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.