Lagos Slum Was Razed for Its Waterfront, Residents Say

Otodo Gbame, a poor fishing community on the shores of a lagoon in Lagos, was razed by the police and a group of young men, according to residents and local activists, who say the motive was to take the land for development. Credit Pius Utomi Ekpei/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LAGOS, Nigeria — Dazed and wearing a blood-spattered undershirt, Blessing Dacodonu sat on the floor of a clinic propped above a murky lagoon, wondering where his brother was.

The men had been walking past a demolished slum on their morning commute when a mob wielding machetes attacked them, making them the latest casualties in a scramble for land in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, that sometimes turns violent. Mr. Dacodonu escaped with cuts to his forehead and a badly swollen eye. But in the chaos, he said, he and his brother were separated.

Residents and local activists say the police and a group of young men razed the slum, Otodo Gbame, a poor fishing community on the shores of a lagoon in Lagos, in early November. During the demolition and for a few weeks after, they say, havoc ensued. The mob set houses on fire, as many as 30,000 people were displaced, and anyone who resisted leaving was attacked. A community activist says at least 10 people died in the clashes.

The same fate has befallen other slums in Lagos, according to Megan Chapman, a founder of the Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, a nonprofit that monitors land rights in Nigeria. State governments and developers have been descending on these settlements recently, clearing them out to make way for development.

Lagos is the commercial capital of one of Africa’s largest economies. Its population, an estimated 21 million people, is thought to grow by thousands each day. The new arrivals, from elsewhere in the country, hope for more opportunities in Lagos. But often they end up no better off than before; in Nigeria, two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.

Those who cannot afford to live in the city’s luxury high-rises or even the many rundown housing developments wind up in places like Otodo Gbame, a cluster of wood and sheet-metal shacks behind stylish houses in Lekki.

Activists decried the demolition of Otodo Gbame as an officially sanctioned land grab done at the behest of an influential family.

The demolitions may have also violated international law, said Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing, who called the violence that accompanied the settlement’s leveling “deeply disturbing.”

Ms. Chapman, whose organization investigated the Otodo Gbame demolition, said that when the mob attacked the settlement in early November, it set fire to houses, sending people fleeing in boats onto the lagoon.

The community leader called the police to help, but when officers arrived, they started shooting in the air to disperse residents, according to activists and Celestine Ahisu, a resident who witnessed the clashes.

Mr. Ahisu said that rather than put out the fires, the police arrested more than two dozen people and later returned with a bulldozer, flattening hundreds of structures, including the community’s mosque and two churches.

A teacher and paralegal in the community, Kunnu Paul, said at least 10 people died in the chaos. Most drowned in the lagoon, but two children were trapped in a burning shack.

A state government spokesman, Steve Ayorinde, has since denied, however, that local authorities had anything to do with the destruction or the ensuing violence.

“While the Otodo Gbame shanties clearly fell within the prime waterfront areas where Lagos state government would prefer to have better development, befitting of a prime area in a megacity, it was mindful of the fundamental rights of the various residents living in the area,” he said in a statement.

But the demolition did not come out of nowhere. Weeks earlier, the state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, pledged to clear Lagos of the packed shantytowns that line its waterways, saying the settlements are havens for criminals.

There was then an international outcry over the proposed demolitions and an order from a judge barring the state from carrying out its plan.

It proved futile.

Activists have accused an influential family — the Elegushis — of being behind the demolition of Otodo Gbame. The Elegushi family is a landowning dynasty whose property includes large parcels in the city’s Lekki suburb. The family also has ties to the state government.

“They want the land,” said Sani Mohammed, coordinator of policy and advocacy for the Nigerian federation of the Shack Dwellers International, an advocacy group for people living in poor communities.

Ms. Chapman said the Elegushis began claiming two years ago that they had the rights to the land under Otodo Gbame. There have been attempts to resolve the dispute in court, but they have proved inconclusive.

The family has argued that it had received a court order granting it a title to the land, according to a statement from the family’s spokesman that was released to the local news media.

In the statement, the family blamed fighting within the community for the violence connected to the demolitions. Residents dispute that.

Weeks after the demolitions, Mr. Ahisu, a resident who witnessed the initial clashes, watched from afar as a crowd scavenged valuables from the wreckage of their former dwellings.

He and other residents said they feared being attacked if they intervened.

“We are worried because we don’t have the police protecting us,” Mr. Ahisu said. “Our life is not safe here.”

Otodo Gbame has existed for perhaps a century, said Mr. Paul, the teacher and paralegal in the community, but the people living there do not have full legal rights to the land.

People without the complete paperwork for the land they are occupying are easily pushed off, said Ed Keazor, a property rights lawyer who has litigated cases in Lagos.

“In Nigeria, if you have low-income squatters in the property, rather than getting a court order, you just get the police to get them out,” Mr. Keazor said. “It’s not strictly legal, but it’s done.”

Ms. Chapman’s organization, which petitioned a police unit based in the capital to investigate the violence, has argued that the police in Lagos have been co-opted by the Elegushis. Shortly after officers based in the capital, Abuja, detained two members of the family suspected of organizing the violence, a separate group of officers based in Lagos tried to arrest six Otodo Gbame residents who had been meeting with the family’s representatives.

The Otodo Gbame residents are now suing to gain title to the land. But Nigerian courts are notoriously slow, and the slum’s entrance remains guarded by armed men who attack lone travelers, like Blessing Dacodonu and his brother Yemajlo Ferdinend.

Mr. Ferdinend was taken captive by the attackers for three days and beaten before being reunited with his brother Blessing, Mr. Mohammed said.

The brothers had lived in Chisco Ikate, a neighboring shantytown where many say they are fearful they will be the next targets of the bulldozers. They have since moved to a community miles from Otodo Gbame, where they hope they can live safely.

Source: NYTimes