29 July 2012

Nigeria: As Makoko Residents Say Goodbye to Their Homes, Canoes Become Alternative Shelter

Timothy Huntoyanwha's one driving force in Makoko riverside community has been to ensure that there is harmonious and mutual co-existence amongst the residents, made up of mostly Egun people of Badagry, Ilajes of Ondo State and a large number of Republic of Benin and Togolese settlers.

When, therefore, the Lagos State Government moved its bulldozers on structures built on Makoko Waterfront, Huntoyanwha, as one of the monarchs in the community, was among the teeming residents that thronged to the demolition site to try to appeal to the squad to halt the demolition exercise.

However, he did not live to tell the story, whether positive or negative. He was shot dead by a security official identified as Corporal Boma Peddle, a Marine Police officer, deployed to monitor the on-going demolition exercise at Yaba Local Council Development Area (LCDA) of the state.

While Huntoyanwha's story is pathetic, Miss Nadel's, the daughter of the late Chief Timothy Huntoyanwha, is passionate. Before the sudden death of her father, she had relied on the promise of their breadwinner that she would be educated despite the sordid state of their living environment.

Nadia cried inconsolably when LEADERSHIP SUNDAY visited the home of the slain chief. "My dream of being educated is over," she lamented. She recalled that her father had promised to train her to the highest level she could attain in education, until that fateful Saturday afternoon when he was killed.

These are some of the tales of woes emanating from Makoko, which has been embroiled in crises since Monday, July 16, 2012, when thousands of squatters at the Makoko/Iwaya waterfront, who have no other home to call their own, were sent packing by the state government.

Mainly known as fishermen, these inhabitants, whose lives were laced with frustration associated with slum settlements, had a thriving fishing business that has now come to an abrupt end as a result of the demolition.

The poor residents, who held sway on the waterfront for decades, did not have the need for electric fan or air-conditioner, and other luxuries. They never dreamed of having one. Their environment was naturally regulated. They enjoyed the coolness of the night breeze that the river provided, despite the intense heat experienced by affluent residents in other parts of the state.

All that natural bliss they enjoyed is now a thing of the past. For many of the displaced residents, their biggest headache is where next to lay their heads, as some had no choice than to convert their fishing boats to makeshift beds in the last couple of days, while being at the mercy of rainfall, mosquito bites and other dangers.

Unlike in July 1990, when the prevailing military government of Lagos State under the Raji Rasaki-led administration, ordered the demolition of Maroko community after the expiration of a seven-day quit notice announced over the radio, the present democratic government of Mr. Babatunde Fashola issued a letter that was served on residents last week, giving them only 72 hours to vacate their properties.

Thus, the tales of Maroko and Makoko have now become a tale of two slums with glaring contradictions, and a picture of squalor and sufferings inhabited by those regarded as the dregs of the society.

Twenty two years after the forced eviction of an estimated 300,000 people from their homes by armed security agents, who physically assaulted residents bold enough to attempt to salvage their property from the rampaging bulldozers, nothing has been done by the Lagos State Government to resettle or compensate the evictees before commencing the evictions.

To the amazement of all, even when the evictees took up residence at Ilasan, Ikota and Epe communities (located between five and 10 kilometrers away from former Maroko community) which comprised abandoned uncompleted buildings built by the Lagos State Government, they also moved to evict them from the three communities and reneged on all its promises to the evictees.

Mrs. Awasu Asinji, who until Monday afternoon was one of the thousands of residents who had found a home on the Makoko/Iwaya waterfront, is presently facing similar fate. She told LEADERSHIP SUNDAY that "I arrived around 12:30pm, 30 minutes after our house was demolished. On my way home from the market, I heard sporadic gunshots which also gingered me to hasten my movement.

"A few metres to our house, I saw the military officers who were still parading the premises. Minutes after their departure, I rushed closer to my house because at that moment, my major concern was my three children who were in the house when I left home. On getting to our house, I saw my three children hiding inside the boat, after they had tied the anchor to the pillars holding the structure".

Asinji said she has nowhere to go and her children didn't seem to understand what was happening around them. But just seeing their mother seemed to relieve their frightened nerves.

In tears, she narrated how the demolition exercise had displaced her family from where they had called their home since birth.

Another resident, living in one of the shanties, who gave her name as Mrs. Janet Kiki, said she was not present while the officials of the state government came to clear their structures.

According to her: "I was called on phone by my neighbours, who told me that my house had been demolished by the government officials. I got to my house one hour after they had left because they shot canisters to prevent anyone who might want to halt the exercise."

