The fate of an estimated 30,000 people, including women and children in Otodo Gbame, a slum community in Lagos, hangs in the balance after the vicious demolition of their homes by agents of the Lagos state government.
By Anthony Akaeze
The sight was disconcerting. Women in their numbers, many holding their kids in their hands with tearful eyes, sat on bare floor inside the Lagos multi door Court House, Igbosere Court. They were former residents of Otodo Gbame who had lost their homes to a vicious demolition exercise ordered by the Lagos State government, and had come to the court for justice.
A Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO, Justice and Empowerment Initiative Nigeria, JEI, had brought a suit against the state government on their behalf.
Among the women were the mother and wife of Daniel Ayah, a 25 year old man who was killed in the exercise. Even in their grief, Philomena and Jesuyon, mother and wife of the deceased, chose to join forces with thousand others, who, like them, lost their homes to the demolition, the latest of which happened on April 9, 2017, to seek for justice.
Jesuyon came to the court with her two children now fatherless, the eldest just three years old.
There was also, among the crowd , Monday Idowu, a 16 year old boy, who survived a gun shot by one of the invading policemen. Having all fled or dispersed in different directions that fateful day, the Igbosere court was a reunion of sorts as it was the first time many would be seeing each other since the incident.
While a few who had family members in other parts of the city could move to join them, many others not so lucky had to resort to sleeping just about anywhere they could find space.
It was a day of tension for these displaced people who had stormed the court for justice and for the presiding Judge, Justice S. A Onigbanjo.
After hearing arguments by lawyers on both sides, Justice Onigbanjo of the Lagos State High Court did not give a ruling but adjourned the case to April 25 . But not before chiding the Lagos State government for ignoring the court’s advise for an amicable settlement of the matter when the case was first brought on January 26.
Onigbanjo had noted on that day that demolishing people’s homes without providing them alternatives was cruel and inhuman and ordered a return to status-quo. But his advice was ignored as the state government brazenly went ahead to demolish more settlements before the final and more vicious demolition of April 9.
But the people wanted more than a chastisement of the state government; they want to return to their land and the waterfront community to carry on with their lives, rudely and suddenly truncated by the demolition. But as Justice Onigbanjo pronounced, they would have to wait some more for justice.
As the wait subsists, the story of what happened on April 9, is still fresh in the minds of many. Indeed, it is one that those who witnessed or survived it may never forget. Many recount the horror of being woken up from sleep by terrified residents who noticed strangers creeping into their community.
Tina Edukpo, a student of Ekobits Institution recalls that early that Sunday, at about 5.48 am, “some people (residents) started shouting, “they are back again, they are back again.”
The invaders turned out to be policemen. Edukpo said that she called a lawyer to confirm from the DPO in Ilaso (Lekki) what was going on.
“When we called him, he (DPO) said the policemen came for protection. The next thing we saw was that the policemen started chasing people; there was tear gas everywhere.
“Even as people were inside the boats trying to escape, they (policemen) were still shooting into the water.
“On my family’s part, we had to get a boat to move my mother away as she was ill. I jumped into the water. I thank God that the water is shallow. I had to jump in and start pushing the boat to rescue her.”
Many, like the Edukpos, fled in panic with their boats. The boats were crammed with families, which, for many today, serves as their only property apart from the clothes on their backs.
While some of them immediately commenced the perilous journey to nowhere that dawn, others rowed to a reasonable distance from where they watched their homes go up in flames as the policemen began setting them on fire.
Megan Chapman, co-founder of JEI, said that when the organisation arrived the scene, they noticed an armada of security officials indulging in arson.
“When JEI reached the community around 8:30 am, staff witnessed at least 60 policemen and three Black Maria mobile detention units marked Lagos State Task Force.
“The commanding officers said the operation was led by the Lagos State Task Force on orders of the Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode.”
She went on: “Uniformed Task Force officials were seen carrying jerry cans of kerosene, splashing it on houses and lighting them on fire. A commanding officer was heard shouting, ‘The whole place must burn down!’ Policemen indiscriminately shot teargas and live bullets toward the Lagos Lagoon where residents huddled in wooden canoes watching their homes burn down.”
Florence Agemoh, one of the victims and a mother of seven, who’s putting up somewhere in Ikorodu, while bemoaning her loss said the cloth she wore at the time of the interview was provided by someone as all family property, including her children’s school uniforms, were lost to the inferno.
