Forced evictions in different parts of the country have contributed in no small measure to the phenomenon of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Nigeria. Olaolu Olusina examines the pattern and effects of such evictions in the context of the plan by the Lagos State Government to demolish Oko-baba, a slum on the waterfront of Lagos,even as stakeholders call for a more humane handling of the exercise
For sometime now, Israel Duruaku, a wood carver in Oko-baba, a slum in the Ebute Metta waterfront area of Lagos had never been as happy as he was last Tuesday. Emerging from the make-shift structure from where he plies his trade in the shanty, he leapt forward as he welcomed this reporter with a warm embrace. Ushering the reporter into his ‘office’, Duruaku, who is also known as Chief Omenka, expressed joy at the coming of the ‘August’ visitor. But that was where the joy of the wood carver from Enugu State ended. He had seen somebody, a journalist, to pour his heart out to. Duruaku expressed fears over what the future holds for him. Showing the reporter a big scar on his right leg which had been operated upon, he blamed his current state on a motor accident which nearly claimed his life many years ago. “Please don’t mind the way my office looks but my works which you can see here speak for me. I work here and live here with my family and this is where I earn a living. I’m somebody who should be operating in Abuja now but the accident that almost claimed my life brought me from Enugu to this place,” he said as he rolled up his trouser to show THISDAY the big scar on his right leg.
“Now, the government says they are demolishing this place and resettling the saw-millers here at Agbowa. What plans do they have for the residents who live here?,” he asked rhetorically, as he added, “We are not saying we are opposed to the demolition but where do they want us to go?” A few metres away from Omenka, a woman believed to be in her late 30s, sat in a pensive mood inside one of the shanties. She had lost her husband who, according to her, suddenly dropped dead without suffering from any known illness, leaving her to fend for their three children. “Where do I go now as this is the only place I’ve always known as home,” she asked as tears of sorrow rolled down her cheeks. But an old butcher down another street was full of life as he displayed his meat for sale right in the open. “I have been living here since 1970 and this place now filled with sawdust was full of water before. We did all that ourselves and live here with our children with virtually no input from government, yet we pay our taxes and vote during elections,” he said, asking, “Now that the government said they want to use this place,where do they want us to go.”
Elsewhere in the blighted settlement of about 350,000 people, life went on as usual that sunny afternoon. But the fear of an uncertain future loomed large as the residents await their fate in view of the plan by the Lagos State Government to demolish the structures, which, indeed, are really unfit for human habitation. Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola recently unfolded the government’s plan to demolish the settlement and replace the shanties with modern structures. The governor also disclosed that the saw-millers who do their business in Oko-baba had agreed to move to Agbowa-Ikosi on the outskirt of Ikorodu to continue their work. But the silence of the governor on the fate of the 350,000 residents who live in Oko-baba community in the wake of the planned movement has triggered off fresh anxiety in the community.
Raising Vital Issues
In an advertorial published in major newspapers last week and addressed to the state governor, a Christian non-governmental organisation, Chrio Foundation, which has been operating in the area for many years, in partnership with the Okobaba Residents Forum and the Mainland Youth Movement, is, however, raising some vital issues on the plan of the government . While commending the governor for what it described as the “unprecedented giant strides in the infrastructural development of the state which has become a model for other states in Nigeria,“ the Chrio Foundation claimed the “so-called leaders that agreed with the LASG to relocate to Agbowa are saw-millers and their trading partners.” The foundation said: “The saw-millers do not live inside Oko-baba and are businessmen who see Oko-baba as their business premises.”
The organisation therefore suggested that “For the people of Oko-baba to be relocated, a census of the residents must be done; houses, schools, hospitals, etc need to be provided for them for the relocation to be acceptable to God.” It also asked the government “to assist in building modern housing estates with modern infrastructure on the Oko-baba land, for Oko-baba residents (not the saw-millers) as a way of alleviating their suffering.” Chrio Foundation also maintained that “any forceful demolition and subsequent development of Oko-baba into a Venice of Africa may be done at the expense of sacrificing the lives, destiny, career,well-being and the future of the over 350,000 already impoverished adults and children of Oko-baba.” It, however, said: “We call on all corporate bodies that Oko-baba has been allocated to, to join our governor in funding the proper relocation of Oko-baba residents first before embarking on any project on the land,” adding that, “the future , destiny, the well-being of the people and children of Oko-baba is a higher incentive than Venice of Africa.”
