Curators of Forcible Evictions The Problem with Lagos State

Two years on, the Otodo Gbame eviction crisis shows housing and infrastructure deficits in Lagos have only grown as the city continues to expand with an uneasy urgency.

Imagine waking up to a barrage of blows on your front door, drawing you from the safety of your dreams, to the reality of being forced to choose between your life and your home. ‘If you love your life move out!’ Imagine the horror of losing toddlers in the ensuing chaos, and the pain of returning to find your home and means of livelihood gone. Now, imagine the hopelessness in realizing that the people who did all this were those charged to protect you and, at the very least, give you a chance at a decent life. For a long time in Nigeria, the poor and the most powerless have always paid the price for development, almost as if human life or wellbeing and economic advancement are mutually exclusive.

The Painful Rise of Lagos

The rise of Lagos as a major economic and political force has been a swift one. Even as its borders encroach on outlying towns of other states, the business districts are still overwhelmed by the sheer number of inhabitants, and its roads are constantly, hopelessly, gridlocked. Progress-wise, Lagos is the forerunner state in Nigeria. Yet its development initiatives have been implemented haphazardly or not at all. The state has evolved into an overburdened metropolis, one whose record is marred by a spate of human rights violations. Housing and infrastructure deficits in Lagos have only grown as the city continues to expand with an uneasy urgency.

An estimated fifteen million Lagosians live and pay rent and buy land in what are illegal shanty towns. Yet, Lagos has had a long history of demolishing slums and forcing people from their homes. This history dates back to the 1920s. Those old enough to remember the 1989 military government’s eviction of Maroko residents from what is, today, parts of Victoria Island and Lekki Phase 1, still refer to the 1989 eviction as the worst to occur in the nation’s history. As at 2008, most of those evictees were still uncompensated for the destruction of their homes and properties. 28 years later, little has changed.

In 2017, residents of an informal settlement Otodo Gbame,were forcibly evicted from their homes; with a few settlers losing their lives in the process. The settlers banded together, took the Lagos State government to court and obtained an injunction on any further eviction actions. However, the executive government carried on with the evictions, ignoring the judiciary’s role as a check on its activities.

Back in 2003, the Lagos State government, under the administration of Bola Tinubu, attempted to forcibly remove residents of a slum known as Ijora-Badia or Badia East. They succeeded in displacing some thousands of people but were forced to call a halt to those efforts in the face of vehement protests. By 2006, the state government obtained $200 million from the World Bank to renovate 9 slums across Lagos State (Amukoko, Ajegunle, Agege, Bariga, Badia, Ilaje, Iwaya, Ijeshatedo Atire and Makoko). In compliance with World Bank policy, the project included a resettlement policy framework, which stipulated the state government’s responsibility to compensate and resettle those affected by said upgrades. The beneficiaries of these ‘renovations’—some two million people—were to enjoy upgraded infrastructure, health and living conditions. But no such thing happened here.

Instead, the people found that they were to be involuntarily removed from the place they had known as home for quite some time. These settlers instituted civil action (Chief Ogunyemi Adewale v. The Governor of Lagos State and 4 Others) that resulted in a restraining order on further demolition processes until the suit had been settled. The administration, however, ignored court injunctions and proceeded with demolitions, not towards upgrading the infrastructure as was their initial justification, but the creation of apartments for middle- to upper-class residents. Displaced Badia residents received a pittance in compensation for all their troubles, a year after eviction. If this sounds familiar, it is because history, troubling as it is in this case, seems to be repeating itself. The irony of this vicious cycle is lost on no one—except perhaps the state government.

The 2003 eviction attempt was not the first time some of Ijora-Badia’s residents had been subjected to the uncertainty of where to lay their heads. In 1973, villagers in an old settlement known as Oluwole Village in the Iganmu area of Central Lagos found themselves displaced by the then-military government, who felt the immediate need to construct a National Arts Theatre. Recall that prior to the enactment of the 1978 Land Use Act, land belonged to communities and individuals under the customary land tenure system. Yet, evictees who didn’t accept the meagre compensation offered, were allocated minuscule plots of land in the adjacent area, known then as Ijora-Badia, and issued letters of allotment. Still, some others found themselves in Ijora-Badia as their homes and properties in yet other parts of Lagos made way for roads and other infrastructural projects. These people, having ended up in Ijora-Badia following displacement, were the very same that the state government again sought to displace by 2003, 2006 and once more in 2013; denying some citizens the security of tenure guaranteed them by virtue of allotment documents issued to their great-grandparents by the 1973 government. Given that an estimated fifteen million Lagosians live in what are often described as illegal shanty towns, where then, does all this end?

The Politics of Evictions

Often, a government will justify razing slums by making reference to sanitation and safety concerns. Yet, much of this is easily avoidable in the first place. When people are resettled in communities such as Ijora-Badia without addressing the pre-existing infrastructural needs, one can only imagine what a government supposes the eventual outcome would be. When left unchecked, these eviction policies are more likely to not produce tidy metropolises but more slums. These, by definition are squalid, over populated areas; lacking sanitation and other basic services. When these settlements are the reality of majority of a city’s population, a time bomb ticks.