Asinji and Kiki are not the only victims of Makoko demolition going through hardship. Mr. Samuel, who gave a vivid account of the demolition, said: "The demolition ended at about 5pm on Monday, and they resumed to the site 11am the next day to continue with the exercise".

Oloishi Anago, 55, a mother of 10, whose son was affected in the demolition, said: "I was very young when I got here. This is where I got married and gave birth to my 10 children. One of my children was wounded when the task force people came here and started chasing us.

"I have spent over N10,000 to get him treated from the meagre income that I earn from selling fish and crayfish. How does government expect us to survive now, when they did not provide an alternative for us? " she asked.

For Michael Sosu: "If government wants to evacuate residents of an area, they should provide an alternative. Most of us here are fishermen. So, how do they expect us to survive on land? As it is now, we have nowhere to go. My family and I sleep in the canoe at night," he said.

Isidor Ediyeton, 55, who lamented his state of homelessness, said he has been living there for over 32 years, pointing out that they were not well informed about the demolition. He added that it was only on Saturday that the Baale sent letters to residents on the issue.

"We will remain here until we find somewhere to go. If the government decides to relocate us, we will gladly go. But now, there is no end in sight to our woes," he said.

Joy Alamon added that "I have three children and we've been living in this community for over 15 years. We've been hearing rumours that the state government would one day come to evict us, but because no official statement was made to that effect, we paid no attention to it.

"I have a boat. So, I'll sleep in it with my children under the Third Mainland Bridge, so that we won't be affected in case it rains. I only wish the government had provided an alternative for us."

Ewajene Osowo said: "We understand the concern of the state government as regards safety of citizens, but we appeal to them not to chase us away because we have nowhere else to go.

"I urge the government not to demolish all the structures, but only the ones built 100 metres or closer to the powerline. In developed countries like Italy, there are cities built on water and maintained by the government. Why can't the government do the same here? There are no low cost houses anymore. I wonder where they want us to go?"

However, the state government has continued to maintain that residents of the slum, which is easily visible from the bridge connecting the mainland to the city's rich island districts, were illegal occupants.

The Lagos State Commissioner for Waterfront Infrastructure Development, Prince Adesegun Oniru, said the government had the safety of residents who had erected structures on the Makoko water body at the back of its mind, as well as facilitate government's original plan for the area.

He added that their continuous stay left them at the mercy of being victims of environmental hazards, explaining that the decision was neither connected to the threats and devastating activities of the radical sect, Boko Haram, witnessed in some northern states in Nigeria .

Oniru explained that the forecast of rainfall for the year and its attendant consequences, if they remained on the water, were the motivating factors to the clearing exercise. According to Oniru: "The reason is for the safety of the areas and dwellers. What we intend to do is to clear the environment and the entire vicinity of the danger that is looming in that area.

"I am talking about rise in water level, global warming and the danger looming in that area with regards to thunder storm and heavy rain that we are having in that area and in Lagos generally right now. And if you look at that area properly, there is an electrical pilot in that area that goes across the shanties on the water.

"Now with those shanties there, all you need is for one electric spark and everything will disappear overnight. We all live in Lagos and we know the thunderstorms that we have been experiencing and the lightening. So, what we are doing there is to protect lives of the people on that water."

Without mincing words, he said there was no plan for relocation, urging the residents to go back to where they came from. The commissioner added that most of those who lived on the water were not citizens of the country.

"Should they be there at all? The answer is, no. The water body is not a fixed address for anybody. If you ask me what plans we have for them, where are we relocating them to? My answer to that is that these people came from somewhere. They didn't just grow up on that water and they can easily go back to the place that they came from. That area is not a safe place for anybody to reside.

"We have visitors that are coming from all over the world. That is not a good site for anybody to see. Beyond that, the safety of the people that claimed to be born there is our major concern."

Oniru said after the entire area might have been cleared, an assessment would be done by the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development, while an Environmental Impact Assessment would be carried out by the Ministry of the Environment before government would come up with the master plan for the area.

Although the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, immediately ordered full-scale investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Chief Timothy Huntoyanwha, he justified their dislodgement, adding that the government will no longer fold its arms and allow continuous expansion being witnessed on daily basis on the lagoon.

Fashola, who pointed out that it is capable of endangering their lives, the ecosystem and environment, explained that the state government understood the challenges confronting the people, not only in Makoko, but also in Okobaba, which led to three meetings being held earlier between the government and representatives of both communities.

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