Lagos, a city of promise, wrestles with urban disparities as its landscape undergoes rapid transformation. The spectre of forced evictions now imperils the core of a human-centric Lagos, compelling a call to action from resilient urban social movements.
Lagos, Africa’s largest city, with an estimated population of over 20 million inhabitants, remains the epicentre of Nigeria’s urbanization. For many, Lagos represents a beacon of hope and opportunity, embodied by the popular Nigerian creole expression, ‘wetin person dey find, e dey Lagos’ (whatever a person seeks, it can be found in Lagos). This narrative connects with my own upbringing, where I too was drawn in by the charm of Lagos, as portrayed in Nollywood films—a place where hard work, ingenuity and persistence could potentially transform anyone into anything.
But does Lagos truly welcome everyone? Today’s Lagos is marked by escalating disparities, often violently along economic and social lines, casting doubt on the city’s claim to inclusivity. This phenomenon can be attributed, in large part, to the forces of capitalist urbanization, particularly evident in the constant forced evictions of the urban poor. British academic, David Harvey, sheds light on the darker aspects of this phenomenon by asserting that urban restructuring often occurs through a process of ‘displacement and dispossession.’
Lagos aspires to metamorphose into Africa’s model mega-city by 2052, envisioning itself as a human-centric city committed to providing affordable social services, including housing, for its residents. According to Yu Hu, an urban scholar, the traditional concept of ‘human-centred cities’ prioritizes human needs in urban designs over economic, technological or political considerations. However, a paradox emerges: How can Lagos harbour aspirations of becoming a human-centric mega-city while simultaneously displacing its heart and soul? The urban poor of Lagos are akin to vibrant brushstrokes on the canvas of the city’s identity, infusing depth, colour, and texture into its unique character. From the witty antics of Danfo drivers to the sharp humour of assertive Agbero conductors, who infuse our daily routines with amusement, and to the street vendors who have been instrumental in Lagos’ informal economy for years, the vibrancy of the urban poor courses through the city’s veins. This paradox prompts fundamental questions about the city’s commitment to its proclaimed goal of welcoming everyone.
LAGOS’ ENDLESS AFFAIR WITH FORCED EVICTIONS
In August 2023, Lagos State authorities carried out massive evictions, displacing over 40,000 households in Oworonshoki, Kosofe local government area. Reports suggest that this area is earmarked for a new proposed jetty for boats spanning 70 hectares as part of the Kosofe Model City Plan (2020-2040). This unfortunate event adds to the troubling pattern of evictions that have plagued the city for decades, with historical examples dating back to the 1990s, such as the Maroko eviction in 1990, Ilubirin in 1997and Ogudu Ori-Oke in 2008. More recent instances, such as the Tarkwa-Bay evictions in 2020, Otodo Gbame in 2016 and Badia East in 2013, all reflect a long-standing trend. These recurring forced evictions in Lagos are not merely isolated events; they reflect a historical trend deeply rooted in both colonial history and capitalist interests.
Nigerian Historian, Muritala Olalekan, highlights the need to delve into Lagos’ history, particularly the pivotal year of 1861. This was when Lagos was formally annexed and ceded to the British crown, marking the start of colonial urbanization. During this era, British authorities dismantled indigenous homes, laying claim to prime beachfront property, which gradually displaced indigenous Lagosians inland. Urbanist, Abdoumaliq Simone, astutely points out that the extended period of various colonial influences significantly shaped African cities, making them primarily serve the interests of the colonizers. This historical context, to some extent, sheds light on Lagos’ ongoing challenges with forced evictions. However, it is crucial to recognize that this is not solely a historical issue, but a complex problem inextricably connected with the city’s colonial past and today’s economic interests. Moreover, the legacy of forced evictions in post-colonial Lagos persists, now driven by the pursuit of capitalist interests. It is increasingly evident that the Lagos city government is not merely a passive inheritor of a colonial legacy but an active participant in the perpetuation of forced evictions. While the colonial era certainly set the stage for urbanization patterns that favoured colonial interests, the contemporary context tells a different story. In its quest for economic advancement and modernization, the Lagos city government has initiated a sequence of urban renewal initiatives that have had profoundly negative repercussions on marginalized communities.
CAPITALIST UNDERPINNING OF FORCED EVICTIONS
In the current contemporary landscape, Lagos operates within a neoliberal economic framework. When we examine the economic consequences of forced evictions, we can directly link them to the city’s increasing dependence on private capital, driven by a market-oriented approach to urban development. The commodification of land has turned it into a highly desirable asset for private investments, often resulting in the initiation of large-scale infrastructure projects. Additionally, these projects are frequently undertaken to enhance the city’s aesthetic appeal.
Consider, for instance, the events of July 1990 when the then city military government razed Maroko, a community of 300,000, primarily composed of low-income residents, situated adjacent to the affluent Victoria Island. As Yomi Kazeem, a former reporter for Quartz, observes, ‘Three decades later, the area is now home to Lekki, one of Nigeria’s most exclusive upmarket neighbourhoods’.
