Homeless by design
The clash of wealth and poverty in Lagos has turned physical as waterfront slums face erasure.
Magdalene Aiyefoju’s son Basil has been in the mortuary for half my daughter’s life. He was shot to death by hired thugs, along with one other young man, during a September 2014 land-grab in his neighborhood. Till today, his body remains unburied while the court case seeking justice for him and his community drags on, seemingly deliberately.
Aiyefoju raises her hands as she speaks about her late son, palms to the sky in a gesture I recognize as indicative of feelings of both powerlessness and hope that good will prevail. She is speaking Egun, the most commonly used language in dozens of waterfront communities in Lagos. I do not understand it, but it is clear she takes my presence in her shelter to mean some kind of willingness to grapple with the pain she is experiencing.
I am struck by Aiyefoju’s surname, a Yoruba phrase meaning “the world is blind.” I, like a few other middle class Lagosians, have only recently begun to pay any meaningful attention to the forced evictions happening around the state. In light of this, her name seems an almost poetic indictment of the non-poor public’s ignorance of the sustained violence that communities like Aiyefoju’s endure in the name of development.
Lagos state is well-characterized in the media as being full of contradictions and oppositional realities; it has become almost cliché to define the city-state and its massive, ever-growing population by the vast wealth and pervasive poverty that exist cheek-by-jowl. If the state government and other proponents of the “paint a positive picture” movement are to be believed, significant progress is being made to advance Lagos toward the eradication of poverty. But what is conveniently left unsaid is that the foundational idea of this “advancement” appears to be not a push to increase the economic well-being of the poor, but rather a concerted effort simply to get rid of them.
This anti-poor stance is nowhere better exemplified than in the steadily shrinking or altogether vanishing fishing villages which dot the edges of the city’s lagoon, around (and in many cases, upon) which multi-million dollar property developments have sprung up within the last 20 years. One of these villages is the late Basil’s neighborhood, Otodo Gbame. Named “community in the bush” in Egun, the area was first settled by people like Aiyefoju’s forebears over a century ago. Satellite images show how the metropolis has encroached on the historical landholdings of settlements all along the waterfronts, but few (if any) residents possess the formal documentation that is used to indicate or transfer land ownership in what is now known as Lagos state. And so, it is the rights of the people of Otodo Gbame and similar communities to the land they live on that are currently — and violently — being called into question.
In response to the sustained forced evictions of these communities, organizations like Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), a Lagos- and Port Harcourt-based NGO focused on urban poverty and land rights, began to work within and alongside these informal settlements to provide legal training and advocacy support in conjunction with a community-based movement called the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation. Following the February 2013 demolition that decimated much of what used to be Badia East, another informal settlement with a population of around 30,000, JEI began to train community paralegals, census-takers and mappers. They also began legal processes that resulted in the Badia East evictees receiving a small compensation for the loss of their homes and, more recently, a court injunction against the planned demolition of all of the waterfronts across Lagos State, including Otodo Gbame. That injunction was completely disregarded in November.
Having learned about the latest demolitions from the co-directors of JEI, they introduced me to Paul Kunnu, an Otodo Gbame resident. A slight, even-humored man in his late 20s, he took me into his neighborhood via a long back route, explaining that the main entrance was blocked by hoodlums hired to harass those who had refused to leave. From the shoreline, the empty multi-story developments along the community’s far borders looked completely incongruous. Much of our conversation was punctuated by the sound of gray water lapping around the bases of jetties the local fishermen had built, a soothing rhythm that belied the many scorched, dismantled bamboo walls listing into the lagoon. Behind us, shelters of salvaged wood and canvas protected the remaining residents from the sun.
The first attempt at demolition this year was conducted in the daytime on Nov. 9. When that was repelled, the land grabbers’ agents returned in the dead of night with police personnel, bulldozers, fire and weapons to flatten an area wide enough to require 20 minutes to cross at a brisk pace. Over 30,000 people were rendered homeless within hours. “Anything you see standing here is what we have rebuilt,” Kunnu told me, indicating the area surrounding the community’s white sand football fields. “They destroyed everything. Many people slept on their boats that day.”
Stacked high with debris, the cracked tile floors of what used to be a Methodist church, an Evangelical church, a white garment church, and a primary school border the smaller football field. The broken concrete walls of the homes of those who chose to invest in more durable building materials lie lopsidedly atop one another, a testament to the decimation of any increases in disposable income some residents may have experienced. The only buildings left almost intact are in a small huddle to the left of the community’s central area—overcrowded homes standing over water made brackish by the unlawful fencing, dredging and sand-filling of these same land grabbers over the last two years.
