Thousands in Lagos waterfront community evicted by armed police
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They were woken by shouts. As uniformed officers flooded into Otodo Gbamé at 5.30am on Sunday, April 9, residents fled, piling their families and some belongings into canoes and pushing out from their waterside town. They drifted in the water for hours, unable to return, and watched as officers from the Lagos State TaskForce burned down their homes.
Otodo Gbamé is a waterfront town in Lagos state, Nigeria, with structures built upon the shoreline and also on stilts in the water. It is one of many informal waterside settlements around Lagos Lagoon, historically mostly populated by the Egun ethnic minority group.
“They were shooting as we ran into the water”Tina Edukpo is a student and resident of Otodo Gbamé.
I woke up in the early morning, and heard that people were coming into the community. People were shouting for help. We were afraid. We heard a gunshot. People were running, unable to carry their possessions… They were shooting as we were running into the water. Someone picked me up in their boat. I was in the boat from 6am to 6pm, with no food or water. We waited for them to leave. They set our buildings on fire so we could not go back. Everything is destroyed. Now I don’t know what to do.
The Lagos state government did not respond to repeated enquiries by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, but posted on Twitter that the eviction of the Otodo Gbamé community was carried out to flush out criminals who were "perfecting plans to attack" the nearby upscale areas of Victoria island and Lekki island, and using the shanty town as a base.
A history of evictions
This eviction is the latest in a series of attempts to force people off the land. On October 9, 2016, the governor for Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, issued a seven-day eviction notice for informal settlements by the water. This was countered by a High Court ruling on November 7, 2016, imposing an injunction on any eviction or demolition.
Two days later on November 9, a fire started in Otodo Gbamé, razing hundreds of homes to the ground. A witness told Amnesty International that she saw police preventing residents from putting out the fire. Multiple witnesses saw police evicting residents and lighting new fires throughout the night. By November 11, an estimated 30,000 people had been forced from their homes, provoking international outrage and condemnation by international human rights groups.
“Prime waterfront areas” for development
The government denied any involvement, writing in a statement that: “While the Otodo Gbame shanties clearly fell within the prime waterfront areas where Lagos State Government would prefer to have better development, befitting of a prime area in a mega city, it [is] mindful of the fundamental rights of the various residents living in the area."
Geographically, Otodo Gbamé is prime real estate: a spit of land connected to Lekki Phase One, an affluent area that has seen rapid development in recent years. In 2016, Lagos state had an estimated population of 21 million, and land, which is scarce, has become increasingly valuable. Local NGOs suspect that the evictions are a way of satisfying the need for more land for construction.
A Lagos State High Court Judge ruled in January that the evictions were “inhuman, cruel and degrading”. Undeterred, government forces carried out more violent evictions in mid-March, citing “environmentally injurious and unsanitary habitation”.
Andrew Maki is a lawyer who works with the Justice and Empowerment Initiative, an NGO. When he and colleagues started getting phone calls from residents of Otodo Gbamé early in the morning on April 9, he rushed down to the community and witnessed what happened. He says that there were probably between 50 and 60 officers wearing the Lagos State TaskForce uniform milling around when he arrived. He spoke to the officer in charge and told him that there was a court injunction against the demolition of the settlement. The officer responded that that if he had any issues he should take them up with the Lagos State Governor.
“You could see the bullets splashing the water”
The officers were all heavily armed, and most of them carrying gas masks because they were shooting lots of tear gas. About an hour after I arrived, they began distributing kerosene. The men fanned out across the community, in a line, pouring kerosene on structures and setting them on fire.
As that line advanced I was pushed away and told to leave the community through the water, along with everybody else who had been chased into the water by the force earlier in the morning. People were in canoes around the houses on stilts in the water, but the TaskForce wanted to burn those structures as well so they drove them further back. In that process, at least two men were shot, one in the neck, and we tried to get him to a hospital but he died shortly after. Another man was shot in the side and in the chest and we got him to the hospital. He survived.
The aftermath of the destruction in Otodo Gbamé. Photo: Justice and Empowerment Initiatives
As people were frantically paddling to escape, there were marine police shooting bullets that were shaving the water — you could see them splashing the water along one side of the canoes. We were forced deeper and deeper out into the middle of the lagoon. After about midday the community had retreated far enough away from the town that the tear gas and bullets could no longer reach the boats.
What happened on Sunday was more violent than any of the evictions that have happened in the last six months. They arrived at 5.30 in the morning with torches, shooting guns in the air and throwing tear gas at people – no forewarning, and two people were shot and one person died. What I witnessed was basically an attack.