Everything dey scatta 

Words by: Mathew Cerf

Photography by: Mathew Cerf, Okechukwu Samuel, Omoregie Osakpolor, Jesco Denzel, Jack Newton, and Andrew Maki 

Video by: Nasu Abdulaziz, Okechukwu Samuel, Ezekiel Joy, Omoseebi Mary, and Tajudeen Mujeeb

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

It happens fast, destruction. Much faster than its counterpart. What takes years to build can be broken in a minute. The work of generations can be taken in a day. For Lagos’s 13 million residents living in informal settlements, even a home built of iron-wood, erected upon a constitutional framework that nominally protects their right to housing, feels fragile beneath the spectre of forced eviction. 

 

That morning in November, I sat in a small, open-air meeting hall among a circle of community leaders from the informal settlement of Second Badagry. It was the day after an eviction crew had begun demolishing their community. The conversation’s cadence was sporadic – somber silences punctuated by bursts of hope – as the group searched for ideas on how to protect what was left. Over their shoulders, splintered homes reminded them of what they were up against: trucks full of armed men, and a “caterpillar” excavator whose metal jaw swings with mechanical indifference. Picking through the rubble, newly homeless neighbors searched for what could be salvaged. Among them, a woman smoked fish for market. A new roof would need to wait; her daily bread could not. 

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

In the wake of a forced eviction, a woman smokes fish to sell in the market, while her neighbors gather salvageable materials from the rubble.

// Second Badagry, Lagos, November 2019

A plan was made: the group would mobilize with their neighbours into a “human shield”, with women in front, to block the excavator’s path – a strategy inspired by a community called Otodo Gbame’s successful attempt at warding off an eviction crew two years earlier. 

 

But the caterpillar came too soon, and the instinct for self-preservation proved too strong. By noon, the eviction forces had returned. By nightfall, the meeting hall we had sat in was destroyed, along with the entire community of Second Badagry – home to over 1,500 residents, many of whom knew too well that Otodo Gbame’s “human shield” provided only temporary respite, and that eventually, they had suffered the same fate.

 

“Where do they go?” is often the first question people ask when learning about forced evictions in Lagos. That day, watching caravans of residents stream out of the community, mattresses and housewares strapped atop vehicles or balanced over heads, I asked myself the same question. To have nowhere to go in a city of 23 million with a reputation for its hustle strains the mind to comprehend. But it happens. 1,500 times that day, it happened. They slip into the folds of a megacity, left to what possessions they can carry, and the hope that, “tomorrow go betta”.

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

 Children gather beside their family’s salvaged belongings, as they prepare to venture out into the city in search of a new home.

// Second Badagry, Lagos, November 2019

Across the world – and within Lagos – evictions take on different forms, but the particular breed to which this article refers describes one in which government machinery is mobilized to displace entire communities, and often in the service of private interests. These occur in violation of both Nigerian and international human rights law by failing to provide meaningful warning, adequate compensation, or viable housing alternatives for displaced residents. Since 2000, over 200,000 Lagos residents have lost their homes due to forced eviction. In Nigeria as a whole, the number tops two million over the same period. And these are just the ones we can count. Of the 35 documented cases of forced evictions in Lagos since 2000, only 22 have estimates for the number of residents displaced.

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Andrew Maki (JEI)

Residents of Otodo Gbame flee by water – escaping flames and bullets – during the violent forced eviction of Otodo Gbame.

// Otodo Gbame, Lagos, April 2018 

The justifications differ in their specifics, but generally coalesce around a few themes: a characterization of community residents as criminal, transient, and opposed to “development”, and purported use-cases ranging from infrastructure projects, to private estates, to government facilities. Deeper themes are left implicit, such an anti-poor approach to achieving Lagos’s “master plan”, and pressures from urbanization and land scarcity colliding with corrupted channels for title acquisition and legal recourse.