“They would come and build fences around the houses, then say that the land inside is their own and tell us to leave there,” Kunnu said. “This time, they arrested 23 of our leaders two days before they came. The strong people, those they knew would not allow them to continue, they took all of them away.” Baale, one of Otodo Gbame’s most prominent leaders, was not released until Nov. 24, two weeks after the demolition. Kunnu himself has been detained on two occasions: once for trying to persuade police officers to obey the court injunction protecting his community and, some two weeks after I met him, on a trumped up murder charge. The charge was laid against a small group of vocal community members at an investigation by an Abuja-based federal agency into the role of the Elegushi family in the demolition. At his first arrest, Kunnu was released after being warned never to show his face in his community again. The second time around, the directors of JEI had to solicit the intervention of the Deputy Inspector General of Police to secure his release.
There is something to be said for the resilience of the people of Otodo Gbame. The day I visited, many of the remaining residents sat in groups of varying sizes in shelters built on charred foundations, talking about something they had been told they had no right to: a future on the land they had always known as home. Kunnu introduced me to the largest one, a group of about 20 men who nodded and murmured in assent as he recounted more details of the attempted eviction. The absence of rancor in his voice might have been the result of having to repeat the same story over and over to visitors like myself, and as he spoke I considered what it must be like to live under the kind of conditions which could render a story as harrowing as theirs almost ordinary to its teller.
Those who remained understood that their lives had been pulled down around their ears in an act of state-sanctioned violence, yet they carried on finding new ways to survive. Kunnu explained how the shelters, including the one we were standing in which had a food stall to the right and a game of draughts going on at its far edge, had been designed to be flimsy; small demolition teams returned occasionally to tear down any structures that were rebuilt. With the particular lack of understanding engendered by my being a privileged outsider, I asked him how his people coped. He shrugged and smiled. “What are we supposed to do? We have nowhere else to go.”
From all indications, having nowhere else to go might be the people of Otodo Gbame’s best shot at justice. Megan Chapman and Andrew Maki, the co-directors of JEI, explained: “Physically retaining the land is the only way to stop the land-grabbers from taking it over completely. If they manage to clear everyone out, then it’s over. The residents will never get it back.”
The question of who “they” are is anybody’s guess. The state government has denied involvement, but Lagos Governor Akinwunmi Ambode on Oct. 9 announced intentions to destroy all informal waterfront settlements across the state. Witnesses said police personnel facilitated the Nov. 9 demolition by setting fires and preventing efforts to put them out, and the Lagos State Building Control Agency under the Ministry of Physical Planning confirmed their participation in the demolition. The Elegushi, the wealthy family that claims ownership of much of the waterfront in the Lekki area, have also distanced themselves in a contradictory move: Notices back-dated to Nov. 11 were painted on a few buildings on Nov. 22, falsely claiming that the family had legal backing to take over the land. This action automatically implicates them while also potentially making them liable for perjury due to the court procedure they wrongfully used.
Still, whoever “they” are, it appears that something is staying their hand. Ikate Ebute, a community not 15 minutes away, was completely razed and emptied on Nov. 11 — the day after the demolition of Otodo Gbame. Yet, significant numbers of Otodo Gbame residents remain on their own land. The main entrance is blocked by hoodlums, but it has not been walled or fenced off nor are the police keeping residents off the land. The JEI team thinks the reason more egregious violence has not ensued is the public outcry that followed the initial demolitions. “It is crucial to sustain this outrage,” they said. “If the public forgets about Otodo Gbame, then the private interests trying to destroy the community can move forward without consequences.”
Kunnu pointed out the barbed wire-topped fences of what seems to be a gated community on the far side of the lagoon, explaining that the land abutting those walls wasn’t there three years ago. “The dredging that they did affected us very badly,” he said. “Many children died; houses were falling into the water in the night because the sand was shifting. And what they sand-filled has blocked our normal fishing routes. To go around the land is very far. These people, the Elegushi, we used to be friends. I remember when I was young we used to go to their houses to watch TV. But now…”
His voice trailed off, but I understood what was unsaid. Now, there is money to be made from prime waterfront property, and historical friendship or current well-being are inconveniences easily brushed aside. Aiyefoju’s son’s death and the other happenings in Otodo Gbame are, sadly, fairly typical of the treatment endured by Lagosians whose lives are conducted along the lines of what the state considers “informal.” This, despite such people making up more than a third of the state’s entire population and contributing vital services, including food production, waste management and artisanal labor, to the state’s economy. The argument often deployed, particularly against the people living in the fishing settlements, is that they have no right to be there. But one wonders: How can you meet someone somewhere, then decide that it is they who do not belong there?