In 2016, more than 30,000 residents of Otodo Gbame, an informal waterfront community, faced forced eviction to make way for the development of a modern luxury estate known as Periwinkle Estate. These cases represent just a glimpse into a broader pattern, where the forces of capitalist urbanization repeatedly displace the city’s marginalized populations, relegating them to dire circumstances in the relentless pursuit of profit and aesthetic appeal. It is crucial to reiterate that beneath these ambitious ‘urban fantasies’, as described by the late Professor Vanessa Watson, there exists a deliberate effort to exclude the poor from the city’s fabric. Suffice it to say that in the face of this ‘metropolitan makeover’, the poor face immense challenges in merely surviving.
FALLING SHORT: RETHINKING URBAN ACTIVISM IN LAGOS
Amidst the recurring instances of forced evictions in Lagos, one of the most visible tactics historically employed by civil society to address these issues has been public interest litigation. This method of advocacy essentially aims to secure justice for eviction victims by leveraging constitutionally enshrined fundamental rights through legal recourse.
For instance, following the Otodo Gbame eviction incident, displaced residents, along with organized leadership from the Nigerian Slum and Informal Settlement Federation, collaborated with a public interest law organization to approach the Lagos State High Court. Their goal was to enforce their fundamental rights as stipulated in the Nigerian constitution and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. The court ruling in 2017 declared the previous evictions as inhumane, degrading, and unconstitutional, urging the city government to engage in consultations. However, the outcome of the high court’s ruling is still a subject of appeal and is being contested. It is essential to harp on the shortcomings of relying solely on public interest litigation for the urban poor facing forced evictions in Lagos. This is due to the city government’s blatant disregard for court orders, bureaucratic hurdles within the legal system, and, more broadly, the executive’s lawlessness. But should resistance cease due to the inadequacies of a faltering legal process? Arguably no. In fact, there has never been a more crucial time to strengthen resistance, particularly through a resilient organization of an urban social movement.
Any organized movement has at its disposal the powerful language of human rights. This language offers a nuanced philosophy that encourages reflective thinking and collective action, as articulated by Felix Morkha, a Nigerian legal scholar. With rapid urbanization taking hold in Lagos, there is an urgent need to resist and challenge the status quo of evictions while demanding the ‘right to the city.’ An organized urban social movement would serve as a crucible for the marginalized, empowering them to nurture independent thought, acquire knowledge, ignite dissent, share insights, and develop innovative strategies to confront the entrenched power imbalances that perpetuate their marginalization.
In Lagos, we have the Nigerian Slum and Informal Settlement Federation—an affiliate of Slum Dwellers International and a movement representing the urban poor in their pursuit of dignity and development. While considerable strides have been made in advancing the right-to-the-city agenda through grassroots legal empowerment and support for public interest litigation, there is still much the movement can learn from other successful urban social movements in the Global South dealing with urban exclusion and inequality. For example, consider the Abahlali Base Mjondolo urban social movement, which has left a significant imprint on South Africa’s political landscape. This movement has successfully empowered urban poor communities, enhancing their agency to assert their rights and participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives. Their advocacy and policy influence range from pro-poor housing policies to land tenure reforms and affordable housing. Additionally, they have built solidarity and alliances with other urban movements, such as the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, strengthening their impact and support network.
In Lagos, urban social movements can boldly seize the initiative by employing a diverse range of urban resistance strategies. These strategies include organizing substantial mass mobilizations, sustaining sit-ins that extend beyond isolated eviction events, and fostering strong coalitions with fellow urban social movements to enhance their resistance capacity. To ensure a vibrant and resilient movement, it must adhere to a neurotically democratic ethos, which involves empowering local leaders within affected communities to transparently champion their interests, all while safeguarding against co-option or compromise by city authorities.
Drawing valuable lessons from the 2023 elections in Lagos, where significant shifts occurred in the political landscape with emerging parties securing seats in the national assembly and achieving surprising victories in the presidential elections, urban social movements now also have an opportunity to exploit for deeper engagement with elected representatives. Sustained and persistent engagement can play a vital role in raising the profile of urban exclusion concerns and ensuring they remain at the forefront of the political agenda.
CHAMPIONING INCLUSIVE URBAN FUTURES
The struggle against forced evictions and urban exclusion in Lagos is a multifaceted battle, deeply rooted in the city’s history, driven by capitalist interests, and exacerbated by the complexities of the legal system. Public interest litigation, while an essential tool for advocacy, has faced significant limitations due to the government’s disregard for court orders and bureaucratic obstacles. However, in the face of these challenges, there is a compelling argument for reinvigorating the conversation around resistance. It is not a time to relent or despair but rather to embrace the transformative power of organized urban social movements. These movements can become the crucibles of change, empowering the marginalized to assert their rights, challenge entrenched power imbalances, and demand the ‘right to the city.’
Taking cues from successful urban social movements like Abahlali Base Mjondolo, Lagos-based movements can mobilize communities, build coalitions, and employ diverse resistance strategies. By doing so, they can make their voices heard, foster transparency, and keep urban exclusion concerns at the forefront of the political agenda. In a city where rapid urbanization is reshaping its landscape, the imperative to resist and demand inclusive, human-centric urban development has never been more urgent.
Ultimately, the enduring promise of Lagos as a city that welcomes everyone will only be realized when it genuinely becomes a city where every resident, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can find a place to call home, free from the looming threat of forced evictions and exclusion from the opportunities the city has to offer. This is the vision for which urban social movements must passionately and persistently advocate⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].