It was already past noon when we arrived in Sogunro, a part of the Makoko slum settlement in Lagos, Nigeria. The road leading up to the slum is a mishmash of paradoxes: upper to lower middle-class homes dot the roadside, ending with the lowest of the low: Makoko.
A slum community that sits on the mouth of the Lagos Lagoon and is composed mostly of wooden structures with corrugated iron sheets, Makoko feels like a world away from the tarred streets and brick houses at its edges.
There is a stench in Sogunro. It is the stench of poverty, hopelessness and hunger, mixed with decay, dirty water, excreta and smoke. This is not the Lagos I know; in fact, it is not the Lagos many know.
I have come to seek out some of the survivors of the April attack carried out by the Lagos State task force on the Otodo Gbame waterfront settlement in Lekki. I am joined by Paul Kunnu, a small-framed man and the former head teacher at a school in the now demolished settlement.
— place (@thisisplace) June 21, 2017
April’s Blow of Death
In the early hours of 9 April 2017, officials of the Lagos State Task Office besieged Otodo Gbame, setting fire to structures and shooting into the air, ultimately killing one, injuring others and rendering over 30 000 residents homeless.
Although the state government claims that the action was taken as a way of curbing the militancy arising from the settlement, a number of organisations and individuals have pointed out this was an illegal land grab, aided by the Elegushi royal family. The family intends to build a USD300 million mega city on the land where Otodo Gbame once stood.
The attack in April was not the first on the waterfront settlement. A month earlier, on 17 March 2017, Otodo Gbame was attacked, parts of it destroyed and over 4 000 people were left homeless. However, the final attack in the early hours of April was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
— JEI (@justempower) April 9, 2017
Following the evictions, the displaced Otodo Gbame residents have spread across Lagos, Kunnu tells me. They have found temporary refuge in other waterfront settlements – from the Lekki-Ajah axis down to Bariga and Makoko. Justice Empowerment Initiative (JEI), a non-governmental organisation that works with low-income urban dwellers, has traced the displaced persons to over 16 locations across Lagos.
Kunnu, a member of the Egun ethnic minority in Lagos and a lifelong resident of Otodo Gbame, is my guide and translator. He speaks English, Yoruba and Egun. He too lost everything in the attack and now lives in faraway Ajah, in Lekki, from where he shuttles to Lagos mainland every week, connecting with other displaced persons from the community.
As in most waterfront settlements across Lagos, the Eguns were the majority in Otodo Gbame. The ethnic group migrated from their ancestral home in Badagry, Lagos, to these communities where they established homes and continued the trade of their ancestors: fishing.
Kunnu tells me that Sogunro, where we are, was the first on the list of waterfront communities to be demolished by the state government some years ago. Parts of it were demolished, but the attempt was abandoned after one person was killed in the process. Since then, Sogunro has not been the same. The already poor settlement was pushed down even further on the poverty line.
We make our way through the slum, climbing two wooden bridges set over the blackened water canals that flow through the settlement. Across the bridge, a child of about 10 sits on the edge of a boat, releasing bodily waste directly into the canal. She then proceeds to clean herself up with the same water.
This is not the Lagos I know; in fact, it is not the Lagos many know
Tomorrow Will Make Its Own Way
Red eyed and light skinned, with hair graying around the edges, John Agah is the first displaced person from Otodo Gbame whom we speak to. His English is broken and when it becomes hard for him to communicate with me, he switches to his native Egun, while Kunnu translates.
Agah, a father of 12, says he, his wife and his children currently live in a boat alongside another family. The boat is not his. His was destroyed during the attack. Agah says he is lucky, the owner of the boat, another fisherman, found an actual house in which to put up some of his children. The boat owner could not find a place for five of them, though, so, in all, 19 people share the boat.
On the morning of the attack, Agah says he managed to carry his younger children to safety, while the elder ones took care of themselves. They swam, finding refuge from the attack on other people’s boats.
“My boat, they don break am for Otodo Gbame,” he says. “They came with caterpillar to break am. Finish! I don’t have anything now. In fact, as I dey with this,” he picks up the edges of his t-shirt, “no way for me.”
He is jobless now, feeding and clothing his large family on the materials given to them by JEI and other persons. “Anything they give me, I eat. I don’t have anything. I don’t have no boat, no net, nothing. I dey empty.”
Using a small rowboat, Agah, Kunnu and I paddle out to the boat where he and his large family have found refuge. About 5 meters long and 2, 5 meters wide, the boat is tied to a pole stuck deep into the ocean floor a small distance from the slum grounds.