The assault on Otodo Gbame is believed to be part of a plan by the Lagos State government to demolish all slums in the state even as the community’s leaders have been challenged over the years on the ownership of their land by the Elegushi royal family in nearby Ikate, Lekki.
On October 9, 2016, Ambode announced his government’s intention to “start demolishing all shanties on waterfronts across the State within 7 days.” He made good that promise on October 15, 2016, when Ilubirin, a waterfront slum community was demolished.
Following the demolition of Ilubirin, 14 waterfront communities filed a legal action at the Lagos High Court to stop the administration from carrying out further demolition on the waterfront communities. Their prayer was answered as Justice Onigbanjo ordered the state to halt the exercise but this was not obeyed as officials of the Lagos State government headed for Otodo Gbame on November 9 to destroy parts of the community.
Houses, shops, churches and even private schools in the community were set ablaze during the night attack, which was followed by more demolitions there on March 17 and 21 2017.
Justifying the exercise, which happened despite a subsisting court order, Steve Ayorinde, Lagos State commissioner for Information, said it was targeted at new structures that were springing up in the community and constituted a nuisance to the environment. Efforts to speak to Ayorinde were unsuccessful as he neither picked his calls nor responded to text messages requesting for interview but the Lagos State spokesman had variously defended the state government’s action on Otodo Gbame.
In one instance, Ayorinde said the demolitions in the community were necessitated by the need to ensure a cleaner and safer Lagos, as the place was a security risk.
On another occasion, he claimed that the fracas and demolition in Otodo Gbame was as a result of the crisis between the Yoruba family of Elegushi and the Egun people, who are settlers in the area.
Celestine Ahisu, a youth leader in Otodo Gbame told the www.icirnigeria.org weeks before the April 9 attack that his family emigrated from the Ogu ( or Egun) community in Badagry, Lagos which shares boundaries with Benin Republic, to settle there, more than 100 years ago and that they had lived in peace with the Elegushis until real estate business in the Lekki area started booming.
Many residents of Otodo Gbame admitted that the relationship between them and the Elegushi family had been anything but cordial in recent years but wonder whether the Lagos State government was indirectly working with their adversary to undermine them. A resident described the Elegushi royal clan as an elitist family that had, over the years, made a fortune from land selling, adding that the acrimony between the two groups has to do with Otodo Gbame land and the refusal of its inhabitants to be intimidated by the Elegushis who profit handsomely from land sale.
When our reporter visited the Elegushi family palace on April 14, he was referred to another palace official close by who refused to talk.
Our investigation shows that Otobo Gbame comprised of various ethnic groups including Yoruba, Igbo, Ilajes, Egun, Ijaw and other people of mainly fishing communities who prefer to settle near rivers because of their love of fishing which serves as a source of income for them.
According to Wikipedia, “The (Egun or) Ogu people are mainly found in Badagry and in the Yewa region of Ogun State. They are also located in some parts of the Republic of Benin. Since their environment is surrounded by water, majority of Ogu people are into fishing, coconut processing and salt production while some are involved in trading and farming.”
Many who spoke to our reporter like 41 year old Ahisu and Edukpo, 21, said that they were born in Otodo Gbame and have no other home.. Besides being bonafide Nigerian citizens, Ahisu said his people had been carrying out their civic duties like paying tax and voting in elections and provided documents to prove this.
Lekki, in the past two decades, has transformed into one of the fastest growing municipalities in Lagos as many well-to-do people own properties there. And with many parts of the area already snapped up, the Elegushis, a source said, had long set on claiming Otodo Gbame.
Indeed, the environment in Otodo Gbame sharply contrasts to the opulence around it, as all over are modern, state of the art buildings complemented by first class facilities.
Though composed of poor wooden structures, facilities and environment, Otodo Gbame was not always like that as noted by Monika Umunna, the Programme Coordinator for ‘Climate Resilient and Inclusive Megacity Lagos’ at the Heinrich Böll Foundation Nigeria.
“In Otodo Gbame community about 10 years ago, you had a very clean and peaceful fishing village living in harmony with the surrounding wetlands and the fragile coastline. It’s the influx of people into the Lekki area over the past 10 years which destroyed the ecological balance and made the environment filthy,” she said.
