Tina Houngbo is a pleasant, mild-mannered mother of five children. Laughing self-consciously, she says she isn’t quite sure how old she is because none of her mother’s children were registered at birth or went to school. She asserts that she always knew she wanted better opportunities for her own children and for her, part of that was securing their birth certificates.
Most of Tina’s children were born in the sparsely staffed and/or equipped but functional government-funded clinics near the fishing community where she grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. Thus, it was relatively easy for her to register their birth with the National Population Commission. She also made sure that they all went to local primary schools where they were educated in at least three of the four languages widely used in their area; Egun, English, French and Yoruba.
Until her last child was born, Tina and her family made up some of the about 30,000 people living in Otodo Gbame, a predominantly Egun waterfront settlement on the edge of Lekki, one of Lagos State’s fastest-developing upper middle-class neighbourhoods. Otodo Gbame was a traditional beachfront village around which wealthy Lagosians had slowly settled, but those incongruous economic, cultural and social realities had existed side by side for the thirty or so years that Tina has been alive. Unfortunately, by the time Tina was a few months into her fifth pregnancy, Otodo Gbame was in trouble.
In November 2016, the Houngbo family’s fishing community had become the target of violent evictions backed by broadly the same democratic government that underwrote the medical assistance and birth documentation for Tina’s first four children. With her fifth, the story could not have been more different. Favour, Tina’s youngest, was born on April 9, 2017. She went into sudden labour when hired thugs and state personnel stormed Otodo Gbame and began to clear out the few hundred homes that they had not been able to demolish in previous attempts dating as far back as September 2016.
Tina and her family rushed onto a canoe while her labour intensified, and neighbours wailed with her as she watched her home burn down. By the time the baby arrived, the entire community was homeless, the majority of whom were left with no possessions but the clothes on their backs. Unsurprisingly, Favour is the only one of Tina’s children who never received a birth certificate.
Nigeria is a country with a roughly 70% poor and/or rural population. Thus, the average Nigerian has a noncommittal relationship to birth registration; indeed, to chronological age. It is quite easy, should the need arise in adulthood for instance, to walk into a courthouse and acquire a sworn affidavit declaring one’s age. The resulting document is widely accepted in lieu of an official birth certificate.
For infants like Favour however, the absence of a birth certificate or any other documentation integrating their existence into the national system is a fairly reliable indicator of the degree of access they will have to healthcare, education and other publicly funded services. At the time of my conversation with her mother, Favour was 10 months old and had not received any immunisations. Since she was born, her family has been either homeless or squatting in cramped quarters with over-stretched relatives or family friends.
In the year of Favour’s birth, Lagos was ranked on the RapidSMS website among the states with the highest rates of birth registration across Nigeria. 2.6 million children under 1 were registered, with registrations being split more or less evenly across sex. RapidSMS, which is a mobile-based technological intervention designed to increase rates of birth registration among poor, rural and other marginalised populations, claimed a 73% performance score of recorded new live births in the state. Favour is one of the unreached 27% because technology, no matter how innovative, cannot compensate for state failure or state-backed violence.
Like most residents of Otodo Gbame, the Houngbos had organised their lives around incomes that would be considered meagre by many standards. Still, these incomes — from Tina’s tailoring and her husband Elijah’s photography business — were more or less stable, and living in an increasingly developed area of a thriving city meant that they and their children had access to housing, healthcare, education and other services at the level that they could afford. The Lagos State Government and partner organisations provide free maternal and infant healthcare at Primary Health Centres, and immunisation drives, for example, are organised in primary schools and from house to house to provide children under 5 with vaccination against polio and similar diseases. For Favour however, being born in the midst of a turbulent eviction means the resulting instability for her family has denied her access to any of these crucial services.
Favour is a chubby child who has hit all of her developmental milestones so far; she has four teeth, she can pull herself to her feet and she has developed the ability to reach for things that are out of sight. While I spoke with her mother, the toddler spent her time inspecting a rock she had found, showing it to Tina and fussing for attention. A testament to the incredible difficulty her family has faced in the past year is the fact that two of Favour’s older siblings have died since her birth, “due to the trauma”, Tina says in our conversation translated by Paul Kunnu. They were 5 and 7 years old. Tina picked her toddler up distractedly as she told me, her words full of resignation, about her children’s deaths.
It was clear from her matter-of-fact recounting that even besides the financial resources, she also no longer had the emotional capacity to worry about her family’s wellbeing beyond the absolute basics. Along with Favour’s father, Elijah, Tina spent much of 2017 meeting with other Otodo Gbame evictees to try to create strategies to get back on their feet as well as to pressure the government into restoring their homes and land. They have both tried and failed to find work to sustain themselves and their surviving children, so they mostly live on the goodwill of people who are aware of their situation. She stared straight ahead as she said, “It is good that people want to know about our problems, but I hope something will come out of it. Because this suffering is too much.”
When I asked her about Favour’s birth certificate, she laughed. It was a small sound full of meaning. “That one? Maybe later. For now we have to remember that we are human beings; we need food to eat, we need work to do, we need where to live.” A birth certificate, ostensibly an almost pedestrian necessity, becomes almost a luxury in the face of challenges such as those Tina and her family have had to deal with in the past year. So unlike many thousands of other children born in Lagos on April 9, 2017, Favour will eventually have to do what the rest of her family and now-scattered community have involuntarily become adept at; find a way to cope with the consequences of a lack of documentation that she is in no way at fault for.