom because rain doesn’t need to fall before you see water overflowing everywhere,” says Uleke.

A boy in the slum manoeuvres through the filth with a tray of food perching on his head while a small girl watches.
Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

“Sometimes, for hours, you see us packing water with buckets from our houses. The situation here is very terrible and bad enough,”he adds.

“We are living almost in the canal and there is nowhere to defecate so everyone does throwing”, a euphemism of defecating in a newspaper or a polythene bag and throwing it into the gutter.

There are also no senior secondary schools in the entire western part of the local government including Otumara. Students would travel 20 kilometres to seek knowledge in the nearest school situated in Ojota.

Gbolahan Hotonu, a security analyst and stockbroker, who hails from Badagry but was raised in the community says, except for the junior school, there is currently no secondary school in the western part of the area.      

Ilogbo Junior High School, the only Junior Secondary School in Ilaje Otumara Community Ebute Meta West Founded in 1981. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

“It is necessary we say it, we need pipe-borne water. We need proper electricity, let them provide prepaid metres because we are using bulk metres. When this community was neglected for too long, the community took it upon itself to ensure we have stable light,” says Jude.

They all shared their concerns at the Palace of Chief Oladipupo Arowojolu, Baale Ilaje Otumara 1 and High Chief Kalejaiye when ActionAid Nigeria visited alongside Journalists Against Poverty Initiative (JAP) to create awareness against corruption and the need to report corruption cases.

Anti-corruption Campaign Sign Post erected by ActionAid Nigeria at the entrance of the secluded community
Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

Newton Omatseye, representing Ene Obi, the ActionAid Country Director charged the residents to collectively join the fight against poverty to reduce inequality, poverty and foster development.

“…poverty is an exclusion. Once people cannot have access to education, health facility, good roads and water and other basic things that make life bearable, we consider those people to be poor. We can feel your pain. You don’t need to define poverty to us anymore…so we will help amplify your voice.”

Looming disease outbreak

The ICIR observed that except urgent action is taken to address concerns of the residents, there may be an outbreak of disease. Aside from poor access to potable water, waste management is a great challenge in the community.

“We need road, water and school, but before the road comes, if there is no place to dump our refuse, there will be a problem,” another resident pleaded.

But for the recently refurbished health care centre in the community, the situation would have deteriorated. Even then, other concerns such as access to drugs and health personnel at the PHC remain.

One of the residents disclosed that there was once a cholera outbreak and cases of malaria. “There was sometimes in the past we had the issue of cholera. What I’m saying is about five years ago but since then; we have not had any disease outbreak.”    

“This is a community where you have graduates, educated fellows but people see us as criminals because of the way our buildings are constructed. We are not criminals,” says Ojo describing the neighbourhood as the safest in Lagos Mainland.

Urgent need for road construction

During the tenure of Babatunde Fashola as governor of Lagos State, attempts were made to fix the road after several visits to the Governor’s office to persuade the officials to action. “Most times, when we visit the ministry, they will ask us to come with honourable and we took honourable there several times until the change in government.”

“The politicians know that the votes here are significant. This is a multi-ethnic community especially Igbos and Ebonyi people so we need government support.”

There are five local governments under Lagos Central Senatorial District – Apapa, Eti-Osa, Lagos Island, Lagos Mainland and Surulere. These councils are in the constituent of Senator Oluremi Tinubu who until now was the Chairman Senate Committee on Environment. She currently heads the Communications Senate Committee.

When The ICIR contacted Tinubu, she didn’t respond to calls put to her line. A 3-page text message sent to her was not also acknowledged or returned. Also, while at the State Ministry of Health, the newly appointed commissioner was said to be away attending the 62nd National Council on Health (NCH).

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