Unfazed by the outrage that trailed its recent ejection of Makoko waterfront community settlers, Lagos State Government has its sights set on transforming the slum into another Venice, writes Olawale Olaleye
Both the Makoko and Oko-baba residents in Lagos State share similar fate. They are not just slum-dwellers with a high degree of vulnerability to disaster and diseases, their living conditions also sully the image the state aspires to attain on its march towards the mega-city status. Then, there is also the fact that the lagoon, which gave Lagos its name, is its invaluable economic asset.
The lagoon, as a receptacle of the city’s several canals, is a natural drainage. Unfortunately, the lagoon had begun to shrink on account of alleged illegal encroachment by the water-dwelling communities. Yet, the drainage channels from different parts of the state like Oworonsoki, Somolu, Bariga, Akoka, Ikorodu and Ajegunle that flooded two years ago, are all served by the lagoon as indeed Lekki, Ajah and Victoria Island axis of the state.
Buoyed by concerns over a shrinking lagoon, and the obvious implication of this, the state swung into action to avert the possibility of a natural disaster. Its intervention later gave rise to the idea of relocation which was the other critical excuse upon which the state had sustained its intervention. Thus, between the people of Makoko and Oko-baba, the state had caused an engagement about planned resettlement.
While the phased resettlement programme – solely funded by government – is being concluded for the people of Oko-baba in Agbowa, the Makoko residents have remained adamant about relocating. The waterfront is, after all, the only place known to them as home. But the Lagos State government opted to conclude the relocation of the Oko-baba community before resuming talks with Makoko residents.
“So, we thought, let’s solve half of the problem as we already have people who have bought into our relocation programme,” the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, explained in an exclusive chat with THISDAY. “But, because we haven’t compelled you to move is no justification to invite more people to come and expand.”
The relocation programme, he argued, could only be for those Makoko residents who had been living there before the eviction order. “It is the new people we are ejecting. You’ll see that the frontiers of the place are ... expanding into the lagoon every day. We are not moving everybody; it is the new ones that we are moving.”
Also worrisome is the allegation that some people had been making political and financial capital from the Makoko slum-dwellers’ predicament. This may have stoked the outrage that trailed the government’s eviction exercise. But the state government thinks that the so-called supporters divert grants meant for the slum-dwellers.
Governor Fashola dismissed a lot of the outcry against the government’s eviction exercise as “orchestrated noise”. His reasons: “If that place is no more, the livelihood of the so called supporters evaporates. So, in one breath, they expressed sympathy for the [slum-dwellers’] condition, in another, they worry that their source of livelihood would evaporate when we want to evict the residents.”
The governor said he was aware that the existence of Makoko slum would make “an international news feature from which [the so-called sympathisers] can benefit; from which they can say they are given grants; they are going to treat [slum-dwellers] for AIDS; they are going to help them for cholera and they are going to help them for things that never get there. So, people are living off that slum and these innocent people don’t know. That’s why the outcry is high.”
Picturing the Makoko Community
The Makoko community, an extension of other communities along the foreshore of the Lagos Lagoon, is made up of houses built on the lagoon. The communities first started as fish markets before growing into small fishing settlements along the waterfront composed of plank and cardboard buildings on short wooden stilts. Over time, a number of these makeshift structures morphed into houses built with cement blocks. This was after the wetland had been filled up with a mixture of refuse and sand. The implication of this is the further encroachment of new structures on stilts into the lagoon. This process of outward extension by stealth and reclamation had, meanwhile, continued uncontrollably in the community.
The initial settlers, who are mainly migrant fishermen of Egun and Ilaje stock, had the surrounding residential areas of Ebute-Metta, Yaba, Lagos Island, Ikoyi and other parts of the mainland as ready markets. But as the Lagos population increased with corresponding demand for shelter, the communities became ready locations for cheap residential accommodation for newer and poor migrants into the state. Consequently, the operations of the adjacent Oko-baba Sawmill and its Makoko extension drew a large, albeit transient, labour force who needed accommodation.
Thus, further extensions into the lagoon soon clogged the waterways and even began to threaten the Third Mainland Bridge. In addition, the ethnic mosaic of the communities increased to include other Nigerian ethnic groups, particularly the littoral types like the Ijaw, as well as nationals of the ECOWAS sub-region including Togolese and Beninois. These communities also gradually evolved into criminal hideouts.