Third Mainland Bridge is the sprawling twelve-kilometre infrastructure that links the mainland areas of Lagos to the ‘Island’. The bridge cuts across the Lagos Lagoon, which itself empties into the Atlantic Ocean. I remember mornings spent crossing that bridge well over a decade ago to get to secondary school. I can still recall my father explaining the visibly packed water shanties to me at eleven or twelve years old, and the later realization that these shanty towns existed wholly outside much of what I knew Lagos to be. The realization now that little has changed: that these impoverished trappings have been the lives and livelihoods of a population of no small number, for several decades, is a sobering one. How many of these have been children, deprived of a chance at healthy and wholesome living, doomed to follow in the steps of ancestors long suffered?

The problem of access to housing is further exacerbated by limited land supply. Part of the solution in tackling the increasing demand burden on scarce resources must lie in the government’s efforts to push commercial activities further outwards of Lagos. To do so, the government must begin to work out incentivizing policies, to encourage entrepreneurs to locate further from the central business districts. Such a shift will take time, but is the sensible way to distribute an abundant populace without being crushed under their sheer demand for limited resources be they housing, access to schools, roads, and so on. Notably, due to years of poor refuse disposal, and pollution into the surrounding waters and ground waters caused partly by these slum dwellings, water availability for domestic, commercial and industrial use in Lagos has become severely limited.

In considering all solutions, and the options available to a government in handling compensation and resettlement policies, we cannot forget the political and practicable realities within which governments operate. If conditions were ideal, the first stage should necessarily be an audit of the resident populations in these informal dwellings, the length of residency and what claims, if any, each person or family has to the land. This should be foundational to any future policy planning. We must know how many people reside in an area to be able to adequately cater to them; whether by the provision of alternative housing, or in allocating resources for compensation. In reality, however, we find that a people who have been largely neglected are hardly receptive and far from trusting of any such efforts—even if spearheaded by any federal orientation agency. The task, however, is not impossible; but it must begin today. In ascertaining who lives where, we can look to the settlements themselves for a solution. Already, slum-dwellers innovate solutions to their problems. There is no reason why their self-management models cannot be learnt and repurposed towards developing solution for the greater problem of slum-dwelling.

The argument may be made that compensating residents of illegal dwellings creates perverse incentives in rewarding said illegality. Yet, it is difficult to see a human response to poverty born of under- or unemployment as such. Labelling slum-dwellers as illegal encroachers on land belonging to the government and ignores the complexity of that underlies where people can and choose to live. Poor people have a right to dignified lives, and ignoring the socio-economic problems that create slums only serves to erase the humanity of the individuals comprised therein. The UN notes that, ‘slums are not only a manifestation of poor housing standards, lack of basic services and denial of human rights, but they are also a symptom of dysfunctional urban societies where inequalities are not only tolerated, but allowed to fester.’ Especially with reference to Ijora-Badia residents, the issue of illegality is moot. It is the state government who has sought to deprive residents of secure tenure or of rights to the land that ought to have been acquired by long-stay. In Nigeria, we have the problematic 1978 Land Use Act to blame for this. The question that needs to be asked in the face of all this, is how long before a revolt is stirred, that becomes too bloody to manage? If a government cannot provide its people essential services, such that they are driven to provide it for themselves, the government has failed.

More importantly, the state government must begin to think ahead. Until it starts to look beyond the gaudy ‘mega city’ projects, and towards tackling the much-needed housing deficit in a systematic way, no serious solutions can be discussed. From planning officials who do nothing to prevent illegal developments, to ad hocurban planning which depends on the government in power, the problem of forcible evictions will persist, and successive governments will continue to be crippled by poor policies of governments before them.

Even then, the Lagos State government alone is not to blame. According to the Huffington Post, the World Bank has physically and economically displaced nearly 3.4 million people in the past decade. The World Bank’s policies on resettlement mandates that communities to be resettled are involved in said efforts. An internal review conducted in 2014 however, found that World Bank staffers failed to document what happened to the people following eviction, in a staggering 60 per cent of cases.

Resettled populations are more likely to suffer unemployment, hunger, and higher mortality rates. So when a government, under the guise of clearing out slums for security and health reasons, pays no mind to the likely consequences of evictions on the evicted, such process is inherently flawed and can offer no good end. By all means, the government should remove people from informal settlements in the face of overriding public interest. Evict people to build roads and drainage and to tackle other sorely needed infrastructural and public health challenges; but to deny evicted people fair compensation and appropriate resettlement options, is to abdicate your role as a government of the people. The joint failings of the World Bank and Lagos State government should also serve as a lesson to those who believe countries should be run like businesses. If we push infrastructure projects and emphasize efficiency at the expense of procedural safeguards for individuals whose lives and livelihoods are directly affected, we do our country a disservice and shame humanity.

Towards a Sustainable Solution

None of this is to say that holistic resettlement and compensation options should be explored in a vacuum. As earlier mentioned, slums are a consequence of inequalities and dysfunction. It follows that any solutions for addressing these challenges must be tied to tackling and eradicating urban poverty, and ensuring a state economy with a more robust capacity for providing jobs and improved standards of living than the status quo. Until there is a comprehensive and realistic framework for achieving this, for relocating and compensating slum dwellers, our problems will persist