The boat is cramped and full of the family’s belongings. In a space that is less than four feet high, a young boy of about 15 sits underneath a low-hanging shield that stretches from one end of the boat to the other. He is working on a fishing net.
“Nobody can sleep,” Agah says of the days when rain falls and floods the boat. They scoop water out of the hull as it rains. I ask what happens to his youngest children. Isn’t he afraid they will fall ill from the cold? He looks at me with no expression on his face. “Nobody can catch cold,” he answers.
Agah’s wife sustained a leg injury during the attack. She too has no means of earning a living.
“I have no other plans now,” Agah says of his future. First, he must survive today, tomorrow will think for itself.
In a way Albert Sunsa’s story isn’t any different from Agah’s, except that his has a curious – although saddening – twist.
Along with his two wives and 10 children – his eldest is 18 years old – Sunsa, who says he was asleep when the attack began, managed to escape the attack that fateful morning carrying his younger children to safety. They found refuge in another family’s boat until they made their way to Sogunro.
“They destroyed the boat,” Sunsa says through the translator. He is at present without work or any means of livelihood, surviving on charity.
The shanty house he had found for his two wives and 10 children in Sogunro partially burnt down the previous Sunday. He lost even more of his meagre property. He says that he and his family currently live in his uncle’s house. Sunsa is equally accepting of this tragedy. He talks about it passively as if wondering: what could happen next? After all, he has seen the worst.
Finding Hope, Holding Dreams
Of all the men I’ve met so far, Hunsa Salako speaks the most fluent English. He used to work as a dry cleaner.
He takes his time to speak, as if he is shy. Unrushed, he picks his words, his eyes barely meeting mine throughout the meeting. Two scarification marks run down his face – one on each cheek. Salako talks with the most urgency and passion as if he has hope – something that is rare in Makoko. Compared to the others, he is relatively young with an equally young family.
“I have one wife and five children,” Salako began. “When they come on April 9, I now call my – that time I’ve not went to work – I now call my oga that something happened right now in my house. That they were demolishing the houses, burning the houses. So they said: ‘Ah! I’m suppose to come to work.’ Because they are not staying there [Otodo Gbame] their eye cannot came there to see what is happening.”
Salako says his employer could hear the commotion in the background: the gunshots, the shouts and noise. The next day – a Monday – Salako went to work and was told to go home and rest for a week. He returned a week later.
“I came back they said ‘No, I should go back.’ That’s the way I lost my job,” he says. “So I’m not going anywhere till now.”
Till date, Salako isn’t sure why he was let go. Or what he did wrong.
Salako’s oldest child, a girl, is 14, and his youngest is two years old. They cannot attend school anymore because “the transport to Eti Osa from here is high”.
“Before, my wife used to sell akamu [corn pap] but now, here, before you can do anything, you have to enter club [a workers’ union].”
Salako says his elder siblings and JEI helped him out during and after the attack. “What I’m wearing is JEI that give it to me,” he says.
Salako’s uncle is also Sunsa’s uncle, and he now lives with him and his family of eight in one room in a one-storey wood and corrugated iron sheet building. Each floor of the building is an open space, with no demarcations, and Salako lives a floor below Sunsa. We visit the home and find his wife sitting on a wooden floor, staring at the walls, while an elderly woman and several younger children surround her.
“It’s terrible for us,” says Salako. “So many in the house!”
“When I sleep I have to think: is that how things are going to happen? Even yesterday I couldn’t sleep very well because of thinking,” Salako says.
A Faithless Minister
Pascal Torsinhun, another fisherman and a gospel minister, has been living on a boat since the first attack on Otodo Gbame in March 2017, when his home was demolished.
Once he had two boats, but the smaller one was burnt in the first attack. He now lives on his bigger boat, alongside his wife and three of his six children. His three elder children are married. The family sailed to Sogunro from Otodo Gbame on the day of the second attack.
He speaks in a flat, husky voice. His face is defiant and stubborn.
Speaking through Kunnu, the translator, Torsinhun tells me that another family is also squatting with them on the boat, a total of 15 people.
Behind us – just a few feet away from where Torsinhun’s boat is anchored on the canal – is a church: The International Mission for Soul Salvation. Torsinhun was a minister in the church’s branch at Otodo Gbame. Now, he receives assistance and care from both the church and JEI.
Despite being a minister, Torsinhun has no hope or faith in tomorrow. His fishing materials were lost in the attack and there are no other means of earning a livelihood. His wife too is without work.
“We can’t make any other plans, unless they return us back to our homes, our land,” Torsinhun says of the future. “We don’t have rest of mind here.”