Otodo Gbame: Justifying Demolition, Displacement of Rural Poor?

 

By Olufolahan Osunmuyiwa

 

I have always been proud of my heritage as a Lagosian and my connection with the sea.

 

My ancestors were fishermen; my great-grandfather was a well-known Olokun priest from Isale-Eko.

 

Whenever I would visit my grandfather, he would always tell us how the “Okun” took over most of the previous settlement, leading to the migration of many to Victoria Island. He often ended his stories, almost talking to himself with “at least it was the river that made them migrate not the forceful eviction by the government”.

 

I was interested in the eviction part, so I asked him about it. He explained that fishermen were forcefully evicted from Victoria Island, to make way for a newly developed Lagos. In essence, these people were stripped from their land, to make way for the wealthy. 

 

I was a child, so I never really understood the gravity of the event. However, I felt the pain in his voice, and that of my mother’s when my grand aunt was forced to leave her house in Maroko under the Raji Rasaki government.

 

I remember hearing stories about how the woman cried till she became blind for losing her home. A few years after the demolition of her property by the government, she passed away. Maroko was shared among the wealthy, while the forcefully evicted were left with no compensation. This is the story of displacement in Lagos.  

 

Watching the news about Otogbame, the plight of my ancestors came to mind again. In the last century, the Lagos government has displaced more people than climate change (sea-level rise). The justification for this? The development of Lagos or as we fondly call it, “Itesiwaju Eko.” Every society needs to evolve and develop.

 

However, environmental and human justice must underline such development. Unfortunately, development planners in poorer nations hoping to join the league of mega cities in the world often forego this logic. They claim development has its costs and sadly, displacement is the recipe to that.

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To be fair on the advocates of urban development, most displaced communities often lack proper infrastructure or WASH (water and sanitation) facilities. So creating a new layout in such places, would promote liveability, social inclusion, productivity, environmental sustainability and urban form.

 

Importantly, by global standards, the progress of a city is mainly measured by its infrastructure and livability. Spurred by these global indices, cities like Lagos have scrambled to get foreign investors by initiating several development projects. The inflow of investments creates a loop of migrants seeking new opportunities and an artificial boom for real estate. Catering to the sudden demand for land by foreigners leads to a cycle of land grabbing by local oligarchs or as the case of Lagos, traditional rulers in collaboration with the government.

 

While the government rationalises its actions with buzzwords like “the protection of lives” its actions are often contrary. 


The typical government modus operandi is to “burn and force” i.e. scare indigenous communities with the police force or burn down their properties overnight. As the case of Otogbami, the government in a bid to “develop Lagos” and “protect people from themselves” opted for the use of brutal force, leaving the residents wounded, and roaming the high seas.

 

Unfortunately, Otogbami is not an isolated case, Lagos has been the poster child for government forced displacement in Nigeria. The poor have continued to carry the burden of development in Lagos, and trailing this trend of displacement is the loss of cultural heritage and an increase in homelessness.

 

The idea of development in Lagos has been centred on the reallocation of resources from the less powerful to the most powerful. This exercise of power is reflected in the removal of people from their homes without a proper relocation plan while stripping them of their last bit of dignity. It is a game of “who gets what” i.e. allocation of scarce land resources and “who owns what and does what” i.e. control rights on land by the government. It is a power structure constructed on inequality, however, garbed as a sustainable path towards development.

A development that overlooks the plight of children sleeping on wooden boats while the governor “claims he would not succumb to emotional blackmail.”

 

At the end of the day, it is time to review who this development is serving as; apparently, it is a game of winner takes all. Development should be an integral part of the society, but not at the expense of those it should benefit.

 

*Osunmuyiwa, a graduate researcher writes from Amsterdam.

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