 

Much of Lagos today is built atop the rubble of homes broken without warning or compensation, beginning with the demolition of Maroko in 1990, which displaced over 300,000 residents. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a resident of an informal settlement in Lagos who does not have a first- or second-hand story to tell about a home or business “wey the government don scatta”. In recent years, fresh scars have been carved in the city’s fabric: from Badia East in 2015, to Ilubirin in 2016, to Otodo Gbame in 2017 and 2018, to Second Badagry in 2019, to Tarkwa Bay and its surrounding communities in 2020, to Monkey Village this past New Years’ Eve. 

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

Above, remnants of Tarkwa Bay – once a bustling home to fishermen, artists, laborers, transportation workers, sailors, teachers, and more – following a spree of forced evictions that saw over 10,000 displaced by the Nigerian Navy

// Tarkwa Bay, Lagos, January 2020

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Omoregie Osakpolor

 Displaced residents of Tarkwa Bay and Okun Ayo gather at CMS Jetty on Lagos Island on the night of the forced eviction // CMS Jetty, Lagos, January 2020 

In a city where everyone and everything contends for space, even large scale forced evictions occupy a niche in the popular conscience for a moment – if at all – and quickly fade. Some, like Tarkwa Bay – once a beach getaway well-known throughout Lagos – draw widespread attention. Lesser known communities like Second Badagry disappear in relative silence, their story obscured by a megacity’s unending churn. But as news coverage fades, or fails to appear, the voices of those displaced remain – echoing cries for justice, raspy in their repetition. In them are stories of a megacity trampling over its own in a march to “develop”, lessons in resilience, and on keeping dreams alive.

“Since then, I have been sleeping outside"

Fransuwa Dossu has always lived on the water. Generations ago, his forefathers settled along the swampy shores of the lagoon around which sprawls modern-day Lagos. They cleared a patch of mangroves, and built their homes atop iron-wood stilts pounded into the soft lagoon floor – a technique pioneered by his ancestors when, to escape slave-traders near modern-day Cotonou, they fled to a sandbar and honed their water-based architecture. In the century since Fransuwa’s forefathers arrived on the shores of Lagos, the largest city in Africa emerged from the wetlands to surround them. 

 

For Fransuwa, his wife, and their four children, Otodo Gbame was always home. The community began as a small fishing settlement in the late 1800s, and grew to reach 30,000 residents by 2017. Fransuwa is a fisherman. In Otodo Gbame, he would bring his catch home for his wife to smoke and sell in the market. All of his children went to school, and his youngest son, Thomas, was a star football player in the community. 

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Jesco Denzel

A man makes his way down a canal of homes erected on ironwood pillars sunk into the lagoon floor. One month after this photo was taken, all structures pictured would be razed and flattened during the forced eviction of Otodo Gbame.

// Otodo Gbame, Lagos, February 2018

In 2016, the Lagos governor announced a plan to demolish all waterfront communities within 7 days – a threat that put an estimated 300,000 residents in the crosshairs. Otodo Gbame was the first – burned down and broken to make way for a luxury condominium development. Now, Fransuwa lives with his son, Thomas, atop a concrete slab beneath Lagos’s Falomo bridge – a nexus between the business centre of Lagos Island and its most wealthy enclave, Victoria Island. His wife and other children live elsewhere. 

Our World Apart”, a short film directed by Nasu Adbulaziz, an evictee of Otodo Gbame, tells the story of a family torn apart by the eviction, and the enduring hope to reunite in a return to their community.

// Falomo Underbridge, Lagos, August 2019

Fransuwa and Thomas live alongside a group of fishermen – also evictees from Otodo Gbame – who share the concrete slab in the shadow of Falomo bridge. On the day of the eviction, they traveled together by boat to the bridge, and there they have remained, separated from their families, holding on to hope that one day they will return to Otodo Gbame. 