Then, there is also the fact that building these structures on the lagoon implies environmental hazards as refuse and human waste are directly dumped into the lagoon. But this is expected since the growth followed no basic planning and development guidelines. There is also the issue of safety, as the structures are erected within the right of way of the 330KVA High Tension Power Transmission.
The Road to Intervention
Makoko and Ilaje-Bariga shanty communities were among other 42 blighted communities identified in 1984 for intervention by the state government in its bid to improve their living conditions. Under the Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project (LMDGP), a World Bank Assisted Project for the rehabilitation of nine most blighted communities, the state had intervened in Makoko and Ilaje-Bariga by providing borehole waters, rehabilitated their primary schools, markets; provided public toilets, installed electricity transformers and solar-powered streetlights.
The interventions are believed to have been of primary benefit to the old Makoko and Ilaje-Bariga communities that were on land with recognised limits and captured on the state’s slum improvement plans and projects. But efforts at further improving the living conditions of the areas are yet to reach the Makoko and Ilaje-Bariga on water because they are relatively recent and considered illegal developments outside the recognised areas covered by improvement plans and due to its continuous expansion into the lagoon, drainage channels and waterways.
…And now, the Venice Initiative
Since the earlier settlers in Makoko were not persuaded by the resettlement plan, government had come up with the idea of re-organising them in such way that they could become sustainable as a community and in tune with modern trends. Thus, the thought of a Lagos Venice was mooted. Already, agents of government in both the physical planning and urban planning ministries are said to have been working round the clock on the initiative being a new assignment on the table.
But that also poses grave challenge as it would also mean cleaning up the water, providing portable water there on a sustainable basis, providing waste and sewage treatment plant there “because if you had human waste, you can’t empty it into the lagoon and then, take water from the lagoon again to drink?
So, it’s a very complex problem, but we are working on it,” the governor explained while throwing light on the Venice concept.
Ironically, government’s ability to succeed with what many have come to see as a lofty idea would be limited if the community continues to expand and illegally too. Although Fashola admitted that the constitution protects rights of property, he was quick to add: “It is rights that are lawfully acquired and not rights that are illegally acquired. So, if people talk about 72 hours notice, did they give notice to anybody before they moved there? We are extremely generous.
“They are not title-holders but that is the law, as painful as it may be. So, our action in giving notice is compassion and let me also make this point very clearly; go and listen to some of the people who are there, apart from the people from neighbouring parts of Badagry, it’s a lot of foreigners – people from other countries who have no immigration papers to be here. They are living there illegally. Those are the multiplicity of the facets relating to that place,” the governor said, stressing unequivocally that there would be no going back as far as the development of the community is concerned.
With a Venice idea conceived and waiting to be delivered in Makoko, government had thus taken the decision to, within reasonable and safe limits, permit the communities on water to exist in designated areas and, integrate them into the overall physical planning and urban fabric of the Lagos Mega City. But to rationalise their existence, government said it would also restrict them to well defined limits and, introduce a phased housing, infrastructure and facilities improvement plan in consultation with the communities under a programme called “Houses on Water Improvement Programme”.
The improvement, according to some of the experts on the assignment, will include provision of health facility, fire-fighting equipment, waste containers, public toilets/baths, water fountains and community centres all on platforms and concrete walkways.
The residents, on the other hand, are expected to improve their houses using improved and standardised design and materials.
Studies and consultations for the Lagos Venice was said to have started in Ilaje-Bariga as far back as 2008 at a meeting with the “Baale” (or local chieftain) and other leaders in the community. But, specifically, the stakeholders’ consultation with Makoko started a few months ago with the establishment of contact with the traditional “Baale” of Makoko, Chief Kunle Olaiya, who was also a spokesman for other ethnic stocks in the community such as the Egun, Ilaje and Ijaw.
The consultation, government sources said, would be extended in the coming weeks after the redefinition of the boundary may have been established. Early contact with Makoko was initially stepped down due to the relocation of Oko-baba Sawmill to Agbowa-Ikosi project which is expected to reduce the expansion as well as the number of houses on water. Studies had also revealed that quite a sizable population living in the structures are engaged in the sawmill business but at different levels.
But the completion of the houses-on-water scheme is not only going to burnish the aesthetics of the new Lagos as being envisaged, it could also regenerate revenue for the state as a tourists’ destination.
The expected Makoko community