What's the vision for the poor, in this mini-planet of slums?

By Tolu Ogunlesi

It made international news headlines. An estimated forty thousand persons, rendered homeless in no time, when a demolition squad rolled into Ijora Badia community. It's the way of Lagos, it seems. The poor — who make up the 'informal economy' that reportedly constitutes about 70 percent of the city's population — are perpetually on the run, hounded by government policies that seem to exist for the purpose of making more land available for the minority well-off to play with. (Apparently the bulldozers' metal fist has been dangling above Ijora Badia since 1996/97.)

Long before Ijora-Badia there was Maroko. In July 1990 government bulldozers invaded the sprawling slum on the edge of the upscale Victoria Island. In the last two years I've spoken to two people who were residents of Maroko at that time. One of them (he was about in his mid-thirties at the time, and married) told me he was a "landlord" in Maroko. He recalls that he wasn't home when the demolitioners came calling. "My wife ran to come and call me," he told me, in pidgin English. They only just managed to salvage their possessions, and relocated to an abandoned housing estate then on the outskirts of the city. A series of movements around the city followed, and he now lives in Ikorodu, a fast-growing suburb in the North West of Lagos. I met the second person, FA, via Twitter in 2011 when I was researching a story I was writing at that time. He was born in Maroko, and was in Primary School when the demolitions started. But he remembers it very well, and says the bulldozers buried people within their homes.

In place of the destitute slum that was Maroko, an elite slum known as Victoria Island Extension, or Oniru, arose. It's full of gated estates and luxury apartments served by bad roads. Drainage is often absent, and electricity and water have to be privately supplied.

Almost exactly 22 years after Maroko came tumbling down, it was the turn of Makoko, a floating settlement on the Lagos Lagoon. The Lagos State Government gave then 72 hours to "vacate and remove all illegal developments." One of the community's chiefs was shot dead, reportedly by police, during the demolition.

In his six years as Governor of Lagos, Mr. Babatunde Fashola has reportedly undertaken a series of 'deportations' that have seen beggars and homeless persons rounded up and imprisoned or forcefully evicted from the city.

Sometime last year I eavesdropped on a conversation between two elderly roadside traders in Victoria Island, meters away from the gate of the multi-billion dollar Eko Atlantic City development. One of the women told the other she was terrified by the state government's ruthless attack on the city's bottom millions. They recounted stories of recent demolitions, and compared these to Maroko. "When this rain is done they will find fresh victims, claiming that the houses are sitting on drainage channels," said one.

Oshodi, one of Lagos' best known open air markets — a sprawl of shacks centred around disused railway lines - has since been pulled down. Many of the market persons have been displaced, and traffic now flows faster through.

I spoke to journalist Robert Neuwirth during the Economists Future Cities Conference in Lagos in May 2012. He said he was worried about the government's crackdown on Lagos' markets. "I'm not sure why the government sees the street markets as an evil," he said.

The actions of the state government combine to paint a picture of a government bent on punishing people for a poverty it has done little to deliver them from, and raises questions about how cities should go about the business of urban planning and development. Anybody seeking to defend the government's actions would of course find ready excuses. Slums and informal markets spawn petty crime and gangsterism. Overstretched infrastructure, a corrupt bureaucracy and entrenched lawlessness are the products of decades of neglect and poor governance, a situation which must be tackled with a firm, uncompromising hand. Nigerians sometimes require a firm hand.

But none of these answer the question: what is the city's vision for its teeming poor and economically disadvantaged? In the quest to redeem the city, what becomes of these disenfranchised multitudes? What is the fate of a city that appears to be making plans only for its wealthiest occupants?

One area in which the government seems to be seriously underperforming is in the provision/facilitation of low-cost housing. The rate of development of luxury and upscale housing — much of which is so expensive it attracts no occupants — appears to significantly outpace that of desperately-needed low-cost housing.

I admire the Governor, for his vision of creating a functioning city out of one has arguably become a global face of urban dysfunction. But there needs to be a debate about the way to best achieve this; how to deal fairly and inclusively with the city's bottom millions. Five years ago — at that time the Governor was barely a year old in office — I managed to catch a glimpse of the interior of his official vehicle, and spotted a bunch of books. One of them was Mike Davis' Planet of Slums. I still take it as evidence of a Governor seeking answers to a real problem.

Lagos, its aspirations to megacitiness aside, is a mini-planet of slums. The advocacy group Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) says that there are 120 settlements classified as slums in the city today, up from 42 thirty years ago. Makoko and Badia are just two. (And that's not counting all the elite slums, differentiated from the rest only by the sizes of the mansions and electrified-wire fences). It is very likely that this cycle of demolition and international publicity and local outrage will continue.

Unless, of course, the government, working with an array of stakeholders, can devise a way to make sustainable plans for the silent, helpless majority. What we cannot afford, clearly, is to go into the future thinking this problem will somehow take care of itself.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.