LAGOS, Nigeria (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Having fled as her home and shanty town in Lagos burned to the ground, Roseline Alphonse does not know if she will ever see her husband again, or where she and her children will call home.
Alphonse is one 30,000 residents of the Otodo Gbame slum who were left homeless last month when their community was razed.
“The police came in the middle of the night and started burning all the homes,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, recalling how she was woken by the screams of her neighbors.
“They burnt my shop and everything inside,” said Alphonse, whose husband disappeared during the chaos, leaving her and her six children to seek shelter in wooden canoes on the Lagos Lagoon. “We are just managing from hand to mouth to survive.”
The slum dwellers blame the demolition on the authorities, but the state government has denied responsibility, saying it was a result of inter-ethnic clashes between rival communities.
A further 300,000 people in Nigeria’s commercial capital - a megacity of 21 million - now fear eviction as the state targets dozens of illegal settlements dotted along prime waterfront land to make way for luxury redevelopment, activists say.
Lagos is one of several major African cities where a drive for urban development amid booming population growth and a lack of affordable housing is pitting the poorest against the state.
Authorities in Lagos have in recent months cleared out many other shanty towns, citing the presence of criminals, violations of building regulations and public health and safety issues.
The spate of demolitions comes just weeks after 193 nations agreed the New Urban Agenda at a U.N. summit in Ecuador, which aims to guide the growth of cities in the 21st century as well as enshrine humanitarian rights for the urban poor.
Yet Lagos’ government will only plunge its poorest residents deeper into poverty if it pushes ahead with evictions, said Sola Tayo of the London-based think tank Chatham House.
“Lagos is caught between the drive to modernize and capitalize on its megacity status ... and the basic ability to provide decent housing for all socioeconomic groups,” Tayo said.
“Poverty will not just disappear through beautification.”
RUINS AND RUBBLE
Originally a fishing camp for people who moved from Lagos’ suburbs and nearby coastal towns, the Otodo Gbame slum expanded to include schools, churches, and even private health centres.
Now, only a few shacks remain, and people are cooking, eating and bathing in the open, among the ruins and rubble.
Residents of the slum, mainly fishermen from the linguistic minority, the Egun, filmed the fires on their mobile phones and said police had used tear gas to drive them toward the water.
Many jumped into canoes on the lake in panic as police fired shots into the air. A dozen people, including women and children, drowned, said community youth leader Celestine Ahisu.
“Dead people were floating on the water like animals. Can you imagine that?” said Ahisu, who questioned why the residents were not served notice and why the demolition happened at night.
“We have nothing to eat now because our source of livelihood has been destroyed, and even our money burnt with our houses.”
Like many of his neighbors, electrician Ahisu works in the upmarket district of Lekki, home to some of Nigeria’s wealthiest citizens, in the hope of earning a few dollars a day to get by.
Yet the divide between the poor and rich will only widen as Nigeria’s population rises, driving up rents and demand for housing in Lagos, the world’s fastest-growing city, experts say.
By 2050, Nigeria’s population is set to more than double to 400 million, making it the world’s third most populous nation after China and India, according to United Nations’ estimates.
“The reason on the surface for evictions and demolitions is that Lagos needs to be a beautiful city and that these people are illegal squatters,” said a property developer who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions from the state government.
“But that’s a lie ... all of this is down to the government seeking rents everywhere. Slum dwellers can’t bring the same revenue as expensive malls and residential estates,” he added.
CIRCLE OF BLAME
Since the razing of the Otodo Gbame slum, many of the homeless have demonstrated outside the state governor’s office.
Despite their pleas, and opposition from rights groups, the state has adopted a hard line stance towards slum dwellers.
Lagos governor Akinwunmi Ambode announced in October that all shanty towns around the city’s creeks and waterways were to be demolished, identifying them as hideouts for criminals.
Yet the demolition of Otodo Gbame follows years of development in the area by investors who have built apartments and shopping centers, pushing out fishing communities, said local legal campaign group Justice and Empowerment Initiatives.
While the authorities and residents point the blame at each other over the clearing of the slum, it was destroyed just days after slum communities, including Otodo Gbame, secured a High Court order to stop the state pushing ahead with evictions.
Lagos state government said the razing was a result of clashes between the Egun and Yorubas, the major ethnic groups in the community, while police denied destroying homes and said they had arrested several people for setting fire to them.
“What happened ... is a gross violation of human rights,” Megan Chapman, lawyer and director of Lagos-based Just Empower, a civil society group that works with marginalized communities.
The U.N. special rapporteur on the right to housing said last month that she had asked the Nigerian government for information on the evictions, the methods used and their compliance with international human rights.
Yet in the razed Otodo Gbame slum, a world away from legal and political disputes, people like Roseline Alphonse cannot afford to wait in the hope of securing aid or justice.
“We don’t know whether we will return home to Badagry (a nearby coastal town) or go somewhere else if the state government keeps chasing us away. We have nowhere to go.”