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Lagos poor left homeless by ruthless modernisation bid

The Otode Gbame fishing community lies between two upmarket districts and was completely razed in early November © AFP / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

Lagos, Nigeria, Dec 2 – Efforts by Lagos authorities to turn Nigeria’s chaotic commercial capital into a modern megacity have run into controversy after the demolition of an impoverished waterfront neighbourhood left 30,000 people homeless.

With swanky private estates and a glittering new city under construction on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, housing for some of the 20 million people living in notoriously-dysfunctional Lagos appears to be getting better.

But as the city undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis, many are experiencing the brutal reality of rapid urbanisation.

The latest casualty was Otodo Gbame, a poor fishing community close to the upmarket southeastern district of Lekki, which was completely razed in early November as part of a growing drive to remove shanty towns.

Between November 9 and 11, the district was set alight then bulldozed, reducing tens of thousands of homes to piles of smouldering wood and corrugated iron.

The demolition of shanty town Otodo Gbame has left 30,000 homeless as Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos undergoes rapid urbanisation © AFP / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

At least three people died when armed police moved in with bulldozers, setting fire to the area and chasing some residents into the nearby lagoon, locals said. They say they were given no warning.

Now homeless but with nowhere else to go, residents huddle together miserably under makeshift structures built out of rubble.

Mostly from the ethnic Egun tribe, they trace their roots to Benin but say they have been living in Lagos for over a century.

But like the vast majority of the city’s poor, they do not have title deeds to prove it.

– ‘We will fight this’ –

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They accuse the state authorities of conspiring with a prominent Lagos family to seize the land and sell it to the highest bidder.

“They are not happy that we the poor are living close to them.

“Each time, they look through the windows of their mansions and see us, their anger rises,” Toshun Pascal, a pastor in the community, told AFP.

“We are going to fight this injustice with the last drop of our blood.”

Otodo Gbame used to lie between upscale neighbourhood Lekki Phase 1 and Elegushi housing estate, an exclusive area where residents drive Mercedes and Range Rover cars.

Fishermen in the Otodo Gbame waterfront fishing communities in Lagos earn around $47 a month © AFP / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

Pascal said more than 20 residents, including the community leader, had been detained for weeks “for instigating the violence.”

But Lagos authorities dismissed accusations they ordered the demolitions, claiming a fight between the Egun and their Yoruba neighbours caused the fire which burnt down the community.

They said police only arrived on the scene to restore order and ensure that “the arson did not spread.”

– ‘Deliberately torched’ –

Governor Akinwunmi Ambode had in October hinted at a plan to demolish waterfront shanties in a move to rid the city of criminals, who hide there.

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But Amnesty International warned that such a move would risk leaving tens of thousands of people homeless.

And after the fires, the London-based watchdog said the community was “deliberately set alight”, demanding an independent inquiry into the “forced evictions”.

“Lagos State Government is trying to evade its responsibilities to Otodo Gbame residents by denying involvement in the state’s biggest forced evictions in recent times,” Amnesty said, insisting that those responsible be prosecuted.

Lagos has a history of demolishing entire neighbourhoods.

In 1990, the authorities demolished Maroko, a shanty town in the well-heeled suburb of Victoria Island, forcing some 300,000 out of their homes.

On the site where it once stood, there now stands a popular South African shopping mall with international chains that caters to the city’s elite.

– Housing for the poor? –

Noah Shemede, director of a floating school in Makoko, another waterfront neighbourhood in Lagos, said residents are living in fear.

“We don’t know when the caterpillars will roll in,” Shemede told AFP. “It’s Otodo Gbame today, it can be Makoko tomorrow.”

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Government plans to build 1,000 new flats would not help those left homeless, Shemede said.

“Where will a poor fisherman get 3.5 million naira ($11,000 dollars) to buy a flat?” he said, indicating that a fisherman’s monthly wage is around 15,000 naira a month — the equivalent of $47 (45 euros).

Building experts say hundreds of thousands of people are in need of shelter in the city and are urging the government to provide affordable houses for the poor.

“A housing scheme is meant to be a social contract between the government and the people,” said Adeniyi Adams, managing director of KnightStone Properties, a Lagos-based firm of estate developers.

He said the Nigerian government should provide funding for private developers to invest in lower-income housing so it isn’t just the rich who prosper in the city.

“It’s only then we can say Lagos is truly a megacity,” local conservationist Michael Kobah said.

Other world-class cities look out for all their citizens, he said.

“Lagos can’t be an exception.”

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