“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.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.