On one side of the Lagos lagoon the Pharaonic project of Eko Atlantic City, on the other the poor people who have to step aside with the evictions
Agala Ajebo Onisiwo is a tiny island on the edge of the Lagos bay. It is stranded between Apapa pier, one of the port hubs of Nigeria’s economic capital, and Tarkwa Bay, an open community on the Atlantic Ocean, where a small tourism industry has long existed.
Today it is off limits: the navy has cleared the communities that lived there since the Second World War and do not want anyone to approach it. They were dilapidated houses, little more than shacks, but they were all for the inhabitants of a community where there was also a school and an evangelical church. Everything destroyed. The veterans moved a little further North, to the first strip of earth, mud and marshes where they found some peace. At least for now.
It can only be reached by pirogue, from the pier overlooking Marina Road, in one of the areas where the skyscrapers of the West African locomotive stand taller. You pass through huge oil tankers and tiny cargo ships. From the waters agitated by the traffic of the lagoon, we arrive at the Badagry Creek property. Low vegetation, sand, waste: there will be about 150 people on the island, divided into three agglomerations. The reference point is the baobab in the shade of, which the fishermen spend the slop of the day, in a bowl. Children scratch around with goats, women try to shelter inside a kind of gazebo.
There is misery: the assets of all the inhabitants are piled up in a clearing next to the only structure left standing, the bathrooms. From November 2019 to February 2020, tens of thousands of people have been evicted from this and 22 other communities scattered around the Lagos lagoon, the same residents estimate. At least 4,500 were driven out of Tarkwa Bay on 21 January alone. Around 70 per cent of the inhabitants of Lagos live in similar housing conditions.
From Dubai in Lagos to the bottom of Tarkwa Bay
On the other side of the Lagos canal however, there is what must be the city of the future: Eko Atlantic City, 10 square kilometres of construction site where offices, luxury apartments and a mega commercial district will be built. The poor of the lagoon will have to step aside: where they lived they say that a port will be enlarged and other structures will be built for the residents of Eko Atlantic City. This urban development was originally designed to protect the island in front of Eko Atlantic, called Victoria Island and the commercial heart of Lagos, from the sea floods that have often flooded it in recent years.
But there are many critical rumours that Eko Atlantic will protect only the island of Victoria, conveying the floods of the ocean in the areas where the poorest communities live, which have no infrastructure that can defend them. From the Eko Atlantic press office, they claim to have passed the environmental impact assessment with flying colours and above all categorically deny any possible implication with the evictions. “They are not our land,” they explain. According to the evicted, the government used the excuse of damage to the oil pipelines to drive them out. But movements defending the rights of local communities claim that the reason is the commercial value of those lands, especially around Eko Atlantic City. They feel like in a nightmare, which started last Christmas Eve.
“I live as a refugee in my own country. I wake up in the cold, with nothing to do, without my shop. Look at me,” says Aremo Solomon Adewnmi, 34 years old, until January, manager of a small grocery store in the Tarkwa Bay community.
“I am a disabled person (he is lame). I would still like to work but the Lagos Government prevents me from doing so.
“The government wants me to become a criminal, an oil thief. But here we don’t do it.”
The reference is to the criminal groups that steal oil since at least the nineties, but this has never happened in these parts. Yet it is the official excuse with which Solomon was expelled from his home.
“We don’t understand what’s going on. The navy accused us of oil theft but the authorities never considered talking to our bosses. They threatened us, they even shot a man who is still in the hospital.”
Chief Saheed Onisiwu is the delegate of the king of the local community. It belongs to the family that has reigned on this piece of land for hundreds of years. Yes, a royal family: in Nigeria, under the federal and national apparatus, there is a parastatal fabric that precedes the arrival of the settlers. Hundreds of kingdoms and caliphates divided into communities. The chief is a delegate, who represents the king in public events. Chief Onisiwu is a descendant of the ruling family of seven million inhabitants, which also includes the six evicted communities in Tarkwa Bay. In the European context, it would be a country with a population comparable to that of Switzerland.