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Okechukwu Samuel

“When we first left Otodo Gbame, this is where we set mosquito net for our wife and children. They were nursing their children, what can we do? You cannot stay here, if night comes, we don’t sleep, our boats will be hitting the wall. The bridge now we are under threat of attack, when the attack is coming, we don’t know. Last Sunday, all the small children fell into water, and the current carried them away and we had to go paddle to save them. They should please build house for us and let’s return to our community, we will pay them, we will pay... They should help us. We are not living like humans here.” 

Falomo Bridge, Lagos, August 2019

The vast majority of evictees resettle within other communities already strained by overcrowding. There, the longer term impacts of forced eviction set in. Children are pulled from school, families splinter further, social networks and support structures wither, physical and mental health deteriorate, and any accumulated savings quickly evaporate. In a country with one of the largest populations in the world of people living in extreme poverty, the poorest of the poor are asked to start again. In the case of Otodo Gbame, challenges are compounded by the fact that the majority of the community are members of the Egun tribe, an ethnic minority in Lagos that often faces discrimination.

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 Jack Newton

“I was a fish trader in Otodo Gbame before the eviction took place. I was pregnant when the first attack happened, and most of us were displaced. When the attacks stopped, I went back to the community, until the attacks started again. That was the time I gave birth. Two weeks after I gave birth was when the final attack took place, we had to run for our lives and safety. When we got to this community, we found it very difficult to settle. We encountered so much trouble. This food business that I am doing is very stressful. We didn’t go through so much stress before. Here, if I go to the market to buy what I need to prepare the food, the traders treat me differently from the way they treat others because I am Egun.”

Sogunro Community, Lagos, April 2019

Having the strength to start anew after seeing your home and community destroyed without warning or due process is as heroic as it is human. But to rebuild is to expose oneself to being re-broken. Some know this too well. For those whose homes have been demolished, rebuilt, only to be demolished again, the threat of forced eviction can feel inescapable. 

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

“I came to Ijora in 1963. When I arrived, I started selling goods, and my market was booming. One December I traveled and when I came back, my house and my shop had been demolished. I didn’t have a place to put my head for a good five months. I continued to hustle until I was able to rent another place. I lived in the new apartment for one year and four months. In 2015, they came to demolish the new apartment. I started sleeping outside again. I found a place to stay and sell, but I fell sick for seven months. Since then, I have been sleeping outside. I want to travel to my home state to start a new life. I have made up my mind to leave Lagos. We are just suffering. We have nothing to make us happy in Lagos anymore. With hope I will start a new life.” 

Badia East, Lagos, April 2019

Those evicted become part of an ever-growing diaspora of the internally displaced within Lagos – a fellowship linking hundreds of thousands across the city. In 2020, the year started with a month-long eviction campaign by the Nigerian Navy which demolished 24 communities, culminating in the demolition of Tarkwa Bay. The evictions were framed as a military exercise to root out those engaged in the illegal tapping of a nearby petroleum pipeline. Despite this justification, however, the evictions were indiscriminate. When the dust settled, tens of thousands had been displaced. 

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 Okechukwu Samuel

“The first battalion brought a caterpillar and began to demolish everywhere. They came and met me at my home. I introduced myself to them, and they left me with my land. Then, their boss, the OIC (Officer in Charge) sent another troop to scatter this place. I said for what? This land was purchased, I did not take it from anybody’s hand. Still now, they don’t want to hear me. They demolished my house…many of my things were lost inside. The people who are still here who know me, they bring me some food to eat. I am still here. I don’t have anywhere to stay. I am still here. If they want to use my land they should pay me, because it was money that was used to buy it.” 

Tarkwa Bay, Lagos, November 2020

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Okechukwu Samuel

“I was at home when they came with guns. The soldiers entered our house, shooting in the air outside. They told us to leave the house immediately. We did not offend anyone or do anything. They chased us away – my family and I. So we left the place. We are sleeping outside now. We did not commit any crime or do anything bad. I am a chief cook, and when I am off duty I do fishing to feed my family. This eviction is the reason I am out here now.”

