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The demolition of waterfront settlements in Lagos

ON October 9 this year, Lagos State governor,  Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, visited Ilubirin, a waterfront community in Lagos, and announced that all shanties in Lagos would be demolished seven days later. The Lagos State Building Control Agency also reiterated the governor’s declaration, affirming that all shanties on the waterways in the state would be demolished.

According to Ambode, the planned demolitions were consequent on the escalation of kidnapping in the state, which he  said was being facilitated by the sprawling waterfront structures in the state. Governor Ambode emphasised that the kidnapping incidents were perpetrated by dwellers of the shanties whom he referred to as ‘illegal’ occupants. The government, which described all such settlements as a ‘security threat’, chose to take adequate steps in stemming the tide of kidnapping, according to the  state Commissioner for Information, Steve Ayorinde.

However, on November 7, a Lagos State High Court ordered the state government to immediately suspend its planned demolition of shanties along creeks and waterways in the state. The  court granted the prayers of a community-based group, Incorporated Trustees of Community Legal  Support Initiative and 35 occupants of various waterfront communities, for an interim injunction restraining the state government from carrying out the demolition and from evicting occupants of the communities pending the determination of the suit. But the government went ahead with the demolition.

Insofar as kidnapping remains an untamed monster in the country and has even assumed very dangerous dimensions in recent times, the resolve of the Lagos State government to tackle the menace headlong must be commended. It would indeed have been foolhardy, if not downright irresponsible, for a government intent on securing lives and property in Nigeria’s busiest state and gateway to the outside world to ignore the threats posed by criminals hibernating in undeveloped areas of the state and thus endanger the majority of the people.  Governor Ambode’s resolve to rid the Lagos waterfront settlements of criminals and uplift the state’s urbanisation status is therefore quite in order.

However, it is rather unfortunate that the government  carried out the demolitions in contravention of a court order. This is simply lawlessness and it is unbecoming of a government elected to uphold the rule of law. Again, there is a conundrum yet to be unraveled: where will the displaced people go? If a government decides that displacing as many as 300,000 people is the fortification a state has to pass through to achieve sanity, what will be the fate of the displaced? If democracy has not stopped being the government of the people, by the people and for the people, then, acting as if 300,000 citizens do not matter is highly objectionable. By forcing these residents off the waterfronts with no genuine consultations, no provision of housing alternatives or financial compensation, the Lagos State government has unwittingly defeated not only the very essence of democracy but in fact governance itself.

According to Amnesty International, more than two million people have been forcibly evicted from their homes in different parts of Nigeria since 2000. The evictions were carried out without adequate prior consultation, notice or compensation. In September 2015, approximately 10,200 residents of Badia-East community in Ijora area of Lagos were forcibly evicted, and many of them remain homeless and dependent on family and friends. The state government is, till date, yet to provide any compensation or resettlement to them. It would thus be perfectly legitimate to ask if the Ambode-led administration plans to do things differently this time around. What is the resettlement plan for the traumatized waterfront residents? Sadly, the answers to these questions are unavailable. In its bid to solve one problem, the government may end up creating a myriad of problems by letting people loose with no shelter or source of livelihood.

We categorically reject the argument that the affected communities are illegal. Residents of these so-called shanties have always exercised their franchise in state and national elections. Indeed, members of the Lagos slum community and fishermen protested at the Government House, Alausa, with placards bearing inscriptions that reminded the governor that slum dwellers also voted for him. It is also evident that there were organs of government administering the waterfront settlements. These government organs collected taxes and levies from the residents. Were those taxes illegal?

That people are poor and occupy waterfronts doesn’t automatically make them kidnappers or less worthy citizens. Most of the people are hardworking fishermen who toil to fend for their families. The Lagos State government should have worked in partnership with the residents to smoke out criminals from the settlements instead of throwing the entire communities into destitution.

We call on the Lagos State government to provide alternative accommodation to the displaced citizens without further delay and take whatever steps are necessary to alleviate their suffering.