“We need progress, come, let’s negotiate the conditions,” he shouts in an appeal to the authorities of Lagos State.
In this picture of poverty and abandonment, the man wears a very showy pink silk kembe (traditional dress), under which black moccasins sparkle. A large red necklace hangs from his neck to his belly. In his hand he holds a small bag and a stick whose handle looks like an eagle’s head, golden. Although the outfit would suggest the opposite, he too lives in that intertwining of mud and sheet metal. Around the heir of the royal family, the crowd mumbles approvals. Whose fault is this absurd situation?
“We don’t know what’s going on, but we do know there is something,” says the boss.
“I heard shots in the air. Then I saw the bulldozers starting to demolish. They wanted us to leave in two hours: they beat people with koboko (a whip) to hurry up.”
Vincent Fayemi, a 60-year-old evangelical pastor, is leaning against a desk along with four other evicted from Tarkwa Bay. It is a Saturday afternoon in late January in Sabo Yaba, a central district of Lagos. A movement has gathered here to the Justice and Empowerment Initiative, which gathers evictions of over 10 years in Nigeria and beyond, for a meeting. They are organising a protest outside government offices.
Together with the other evicted, Fayemi sleeps on the street, although the law requires that those, who suffer eviction be moved to some new structure and receive compensation for what they have lost. Along with the four from Tarkwa Bay, there are scores of other people, who come from previous evictions. The youngest of the Tarkwa Bay group is Prudence, who is around 18 years old. She was studying in a community school to be a fashion designer. Lagos is a city at the forefront of fashion and the professions that are developing more and more closely resemble those to which peers in Europe or North America aspire.
“Now I live on the street, even eating has become a problem. I don’t know what will happen to us, we have no money. My mother is a merchant, but they destroyed her shop,” she says in her singsong English, too musical for the harshness of the story she has to tell.
“There is a cyclical trend in the evictions: they reach zero during the election campaigns, and then increase immediately afterwards. It is a time when there is a reduction in the space for protests and the first on which the government is making a comeback are the poor of the slums who have land as the only wealth,” explains Megan Chapman.
American by birth, she has lived in Lagos for 10 years where she leads JEI after working in international cooperation. The meeting that leads seems to be an evangelical mass: the speaker must stand up with a declaim formula to which the rest of the audience must respond.
Chapman helps the movement legally: she is waging several battles to demand the relocation of the evicted and compensation for what they have lost during the demolitions. In June 2017, the JEI obtained a favourable ruling for the community of Otodo Gbame, in the North-Eastern part of the island of Victoria, near another luxury neighbourhood. They were evicted between November 2016 and April 2017. Estimates say that at least 30,000 families lived there.
“Local authorities have appealed the sentence and the next hearing will be set in June 2021. In the meantime, they are using this excuse to not comply with the first-degree sentence,” she explains with a smile that betrays all frustration.
“If it were true that they want to combat oil thefts, which are in fact a problem, they would have arrested someone,” she adds. “But no, they just wanted the land. Eko Atlantic is a web of public and private interests. The state of Lagos has also approved this eviction, there must be an interest in the development of the area.”
On January 28, a few hundred protesters parade through Toll Gate – a highway junction in the Northern part of the city, up to Alausa, the district home to government buildings. The walk takes about an hour, on the edge of the roads bottled with cars, as always happens in the Nigerian megalopolis. Together with the evicted people, there is a large portion of people with disabilities belonging to a group that works with JEI. They came to express solidarity. The crowd moves more and more excitedly as we approach the government headquarters.
The land grabbing phenomenon occurs when a piece of land permanently inhabited by a community, often informal or poor, is taken up by force by the national authority or reassigned to private individuals, without involving the inhabitants in the decisions.
As soon as the palace guards see the hustle and bustle, they close the gates of the driveway to the government building. The immediate reaction is anger: someone hangs on the gate, shaking it. After a few hours of stalemate, a written petition is passed over the bars: the promise is that within 24 hours an official response will be given. Communities are still waiting for that.
The story was done in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, and developed with the support of the Money Trail Project (www.money-trail.org)