In Nigeria’s Largest City, Homeless Are Paying the Price of Progress

Published: March 1, 2013
LAGOS, Nigeria — The young man with the crowbar stood on a heap of rubble — planks, pallets, remains of pots, bits of cardboard, wisps of clothing, chunks of concrete — indistinguishable from every other pile in a field of debris stretching far into the distance.

“This is the home I am staying in before Fashola demolished it,” said John Momoh, 28, looking down at the pile, referring to the governor of Lagos, Babatunde Fashola. Mr. Momoh, a driver, searched doggedly for anything salvageable — a nail, a board — in the mess.

Government backhoes came in and plowed through Mr. Momoh’s simple wooden dwelling and some 500 like it last Saturday, instantly making homeless perhaps 10,000 of Lagos’s poorest residents and destroying a decades-old slum, Badia East. For days, residents wandered the chaotic rubble-strewn field, near prime Lagos real estate.

They were dazed and angry. Small children slept on the muddy ground. Men climbed the mounds of rubble, searching. In intense heat, women, men and children said they were hungry and sleeping outside. The government had destroyed their present, they said, without making any provision for their future.

“I lost everything,” Mr. Momoh said. “We are trying to bring out some sticks, to look for our daily bread,” he said, poking the rubble. “We don’t have money to eat.”

A 30-year-old cook, Kingsley Saviouru, said: “They demolished everything. They didn’t give us anything. We are here, suffering.”

Samuel James for The New York Times

Children scavenge through the remains of a demolition site in Lagos in search of scrap wood to sell.

Under Lagos’s energetic governor, much lauded in the international financial media, this crowded megalopolis of high rises, filthy lagoons, fierce traffic jams and sprawling slums, home to perhaps 21 million people, has proclaimed its ambition to become the region’s, if not Africa’s, premier business center.

Infrastructure and housing projects abound, including a light-rail network whose trestles already vault crowded neighborhoods, and a vast upmarket Dubai-style shopping and housing development built out into the Atlantic Ocean, inaugurated last week by former President Bill Clinton. A new Porsche dealership has opened in the financial district.

In this gleaming vision, the old Lagos of slums has an uncertain future. Two-thirds of the city’s residents live in “informal” neighborhoods, as activists call them, while more than one million of the city’s poor have been forcibly ejected from their homes in largely unannounced, government slum clearances over the last 15 years, a leading activist group says.

Last summer, there was a brief outcry when government speedboats bearing machete-carrying men cleared out the floating neighborhood of Makoko, making some 30,000 people homeless. At the vast city dump at Ojota, where thousands eke out a living, shacks are cleared out frequently, residents complained.

The Nigerian government’s untender approach to its poor, who account for at least 70 percent of the population, was again on full display last Saturday at Badia East, where even more demolition — another 40,000 live there — is now threatened. The scene Saturday was classic: a black police vehicle pulled up early, armed, uniformed policemen sprang out to quell any restiveness, and the backhoes went to work under the eyes of dismayed residents, slashing through thin wood and concrete block.

Street toughs — called “Area Boys” in Lagos, and often employed by the state government’s demolition squad for around $10, activists said — got busy where the backhoes could not penetrate, smashing flimsy structures with sledgehammers and, Mr. Momoh and others said, stealing residents’ possessions.

Many said they were given 20 minutes, at most, to pack up their belongings.

“Everybody was running helter-skelter,” said a resident, Femi Aiyenuro, adding that those who went back in to retrieve possessions risked being beaten with rifle butts and batons. “They started beating people.”

What little that could be salvaged was piled along a railway line running along Badia’s edge.

“They were flogging me,” said Charity Julius, 27 and pregnant. She said she ran into her dwelling to fetch her baby boy, and once he was safely out, she ran back to gather as many possessions as she could. The police did not like that and beat her, she said, showing a bruise on her right arm as evidence.

The Lagos state commissioner for housing, Adedeji Olatubosun Jeje, provided a different version of events.
“It’s a regeneration of a slum,” he said. “We gave enough notification. The government intends to develop 1,008 housing units. What we removed was just shanties. Nobody was even living in those shanties. Maybe we had a couple of squatters living there.”
As for the new housing, “there’s not a chance they can afford it,” said Felix Morka, executive director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center, a local economic rights group, adding that Badia residents earn under $100 a month on average. The World Bank had previously included Badia on a list of slum communities for upgrade, Mr. Morka noted.

That list is now moot. Within six hours, Badia East was gone.
“We don’t have anywhere to stay,” said Joy Austin, a mother of three. “Everybody is outside now. We don’t have anywhere to go.”
Her sleeping accommodation is now a filthy foam mattress placed on cardboard, in the mud; her children sleep under low torn mosquito nets.
A wig pokes out of the rubble; nearby are a few bras, a child’s toy gun, some CDs, a torn shirt, a crushed shampoo bottle, and some flip-flops. At the edge of the rubble-field, small boys played makeshift table tennis on two boards placed atop jerrycans while a young man pushed a wheelbarrow of salvaged wood with a small Nigerian flag tied to it. In the evening, boys who clambered barefoot over the upturned, nail-studded boards received painful wounds.
Mr. Morka, a Harvard-trained lawyer who is challenging the state government in court over the demolitions, said: “They want a Lagos that looks good, that feels good, that glitters. But they are well aware that Lagos is Lagos because of the people that live here. They are doing this without regard for the people who live here.”
That sentiment — that the government had, bewilderingly, declared open season on its own people — permeated the Badia residents.
“I don’t know the reason why they do all this,” said Ms. Austin, as other residents crowded around. “I don’t know why they break everything. We don’t expect it, now. People were still sleeping. We didn’t pack up anything.”
Mr. Aiyenuro, a security guard who said he had built his house himself, said: “We had thousands of people living here. Now, everything is destroyed.”
Nobody said they were leaving the area. “There’s a misguided belief that if you demolish the slum, they will just go back to the village,” said Megan Chapman, an American lawyer who works with Mr. Morka. “It’s completely untrue. They don’t just disappear.”
Here and there, hot anger at the governor, Mr. Fashola, flashed out of the crowd.
“We’re not criminals!” shouted Peter Patersoa, a 39-year-old bricklayer and father of a one-month-old. “Fashola is doing wrong work! He’s not doing good in Lagos State.”
Another crowd gathered. “We are hoping in God to favor us,” Mr. Aiyenuro said. “Please, we are suffering.”

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