“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.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.