For residents of Otodo- Gbame, a riverine community located near the high-brow area of Lekki, the frequent threat to freedom and right to peaceful existence is not yet over. Muritala Ayinla takes a look at the plight of the community
Two weeks ago, officials of the Lagos State Task force on Environment and Special Offence Unit allegedly stormed the fishing community of Otodo- Gbame in Lekki to dislodge the residents.
Although, there is no reliable record of the exact number of the residents living in the sprawling community, some Non-Governmental Organisations and other right activists said that the community is made up of more than 30,000 inhabitants. Many of the people in the ancestral settlement are fishermen and fisherwomen.
They are among the estimated 10 million homeless residents or people living in the sub-standard or overcrowded hamlets also known as ‘Tan’lese in the state. Last year, over 200 structures in Otodo-Gbame in Lekki axis was set ablaze and hundreds of residents were displaced when Yoruba and Egun ethnic groups clashed within the community.
During the crisis, which many, particularly, NGOs suspected to be a calculated attempt to evict the residents, four persons, including a child were drowned while trying to escape through the river behind the community.
Some said over eight residents allegedly drowned including children while few of them managed to escape in the ensuing supremacy battle between the Egun speaking community; mostly indigenes of Benin Republic and the Yoruba speaking community .
The police, amid the fighting and burning of houses also rescued a two-day-old baby.
Following the bloody clash, the state government took over the area while the State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development demolished the remaining shanties and cleared the rubbles caused by the inferno.
Residents sleep on boat, open-field
Faced with reality of non-availability of structures in the community and the crisis that swept away their once ‘model city’, the residents were forced to sleep inside their boats while others passed the night on the community open field, the only available space in the community.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Rahman Sehnu, a resident blamed their woes on one Segun, who he also called the Oluwo of Ikate Land.
He said Segun has been the one paying law enforcement agents to dislodge them. Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), said that 800 structures have been either burnt or demolished, rendering 30,000 residents homeless.
Lamenting the recent demolition exercise, which swept through the remaining shanties and those newly put together, a resident, who simply identified himself as Dansu, said: “On the March, 17, 2017, around 8am, excavators and a swamp buggy were seen by the entrance of our community. Without any prior notice to residents, they started demolishing homes we had rebuilt since the November 2016 forced eviction.
“They came in Black Maria and two marked pick-ups on ground, the Military Police and a large number of people in NSCDC uniforms claimed they were working for the Lagos State Ministry of Environment.”
But speaking on the development, Co-Founder / Co-Director of Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, Nigeria, Megan Chapman, said that since November 7, 2016, there had been a court order restraining the Lagos State Government and police from demolishing Otodo Gbame and other waterfront communities across Lagos.
Despite that order, Otodo Gbame residents were evicted November 9th and 10th 2016, by fire and caterpillar working in the middle of the night.
“Since that time, with the subsisting court order and a positive interim ruling from the court that ordered the Lagos State government into mediation with the waterfront communities, some homeless Otodo Gbame evictees have been able to rebuild their homes to provide themselves basic shelter.
“Today’s demolition violates the order of Honourable Justice SA Onigbanjo of the Lagos State High Court and will render an estimated 4,698 residents homeless.”
According to her, Onigbanjo had last year granted a temporary injunction restraining the Lagos State Government and the Nigerian Police Force from proceeding with any demolition of the waterfronts or eviction of their inhabitants.
Lagos denies flouting court order
The Lagos State government, worried by the criticism and what it described as misrepresentation of facts by some media outlets and Non-governmental Organisations, denied flouting any court order over its action on demolition of the houses and shanties in Otodo Gbame.
The government said that the state’s Environment Ministry’s action was carried out in order to forestall an environmental disaster and another round of deadly skirmishes that led to the razing of the Otodo Gbame community in November 2016.
According to the government, in a statement signed by the state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr Steve Ayorinde, contrary to the claim on the purported judgement, the trial judge did not deliver judgment on the matter but rather referred the parties to Multi Door House for mediation. He added that the demolished structures were illegal shanties and unwholesome habitations cleared around Ilado and seafront areas beside Freedom Road, in Lekki, Lagos.
Ayorinde said that the action was informed by the overriding public interest to ensure that the waterfront area is free from environmentally injurious and unsanitary habitation few months after it was consumed by fire and rendered uninhabitable.
Hence, the government denied flouting any court judgment as incorrectly alleged, insisting that it owes a duty to the larger population of the state to ensure that public health and safety are maintained.
He stated that the state government had no interest in the area other than to ensure that the delicate ecosystem of the waterfront remains safe, clean and secure. According to the statement, the Otodo Gbame community is one of the 39 claimant communities that had commenced action to enforce their fundamental rights pursuant to Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules 2009 before Onigbanjo. J of Lagos Division of the High Court of Lagos State in Suit No. LD/4232MFHR/2016..AKAKPO & 38 ORS vs. AG L/S & 3 ORS.
Ayorinde said: “The leave granted to enforce their rights was tantamount to an order of status quo ante bellum on the parties, which amongst other things required that the claimants do not take any action within the area after it was destroyed by fire.
“The undisputed fact is that Otodo Gbame was engulfed by fire that razed the entire community in November 2016, which rendered the area uninhabitable.”
According to the Commissioner, since the claimants had submitted the case for adjudication, it would be unacceptable for them to return to the area or to erect shanties and perpetuate unsanitary and environmentally dangerous conditions, hence, the need for the government to maintain order and public safety.
The statement maintained that the state government was mindful of the welfare of the affected citizens and had indeed expressed its concerns and willingness to explore an amicable resolution insofar that the demands of the claimants are reasonable and lawful.
It insisted that the government would neither be stampeded nor blackmailed into abdicating its constitutional responsibilities to guard against a potential health and environmental hazard in the area by condoning what amounts to a breach of environmental and urban planning laws.
He added that the state government appreciates the understanding of the general public and assures all of its unflinching commitment to the development of Lagos State as an ideal megacity that is sensitive to the needs of the public as well as open and continuous di- alogue.