Timu Elijah was heavily pregnant and asleep at her shanty town home in the Otodo-Gbame area on the water’s edge of Lagos, when she was woken up by her neighbours.
“People were running helter-skelter, shouting, ‘They’re shooting, they’re setting houses on fire’,” she told AFP. In the confusion, her five-year-old son went missing.
Timu, 30, is convinced the trauma of looking for her son made her go into early labour. Yet even three days after the birth, she too was evicted and her home demolished.
“I escaped with the baby as people destroyed and burned down the houses,” she said, bouncing Faithful — the little girl born in the chaos — on her hip.
“I couldn’t carry anything from the house because I had the baby,” she added.
Seven months on and with still no sign of her youngest son, Timu and her husband live with Faithful and their two other children in another slum in Nigeria’s biggest city, struggling to make ends meet.
“My husband is a fisherman but he can’t fish. We eat from what people give us,” she said.
– Forced out –
Timu’s story is desperate but not unique: more than 30,000 people in Otodo-Gbame and the Ilubirin areas of Lagos have been made homeless in the last year.
Now, on the eve of the first anniversary of the removals, the Lagos state authorities are being urged to call a halt to what has been called a barely disguised land-grab.
Amnesty International on Tuesday published a new report into the evictions, branding them “unlawful” and calling for an investigation into claims of violence.
At least 11 people are said to have died and 17 others disappeared as the bulldozers moved in, backed up by police and unidentified men armed with machetes, guns and axes.
Schools and a health clinic were razed and residents were forced into canoes to flee tear gas and live bullets.
Amnesty’s country director Osai Ojigho said residents at the well-established informal settlements — most of them impoverished fisherfolk — had lost everything.
“The Lagos state authorities must halt these attacks on poor communities who are being punished for the state’s urban planning failures,” she said.
“The instability and uncertainty created by forced evictions is making their lives a misery as they are left completely destitute.”
– Growth pressures –
Nigeria, which is home to some 180 million people and is predicted to become the third-most populous nation in the world by 2050, has an unenviable record on forced evictions.
The United Nations has said at least two million people were moved to make way for development projects between 2000 and 2009.
The 30,000 forced from their homes at night and with little or no notice in Otodo-Gbame and Ilubirin are among 50,000 evicted in Lagos state in the last four years.
Lagos state has a population of more than 23 million — most of them in the megacity of the same name — and is growing at a rate of 3.2 percent a year, according to state figures.
At least 70 percent of the population or 15 million people live in densely populated informal settlements on any available land. Most of them earn less than $1 a day.
The evictions in Otodo-Gbame and Ilubirin — in defiance of a court order — were to make way for luxury waterfront housing projects.
Plots have since been seen selling for up to $500,000, according to Amnesty’s report: “The Human Cost of a Megacity. Forced Evictions of the Urban Poor in Lagos, Nigeria.”
– Hopeful –
Those evicted say they have not received compensation or been rehoused, while no-one can afford to rent property via the state government’s low-cost housing scheme.
In Otodo-Gbame, former residents said rent was about 3,000 naira ($8, seven euros) a month.
On the Lagos state scheme the cheapest one-room property is nearly 16,000 naira and requires a down-payment of 75,000 naira.
The state government rejected the Amnesty report for “apparent bias, inaccuracies and exaggerations”.
It claimed Otodo-Gbame was private land and legal action had ruled in favour of the owners.
It repeated assertions that clearance was linked to security and environmental health concerns and said an investigation established it was “a temporary fishing outpost”.
“It is an illegal settlement that should not be allowed to use emotionalism and sensationalism to forcibly take over a private property,” it said in a statement.
Raymond Gold, from the Nigerian Slum and Informal Settlement Federation, said the government’s reluctance to open themselves up to scrutiny over redevelopment was not unusual.
For Timu, she said she was just glad people were talking about the issue.
“I’m hopeful that one day the government will listen,” she added.