“It’s like a civil war”: in Lagos, land clearances can be fatal

Protests followed the evictions. Image: JEI.

While the residents of Otodo Gbame slept in the early hours of 9 November, gangs of ajagun gbale, or land-grabbing soldiers, of Yoruba ethnic origin, entered the community and torched it.

Also known as “area boys”, eyewitness accounts link them to the powerful landowning Elegushi family. Steve Ayorinde, the commissioner for information and strategy of Lagos State, blamed the destruction on a fire caused by “the ethnic clash that occurred between Egun and Yoruba residents within the community”.

Yet when the Lagos state police arrived at the small fishing settlement shortly afterwards, they participated in the destruction. Roughly 30,000 people were rendered homeless in just few hours by the demolition, which contravened regional and international safeguards.

When residents resisted, “they started shooting into the crowd," said Jean-Marie Assinou, an eyewitness whose two brothers live in Otodo Gbame. With the settlement surrounded, those who could no longer flee by land “had to jump into the lagoon,” he told us.

The exact number of deaths is unknown. Three witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International saw people drowning. Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), a human rights organisation, puts the death toll at 11, and reports that 13 evictees are still missing. “It’s like a civil war,” Assinou said.

UN guidelines specify that evictions mustn’t occur without reasonable notice and consultation with residents, and mustn’t be carried out at night or using force. “From our research, none of these safeguards were put in place,” said Morayo Adebayo, a researcher at Amnesty International Nigeria. In addition, just two days earlier the Lagos State High Court had issued an injunction preventing the government from performing evictions of this kind.

This is not an isolated incident. Evictions involving suspected cooperation between powerful omo onile families like the Elegushi, and the police and local government, are increasingly commonplace in Lagos. Similar demolitions occurred in the settlements of Makoko in 2010 and 2012, and Badia East in 2013 and 2015. And since state representatives and police are usually present, politicians are quick to justify the demolitions.

The protests. Image: JEI.

Following the end of military rule in 1999, the omo onile – or "sons of the soil" – have claimed large chunks of Lagos and have returned to the forefront of local politics. “The ‘chieftaincy families’ are reinventing their history and the nature of their historical control over land, with active support from the state government,” said Megan Chapman, co-founder of JEI.

Anofiu Elegushi is the acting commissioner of transportation. And while calls for new local elections have been denied, Abiodun Elegushi has been appointed administrator of the Eti Osa locality, which includes Otodo Gbame in its remit. The family’s palace is next to the settlement. The entanglement of the omo onile’s interests with those of the local state has often caused the demolition of informal settlements, paving the way for construction and investment.

The precise motivation for the recent eviction, or the nature of the Elegushi’s involvement, is unclear. (Attempts to contact the family proved unsuccessful.) But the family did recently secure approval to build a smart eco-city nearby. “We believe this project (or similar private elitist development) is the impetus behind the evictions," Chapman added.

All this comes after calls from the governor of Lagos state, Akinwunmi Ambode, on 9 October for “the demolition of all the shanties” around the city’s waterways “for the safety of our children and all Lagosians”. That statement followed kidnappings from a private school near Otodo Gbame, according to Reuters. Ambode claimed that the city's waterfront shanties were “hideouts” for the alleged kidnappers.

However there is a bigger force at play, namely the promise of an “Africa rising”: shanties are being tolerated less and less in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city. The desire to forge the foundations of a middle class is a powerful one, not least in the waterside Lekki area, where Otodo Gbame is situated. Lekki attracted foreign investment in the 2000s, as the commodities boom brought significant prosperity for oil-rich Nigeria. Now that oil prices have tumbled, investors have stayed away and development has stalled.

Otodo Gbame’s residents never reaped the fruit of this prosperity. Since their eviction Assinou’s brothers – an electrician and a mason – have been sleeping on the construction sites where they are employed.

Thousands of Lagos residents have taken to the streets to protest the eviction, with some 2,000 marching on Governor Ambode’s office last week. But Otodo Gbame is one victim in a spate of demolitions. And with growing need for investment along the city’s waterfront, and the omo onile unyielding in their land claims, 300,000 people are at risk of imminent eviction.


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.