Tomaro, Lagos, November 2020

“I shouldn't give up..."

As an adolescent, Fred Patrick was a student of the streets. He grew up in Badia East, an informal settlement in an industrial district of Lagos. In his teenage years, his rambunctious ways became more than his mother could bear, and he was sent to live with family in a village in Akwa Ibom State. He returned to Lagos at 19 with a work ethic honed by fishing and cutting timber in the village, streetsmarts built in Badia, and a guardian complex that came from being the oldest brother to four sisters. He made a point to steer clear of trouble, but didn’t hesitate to intervene when he witnessed injustice – a habit that earned him a scar beneath his eye when he confronted a man who had cut in front of a young girl in a line for well-water, and the man swung at him with a rock. 

 

Fred graduated from secondary school at the top of his class, and had dreams of becoming a lawyer. In 2013, that passion grew stronger when he witnessed the forced eviction of half of his community in a demolition that stopped just shy of his home. In 2014, he gained admission to a pre-law programme. Shortly after, he came home from school one day to find his family and their belongings in a field of rubble, and all of Badia East in ruin.

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 Andrew Maki (JEI)

The second demolition of Badia East – once home to over 15,000

// Badia East, September, 2015

Badia East was demolished under the guise of a project funded by the World Bank to, “increase sustainable access to basic urban services through investments in critical infrastructure". Despite World Bank policies and Nigerian land-use law requiring resettlement and/or adequate compensation, no housing alternative was provided to residents, and the paltry compensation that some did receive came only after international outcry, more than a year after the eviction. Almost eight years and three Lagos State administrations since the final demolition of Badia East, the government housing project for which the eviction purportedly took place remains uncompleted.

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

“I applied to study law with the mindset that when I finish I will deal with so many people and protect so many people. Especially on the side of the government for making so many people homeless. I was surprised when one day they called me at school and said there is demolition going on in my community. By the time I came back from school, the whole place was gone. I saw my mom, and my siblings outside with our properties. I was so angry…but there was nothing I could do. Everything was already gone. I was so confused. I started blaming myself... I started to feel useless — thinking, ‘what is the essence of studying law if I can’t even defend people?’. But something inside of me kept telling me that I shouldn’t give up.”

– Fred Patrick Adasi, pictured above standing on the ground he and his family’s home stood before the eviction of Badia East rendered its 15,000 residents homeless in 2015. In the background rises the uncompleted government housing project for which the final demolition purportedly took place // Badia East, Lagos, April 2019

Soon after the demolition of his community, Fred joined a paralegal training program run by Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI)  – a curriculum designed to equip urban poor residents with the legal knowledge to be a voice for their communities and their residents. Since then, Fred has since become the program’s lead paralegal, having trained scores to follow in his footsteps. There, Fred also joined the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation (the Federation), a movement of urban poor advocating for dignity and community-led development. Their vision is one of an inclusive Lagos that anchors its development objectives to the principles of participatory urban planning, and their advocacy nurtures among their communities a hope that – together – they can hold their government to account.

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Okechukwu Samuel

Mohammed Zanna aka Vagabond King, a JEI paralegal, member of the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, and evictee of Tarkwa Bay, attending a protest for #Justice4OtodoGbame. Today, Mr Zanna leads efforts to mobilize Tarkwa Bay residents to continue to demand justice as their eviction case makes its way through court.

// Lagos Island, Lagos, April 2018

Yet this hope must contend with power structures that would aim to see it broken, and legal protections that often fail to protect. During the eviction of Otodo Gbame, JEI lawyers worked with the community to secure multiple court orders mandating a halt to the eviction on grounds of inadequate notice and failure to provide an resettlement plan, and ordering a mediation between residents and those seeking to acquire the land. In violation of these court orders, the eviction continued. 

 

Two months after the final, and most violent, day of demolition in Otodo Gbame, a judge at the Lagos State High Court issued a ruling finding the eviction unconstitutional, and ordered the Lagos State Government to provide resettlement for the displaced residents. Four years, one frivolous State appeal, and many postponements later, Otodo Gbame’s case remains stalled in court backlogs, and its residents remain displaced. 

