Life has never been the same for the residents of Maroko, a slum community in Lagos State, since government bulldozers besieged the settlement and left destruction in their wake in July 1990. In a blink, Maroko – home to over 300 000 people – was gone. Centuries of history had been leveled to the ground.
The military governor of the state at the time, Colonel Raji Rasaki, apportioned and sold off the land to real-estate developers. Newspaper headlines screamed bloody murder; political opponents seized the opportunity to score some points; and the international community cried foul.
But more than 20 years later, what was once Maroko is now one of Nigeria’s most expensive settlements, with properties going for millions of Naira. Repackaged as a plush upscale settlement with skyscrapers dotting its skyline, posh residential homes, expensive hotels, and tourism centres, the Lekki Peninsula is a fast-growing commercial and residential neighbourhood that is home to some of Nigeria’s highest income earners, celebrities and high-brow business.
More than 20 years later, what was once Maroko is now one of Nigeria’s most expensive settlements.
Those real-estate developments have resulted in increased revenue for the state and placed Lagos on the world map. No one remembers the blood and tears that went into that place. The world has moved on.
A small city, making the loudest noise
Despite its status as the smallest federal state in Nigeria, in terms of land mass, Lagos is a conurbation, often referred to as a city, and has an estimated population of over 20 million people. And its population keeps growing. In the last 50 years, it has become one of the biggest cities in the world, attracting millions not just from within Nigeria but across the world. It is estimated that on any given day about 123 840 people migrate into Lagos, with no plan to leave.
Statistics show that even though Lagos has no single economic nerve centre or identity, it has the fifth-largest economy in Africa. It is the only state within Nigeria that can thrive without the federal government’s monthly financial allocation.
However, the history of Lagos shows a long trail of the government suppressing poor and low-income earners in the name of urban development. The question is: Would Lagos have grown to this extent if it hadn’t favoured one economic class over the other? And it appears to be yes, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Maroko was not the first place to fall victim to the expansion of Lagos, Africa’s largest city. The urban poor have been paying the cost of building a new mega city – which the relatively new state government has dubbed ‘Itesiwaju Eko’ (Progressive Lagos) in the Yoruba language – since pre-colonial times.
There was the removal and relocation of several residents of the Oniru community to build Victoria Island in the 1940s; the evictions of Isale Eko (now known as Lagos Island) to make the area more pleasing for the Queen of England’s visit to colonial Nigeria in 1956; the continuous evictions that occurred around Lagos during the 1970s and 1980s; the demolition of parts of Makoko waterside slum in 2013; and the 2016 ban on hawking in the urban centre. And each time, the state government found an excuse to legitimize its actions. (Some of such excuses include illegal occupation, health risks and urban development.)
Earlier in 2017, the Lagos State Task Force attacked and demolished Otodo Gbame, a slum waterfront settlement composed mostly of fishermen who had lived in the area for centuries.
Even though the state government claimed that Otodo Gbame was razed because of crime and militancy, residents and civil-rights workers note that the settlement sat on a particularly eye-catching space within Lekki Phase 1 – an area that could earn the government millions if it was commercialized. The state government, in collaboration with the powerful Elegushi family and other investors, now intends to build a USD300 million metropolis, called Imperial International Business City (IIBC), on the vacated land.
It is a difficult argument to make that suppressing the urban poor will lead to economic development, but history has a funny way of judging things. Fifty years hence, will Lagos be remembered as the city that trampled on its poor to grow or will it be remembered as a city that consistently made ambitious efforts to become better than it was?
Is this the social cost Lagos must pay for development? Though built on contentious land, the IIBC will earn the state government more revenue than Otodo Gbame could ever generate, as well as create more job opportunities and business. All told, a USD300 million mini-city will go a long way in moving the state’s economy forward.
What is the cost of development?
Over the past six weeks, I have met with evicted persons from Otodo Gbame. Most are homeless, living in their boats, exposed to the rain and sun. It is a heartbreaking situation, but for places like Lagos to attract foreign investment and talents, several urban development projects must be championed and executed – even at the cost of slum destruction. Though the state must still ensure that all citizens, regardless of social class and status, should have access to the amenities and infrastructures necessary for optimum survival.