The Nigerian Land Use Act is clear on how lands can be forcefully acquired by the government. While noting that a government may take over a land for an overriding public interest, it demands that government serves notice of its intention in the official gazette, issues a personal notice to all owners and pays compensation before the acquisition.
Ahisu says none of these was observed by government in the case of Otodo Gbame.
Maurice Fagnon, a professor and the secretary general of the Centre for Defence of Human Rights and Democracy in Africa said it is unfortunate that the Lagos State government is whipping up xenophobic sentiments in a bid to justify its illegal action of rendering people homeless.
The issue, he said, is about the welfare of the people whose rights had been violated and not about where anyone hailed from. The Otodo Gbame demolition, he told the www.icirnigeria.org, is not the first of its kind as there was the case of “Atikporome in Badagry where the governor (Ambode) and his agencies and police went to seize by force, demolish people’s houses from 5am for two days consecutively and the people are rendered homeless.”
The case is still pending in court. Fagnon regrets that the Nigerian Constitution has posed a stumbling block to justice as it grants the governor immunity from prosecution. The way to put a stop to such anomaly, he said, is for people to demand for a new constitution.
“We need a people’s oriented constitution in Nigeria. People should request for a people’s oriented constitution, without it, we can’t talk of justice,” he said, adding that what currently exists in Nigeria is constitution for the Bourgeoisie.
He said: “The constitution of the Bourgeoisie is anti people as they will commit crimes and (then) we are told to wait for four years before they are prosecuted. If you go to prison, you will see people who committed crimes not up to one percent of what Ambode has done. The governor who’s supposed to protect the citizens security wise is the one demolishing people’s houses in fragrant disobedience of court order,” noted Fagnon.
The failure of the Lagos State government to provide alternative homes to the people whose lands it acquires riles not just the victims but environmental and human rights activists.
And the argument of seeking a cleaner Lagos, argues Ngozi Iwere, Executive Director of Community Life Project, CLP, shouldn’t be at the expense of the people.
“First of all, there can be no “defense” for rendering thousands of citizens homeless as a public policy. It is the responsibility of governments everywhere to ensure that citizens live a life of dignity that is worthy of human beings.
“Human dignity is inalienable, and you cannot build a “cleaner and safer Lagos” at the expense of the dignity and well-being of people.
“Besides, a “cleaner and safer Lagos” should be for the benefit of everyone who resides in Lagos, without any exceptions.
“No one should be excluded, and no class of people should bear a disproportionate burden of building that clean and safe city, ” said Iwere.
It’s a viewpoint Umunna shares. She said “people have been living in these areas for decades. It’s the duty of a democratically elected government to provide functioning waste management services, access to clean water, drainage canals for excess rain water or sanitary facilities all over the city whether in poor or in rich areas…
“To chase people away from their (home) is very easy – but where do they go to?” she asked, adding that, “most of the demolitions in Lagos done over the past few years were for the benefit of private developers.”
A recent report by Ako Amadi of Community Conservation and Development Initiatives titled “The Otodo-Gbame Community and some Ecological Factors of Land Use in Lagos State,” notes that “urban planning in Lagos has a long history of land expropriation and eviction of communities.”
“The argument often advanced that, “it is for their own safety” to remove poor people from potentially hazardous environments is not tenable. Such areas are often later occupied by the wealthy class who are exposed to the same environmental risks as the poor people they displaced,” the report states.
Rather than demolish slums, Umunna wants the Lagos State government to emulate what countries in similar situations are doing well.
“In other Mega cities, even cities like Mumbai, Nairobi, Sao Paulo or Dhaka, city governments have over the years found their unique approaches to engage in social housing, education or sanitation in low income areas.
“It’s only in Lagos that people are constantly evicted from one place to another – this is not a solution at all,” she points out, adding that past attempts to engage the Lagos State government in developing slum communities amounted to nothing.
Bimbo Oshobe, a volunteer with Nigerian slum Informal Federation, said the association has the capacity to mobilize and pool resources through a saving scheme but that the Lagos State government has not shown interest in partnering with it to upgrade slum settlements.
“What we do in the federation is to come together, empower ourselves by doing our savings. We do our savings for different purposes, part of which is upgrading our community.
“We are asking the government to partner with us to upgrade our communities. We have our data. Every community we are in, we do our profiling and enumeration and it is from this that we get to know the necessary things that a community wants. We are still waiting for the government,” said Oshobe, who believes that the only language the Lagos State government understands is “bulldozer.”