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 Mathew Cerf (JEI)

Christiana Babapitan, an evictee from Otodo Gbame, speaks at a meeting attended by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights about the long term effect of displacement on her and her family, and the community’s ongoing struggle for resettlement. // Oko Agbon, Lagos, February 2020

Although Otodo Gbame was eventually demolished, it did not go without a fight. A group of 5,000 of its residents held on for six months until the bitter, violent end – through court battles, mass protests, and human shields. Media surrounding these efforts elicited local and international outcry, raising the political cost of forced eviction for local leaders, and causing the government’s plan to demolish all waterfront settlements in Lagos to end where it started – leaving the homes of roughly 270,000 waterfront residents still intact.

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Omoregie Osakpolor

Above, residents of Otodo Gbame gather on the one-year anniversary of the forced eviction of their community to protest the fact that they remain without resettlement or compensation, in contravention to court orders and their constitutional rights. Below, one year later, residents assemble in protest on the two-year anniversary of the eviction, renewing their calls for justice.

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

Better Angels

For every community lost to forced eviction, there are those among the displaced, galvanized by loss, who join their voice to the ranks of those calling for change. As Lagos grows, the need for these voices to be heard grows with it. In 2020, with the #EndSARS protests, Nigeria saw the largest popular demonstration in its history. Despite protesters’ demands earning lip-service from many elected officials, they were ultimately met with live rounds that tore through crowds of peaceful protestors, and a government-led misinformation campaign to deny culpability. The story echoes that of Otodo Gbame, where favourable court judgements were served with a side of bulldozers and gunfire. They show a country in a crisis of identity, torn between one that protects the rights of its citizens, and one where those in power can wield it with impunity. 

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Omoregie Osakpolor

A young evictee of Otodo Gbame at the High Court of Lagos State, where displaced residents gathered to attend a hearing on the forced eviction of their community.

// Lagos Island, Lagos, April 2018

For those whose lives have been upended by forced eviction, to hope means to believe, in spite of the past, that Nigeria’s better angels can prevail. In October of 2020 – towards the end of a year marred by evictions, a global pandemic, and the violent crackdown on #EndSARS protests – good news finally came. After announcing plans to demolish the community of Makoko – a waterfront settlement home to tens of thousands in the heart of Lagos – to make way for private real estate development, the government changed course and agreed to work together with the community in realizing a “community-led development plan”.

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Mathew Cerf (JEI)

Adogbo, one of the seven communities making up the greater Makoko / Iwaya waterfront. In the background, the tall buildings of Lagos Island appear through morning haze. 

As Lagos enters a new year, it carries with it the ghosts of demolished communities, yet stands at the threshold of a cautiously optimistic future. In Makoko, the government signaled a willingness to engage in what has long been the central request of activists: an “inclusive” approach to urban development that partners with existing residents. If the government maintains course, this will set a new precedent for harmonizing a megacity’s development objectives with its responsibility to citizens. In doing so, it will reconstitute the notion of “urban resilience” in a way that is anchored to people, rather than projects. 

 

Yet, while the participatory plan for developing Makoko may herald a new way forward, past wrongs remain unredressed. Otodo Gbame's court case is in the Nigerian Court of Appeals, while the case for Tarkwa Bay and its neighbouring communities has moved into its second year of litigation. For both, the window for delivering justice remains open. Until then, government commitments remain words made hollow by the past, and evictees will spin hope from impossible odds – feeding dreams that offer blueprints for the future.

The Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement is a movement of the urban poor for dignity and development with membership from across over 144 communities in Lagos, 60 in Port Harcourt, and growing in other cities across Nigeria. 

 Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI) is a human rights and development organization that works hand-in-hand with grassroots social movements like the Federation to advance the rights of the urban poor and other marginalized populations.

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