The men in naval uniforms in a sting operation charged into the Nigerian waterfront village of Okun Glass in the morning, chased out the residents, then called in the bulldozers.
De facto village leader, 75-year-old Dauda Musa, said he fled as the men fired guns into the air. “They demolished our homes,” he said, standing in the rubble of what was once home to 3,000 people down the coast from the megacity Lagos.
Nigeria’s navy said it had moved in to clear an illegal settlement – and accused some of the residents of vandalising nearby pipelines to steal crude. “This operation was not conducted in secrecy,” naval commander Thomas Otuji said.
Musa said his fellow villagers were farmers and fishermen, not thieves. And rights groups say the raid on Jan. 3 was part of a much wider trend where the government, backed by the military, clears informal settlements to make way for luxury housing and other developments.
The accusations and counter-accusations highlight an increasingly fraught confrontation between officials, activists and small communities, exacerbated by the dramatic expansion of Nigeria’s cities, most of all Lagos – a coastal giant that dwarfs the capital Abuja inland.
“There have been persistent evictions across Lagos. Dozens of communities on the island have been evicted,” Akinrolabu Samuel, a campaigner with the Nigeria Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, said at a rally against the evictions this week.
“It’s because of real estate,” he added. “It’s for real estate development.”
According to stats group BudgIT, 600,000 new people arrive in Lagos every year, many of them residing ramshackle settlements, joining thousands of other impoverished families who have lived there for decades.
According to the United Nations, Nigeria was struggling to deal with a mounting housing crisis and mass evictions were making the situation worse.
In 2017, a coalition of communities won a court judgment against Lagos State Government, arguing that evictions without notice and resettlement were cruel, inhumane and degrading. The government appealed, and the case was this week adjourned to June 2021.
The Nigerian government has often defended these evictions and demolitions by asserting that the settlements are dens of criminal gangs who pose as serious security threat.
The Lagos State Commissioner of Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotosho said that the “administration is law-abiding does not mean it will allow indiscriminate erection of shanties on the right of way for roads and other projects”. He further said that in this case “the state government had not ordered the demolition of Okun Glass. “It may have been a security matter on which the Navy can speak,” Omotoso added.
The villagers lamented over the incident; “they chased us into the lagoon with our wives and children,” said Dauda Musa. “We are left with nothing”.