She cited examples of some African countries she visited where the government partnered with slum communities to upgrade their environment.
“I went to Uganda and Kenya. The biggest slum in Nairobi, Kibera is in the heart of the city and the community members, local Government, the saving (scheme) were able to come up with homes for the affected people.
“Government was able to provide them land to build on. We equally have somewhere, like the railway line where they built their homes vertical and everybody, every family is a (beneficiary) and they are still in the process(of building more).
“In Uganda, it’s the same thing. We were even taken to where women build blocks, the women mould blocks and they use it for building their communities.
“Even in Zimbabwe, it was the same process. The government comes, dialogue with the people and by coming together, they were able to arrive at a very good solution and their place was upgraded,” she explained.
There were past attempts, however, by the Babatunde Fashola administration, Ambode’s predecessor, to develop some slum communities in the state through a $200 million World Bank development plan but it ended in controversy.
After a section of the Badia East slum settlement was demolished with no compensation paid to anyone, the victims cried foul, forcing the World Bank to release money for that purpose. JEI acted as lawyers to the Badia East residents.
Although a resident of the community described the money paid by the World Bank as meagre, another said not all those whose properties were destroyed received compensation as there were hiccups in the final verification stage linked to Lagos State government.
For those who got paid, large structure owners (8 rooms and above), received N309, 760; medium structure owners (5-7 rooms) got N248,740; small structure owners (1-4 rooms) N171,725 while each of the tenant households received N90,400.
After the adjournment of the Otodo Gbame case last week, some of the displaced inhabitants stormed Alausa, seat of Lagos government to demand justice. Some officials of the state government later addressed them and fixed an appointment for April 18.
While Nigerians wait to see what will come out of that, Betty Abah, the Executive Director, Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection, CEE-HOPE, noted that the actions of the Lagos State government is the lowest any government could go in dealing with its people.
Abah, who witnessed past demolition of slums in the state during Fashola’s tenure, said nothing compares to what happened in Otodo Gbame.
“I have been in Lagos for over 15 years, and we didn’t see this kind of violence on a helpless populace. We saw some elitist politics.
“A kind of siege over the poor in Lagos started under Fashola which climaxed with the very callous demolition of parts of Makoko.
“Somehow I thought I had seen the worst because when this happened almost five years ago, it actually started the dream for CEE-HOPE when I saw the condition in which those affected by the demolition in Makoko were living.
“It was at that point I decided to start working with children in impoverished communities to see what we can do to improve their lives, especially educationally.”
At the moment, CEE-HOPE, JEI, Nigerian Slum/ Informal Federation and other civil society groups are helping to provide relief materials, food and medication to the displaced people, apart from also sensitizing and galvanizing support for them through the social media.
Last week, CEE-HOPE joined hands with six others: Enough is Enough, Community Life Project, Lagos Urban Network, Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria, Heinrich Böll Stiftung Nigeria and Budgit to dispatch a petition to the “100 Resilient Cities” office in New York asking it to “review its cooperation with Lagos State government for acts inconsistent with its status as one of the 100 Resilient Cities and demand a change of course-or if this is not effected, even delist it as one of the 100 Resilient Cities.”
As Nigerians wait to see what judgment the court will come up with, the future of an estimated 30,000 people hang in the balance with their sources of income destroyed and children’s education, in many cases, put on hold, with no money, food and shelter to weather the storm. What used to be their home is now a wasteland.
On April 14, when our reporter visited Otodo Gbame, there was not a single structure left in the settlement.
The reporter saw some people, who claimed not to be former residents of the community, picking items from the debris.
A young girl who gave her name as Janet said she has lived there with her uncle’s family before the demolition. She had with her a mattress and some kitchen utensils which she said she came to collect from where her family hid them at nearby Babalola before fleeing to safety.
That was all she was able to salvage, she lamented, as other items like generator had been looted by unknown persons. Hers is one of the ‘lucky’ families as countless others have nothing to collect, having left behind, as they fled, everything they worked for.
Meanwhile, just a shouting distance from Otodo Gbame, on the shores of the lagoon, is a construction site. The machines and workers were busy in what appears to be efforts at sand filling and reclaiming part of the lagoon.
For many distraught people of Otodo Gbame, it is evidence that their land may already be up for sale as some allege. A plot of land in the area, a source said, goes for a minimum of N130 million.