Residents Express Real Fears
The fears of the residents are real and genuine, going by past experience in respect of evictions. THISDAY gathered that the government may swoop on the settlement any time from now as it has already sealed the deal with the saw-millers. “What government is telling us now is that the over 350,000 residents here do not exist as nobody is putting us into consideration. The saw-millers do not live here; they only come here to do their business and leave at the end of the day. But the residents here don’t know any other place as home except here despite the nature of the place. Government should dialogue with us and tell us what plans they have for us,” a leader of the Oko-baba Residents Forum, Mr. Mufutau Bakare, told THISDAY. A youth leader and resident of Oko-baba, Olayemi Bamishile, on his part, expressed the fears that the demolition squad of the government may strike unannounced as is the pattern of forced evictions in the country, giving the residents only a few days to move. “But where do they want this large number of people to move to within a short time,” he asked. “This is a community of its own, providing for ourselves all we need, yet we pay our civic responsibilities to the government as and when due,” he told this reporter.
The General- Secretary, Mainland Youth Movement, Adewole Ganiyu Adeniyi, reiterated the determination of the Oko-baba community to cooperate fully with the government on this issue. “We are not violent as we are peace-loving people. We have lived in this place in peace despite the diversity. There is no Boko Haram here and we don’t accommodate criminals. Many of those who live here were victims of evictions from other parts of the city such as Maroko and other areas. If the government drives us from here without providing us with alternatives, I’m sure many lives will be altered for ever, especially the children ad youths,” he lamented.
Not a Funny Experience
Forced eviction, undoubtedly, is not a funny experience at all. From the experience of the early-settlers of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja to the Maroko, Makoko and Kuramo settlers in Lagos, it has never been an easy experience for the affected people. In a joint mission report entitled, “The Myth of the Abuja Masterplan (2008), the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) painted a nasty picture of the pattern and effects of forced evictions in Nigeria. “The evictions have resulted in the massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from entire communities, with a spiralling effect on health, education, employment, and family cohesion. Some of the demolitions were accompanied by violence perpetrated by heavily armed security operatives against residents and business owners. The forced evictions often left residents vulnerable to further human rights violations.
“In the December 2006 evictions in Pyakasa, for example, landlords began to remove roofing and doors from homes they rented after officials announced on a Thursday that the eviction would take place the following Monday. Thieves reportedly took advantage of residents’ vulnerability in the few days prior to the eviction and also after it was implemented, during which time a number of evictees were forced to sleep outside.The forced evictions have had an enormous impact on children’s access to education. With evictions carried out with little notice, parents were forced to withdraw their children from school without having time to plan to place them in an alternative school.
“In fact, the FCDA destroyed a number of schools in the informal settlements, leading to over-crowding in some schools to which evicted children were moved.”
Lack of Policy Framework
Observers are, however, worried that all these are happening at a time Nigeria is believed to have one of the highest cases of internally displaced persons in Africa. Yet, there is no policy framework in place to protect and respond to their needs. The Country Director, Action Aid Nigeria, Dr. Husseini Abdu, raised the alarm in Abuja at the opening ceremony of the Multi-sectoral Stakeholder Consultation on the National Internally Displaced Persons Policy & and Domestication of the Kampala Convention in Nigeria in July. “Currently, we are the biggest Internally Displaced People. Yet we are not at war if you look at the statistics across Africa. Most statistics that are bigger than ours are actually countries in war situations, and we are not,” he noted.