Predictably, residents and investors are attracted to a city once it begins to show signs of growth. At present, fuelled by the flow of investment and migration, Lagos is experiencing a real-estate boom. To meet this increased demand in infrastructure and tourism, displacement and land grabbing by both the government and local elites is taking place and Lagos landowners and influential citizens are experiencing huge paydays as a result.
Lagos has successfully diversified its economy – something Nigeria herself has not been able to. Hence, it takes the lead in culture, business, entertainment, arts and development. Because of this Lagosians are fiercely proud of their city and can be quite condescending to citizens from other parts of the country. This is something of a hypocritical stance and means that, tacitly, Lagosians are supporting these demolitions.
We Lagosians live on land where forceful evictions took place while we condemn the government for its ongoing evictions. We also call for better representation of the city when it is shown in Western media to be perpetuating a story of poverty and underdevelopment. We point out that Lagos has well-developed urban centers, forgetting that these places were once the sites of tragedies and loss. We praise developments in Victoria Island and Lekki (both slum communities once) but criticize when Otodo Gbame is razed. In a few years, when Otodo Gbame becomes a far better version of itself, properties will be bought up quickly and pictures will be shared on social media in praise of the development. We will forget the tragedy there and the cycle will continue.
We Lagosians live on land where forceful evictions took place while we condemn the government for its ongoing evictions.
The future cost of forced eviction in Lagos
However, if history has taught us anything it is that capitalism, backed by a total lack of morality, good conscience and ideology, as it is in Nigeria, causes social harm, and in the long run it bounces back, bit by bit, till its fundamental problems are addressed.
Lagos was built on fiendish capitalism and the hopeful aspiration of migrants. The city has consistently survived by maintaining a total disregard for social justice and equity. And this is a fact littered throughout the history of the state, since before its creation as a federating entity.
Lagos was built on fiendish capitalism and the hopeful aspiration of migrants.
According to reports by the World Bank and African Property Investment (API), two of every three resident in Lagos live in a slum. This goes a long way in showing that a good number of residents are denied the benefits of good governance and have become easy targets of the state government’s policies that place them at a disadvantage.
Beyond the economic consequence of eviction is the sad reality that the state government has consistently failed to provide adequate protection and provisions for the citizens forcefully removed from their homes. This has led to a situation where governance is perceived to be available only for the elite, while low-income citizens are left to their own designs. This does not inspire loyalty and patriotism; instead, it creates distrust and bad blood between the government and the governed.
There is also the fact that the multiple evictions across Lagos have broken up families and forced children out of school, leaving them reliant on donors and NGOs for survival. Thus, thousands of children are left uneducated, stuck in poverty, with little hope of escaping. What, then, is the hope of Lagos’s future?
Historically, evictees displaced from their homes go on to live in other slums or begin the process of re-establishing more slums in different areas. There are no statistics to show what happened to persons evicted from Oniru in the 1940s but we know some of them migrated to Maroko and Otodo Gbame. And according to the JEI, an NGO working with the urban poor, following the Otodo Gbame demolitions, displaced people have been traced to over 18 locations within Lagos – including Makoko, another waterside slum.
True, the actions of the state government will attract investors and new businesses, increase revenue and solidify Lagos as a cultural centre, but it comes at a price that future generations might pay.
You do not repress a people, deny them social benefits and welfare, take away their homes and identity, and expect nothing in return. By pushing people further into poverty and offering little or no hope of escaping it, the state risks growing a population of people who are angry at the system and society, while creating precedent for future governments to disregard equity and treat citizens unfairly.
It is impossible not to see that the widening gap between the social classes and government’s inclination towards one class over all others might lead to insecurity, violence and, possibly, ethnic rivalry, putting people at risk of criminal behaviours that will inadvertently hurt the same class of people that are so well favoured now.
Government policies and actions that lack an inclusive social outlook might experience a backlash in other ways – not today, or tomorrow, but some day.