No Accurate Figures
In fact, the Chairman, Board of the National Refugees Commission, Prof. Abayomi Durosinmi-Etti, at the inauguration of the Board in Abuja early in the year, put the number of IDPs in the country at one million, though observers believe that this, indeed, is a conservative figure in a country of over 160 million people.“Presently, we have 9,737 refugees in Nigeria. Apart from the refugee problem, we have a lot of internally displaced persons and I think that should concern us more than the number of refugees. With the number of refugees, I can confirm that we have over one million internally displaced persons in Nigeria due to problems associated with flood, fire, bombings and disasters everywhere,“Durosinmi – Etti said.
But the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), established in 1998 by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which is the leading international body monitoring internal displacement worldwide, noted that internal displacement across Nigeria is a common consequence of inter-communal and political violence, flooding and forced evictions. “While some of the conflicts appear to be caused by overlapping and mutually reinforcing regional, religious and ethnic divisions, violence often stems from competition for scarce opportunities and communal resources,” it said.
According to IDMC, “Current levels of displacement are deemed particularly high by a number of organisations, but in the absence of a functioning monitoring mechanism, no accurate figures are available. Ad-hoc local registration exercises have hinted at the scale of the phenomenon, but those who seek shelter and support from family and friends - and who make up the majority of internally displaced people (IDPs) - tend not to be counted.”
A Sheer Contrast
The most unfortunate is the fact that while the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in its 2012 outlook, projected a reduction in the number of refugees and IDPs, especially in West African countries, which had been at war, a contrast trend is being witnessed in Nigeria. According to the UNHCR, “With the resolution of the crisis and proclamation of a new government (in hitherto conflict zones), people are progressively regaining their homes. Consequently the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has reduced to some 247,000. By contrast, more than 168,000 refugees have remained in protracted situations and are dispersed in rural as well as urban areas. These refugees come from Liberia, Ghana, Mauritania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Togo. Despite this difficult context, in 2012, UNHCR anticipates the return of some 71,000 refugees composed of 50,000 Ivorians, over 6,000 Mauritanians and 15,000 Liberians in the context of the invocation of cessation clauses.”Sadly though, it also noted that “Internal displacement in Nigeria arising from ethno-religious violence has increased in frequency and scale.” And while many are regaining their homes in other climes, more and more are losing theirs in Nigeria.
Hope Not Lost
Hope is, however, not lost yet as Durosinmi-Etti said his commission would do all in its power to attend to the needs of the IDPs. “By the grace of God, this commission under me will keep all these under watch through consultation with members of the Board. People don’t know much of our activities. So I will opt that we do something about the name like National Commission for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, amongst others, ” the professor, whose commission’s mandate was expanded to include IDPs, returnees, stateless persons and immigrants, said. His pledge came as the Action Aid Chief Abdu was also upbeat in his belief that his organisation would be able to impress on the Federal Government the need to come up with policies that would take care of the IDPs in the country. “What informed that is the fact that Nigeria is currently experiencing a growing number of Internally Displaced People across the length and breadth of the country. And these internal displacements are caused by series of activities or problems including ethnic and religious violence, communal conflicts all over the country and natural disasters such as fire or even air crash such as the one we had recently in Lagos where a number of people have actually been displaced.
“But despite the increasing number, we don’t have a policy framework on how to respond to such situations on what the responsibility of the government actually is in responding to internal displacement. This process started about two years ago. We’ve been working with various agencies of government, National Commission for Refugees, National Emergency Management Agency and other development agencies across the country.
“We have done a proper analysis of the Kampala declaration. We have developed a draft of that policy, passed the draft around. We will be discussing the draft today and tomorrow. We hope that at the end of the meeting tomorrow, we will have a very good draft that we can present to the government through the other government agencies and hoping that the Federal Executive Council will adopt that policy. And then based on those policies, we can begin to design implementation frameworks or even legislative backing that is required for effective implementation of the policy.
“But Nigeria is in dire need of such a policy because if we are to protect the rights of the people who are internally displaced, if we have to commit the government to its responsibility of protecting lives and properties, then we need policies like this.”