Violent evictions, homelessness are the cost of Lagos, Nigeria's megacity

Human rights group Amnesty International says more than 30,000 people were evicted last year from their waterfront homes in Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos, by the local authorities, as the wealth gap grows and more residents are living in informal settlements.

Amnesty says 300,000 people face homelessness as Lagos state government pushes through development plans

Florence Keyimo, 27, cradles her baby on the spot where her home used to be in Otodo-Gbame, a waterfront community in Lagos, Nigeria. (Amnesty International Nigeria )

"I was born and brought up in Otodo Gbame community," says 31-year-old Julius Oladele, sitting with his feet burning on the hot sand strewn with broken glass, bamboo and corrugated iron sheets.

"They came in November 2016. They demolished all the houses in my community, including my own. My wife, my two children… all our things got burnt. We have nothing."

The human rights group Amnesty International says Julius' story is just one of more than 30,000 people who were evicted last year from their waterfront homes in Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos, by the local authorities. 

I saw it about to crush my house with me and my children inside- Aliete Avosetien talks about the day the bulldozers came

Lagos is one of the world's megacities — defined as a densely populated city with more than 10 million people — and the state authorities are trying to tame its haphazard, rapid growth.

Instead of rickety constructions of wood and corrugated iron, hastily thrown up to house the thousands of new arrivals that flock to the city in search of jobs and opportunities, the government wants upmarket hotels and office blocks, gleaming condos and luxury compounds for the rich.

But that means moving the 70 per cent of the city's population who live in informal settlements.

Eyewitnesses say it was nearly midnight when residents of Otodo Gbame were woken by gunfire. Tear gas was used and homes were set alight. By daylight a bulldozer moved in.

"They were just shooting mercilessly," says Oladele. "Nobody could wait… we had to run to the waterside and that was where some people drowned and died."

An excavator demolishes structures in Otodo-Gbame as an evictee watches, during a forced eviction in March. (Justice & Empowerment Initiatives)

Among the dead was a pregnant mother found floating in the water, with another baby tied to her back.

But the eviction in Otodo Gbame wasn't the last.

Aliete Avosetien, 68, was woken by the sound of bulldozers just before her eviction in the nearby Ilubirin area in March this year. 

"I saw it about to crush my house with me and my children inside," she says. "I shouted, 'They are killing me, they are killing me!'" 

She escaped alive but was injured.

Mobile phone footage shows hundreds of people piling into canoes crammed with their belongings, looking on from the water as their homes were destroyed.

A man was bundled into one canoe with his clothes soaked in blood, his head flopping as he passed out. Amnesty says he was Daniel Aya, who later died from a gunshot wound.  

More than 23 million people live in Lagos state — most of them in the city of the same name. 

'How can they say I'm not Nigerian?'

Some have been there for nearly a century, but the state government says these homes need to be knocked down for environmental health reasons or because they are harbouring criminals and illegal immigrants.

To that, Oladele holds up his Nigerian voter's card. "How can they say I'm not Nigerian?" he asks.

Lagos state authorities have claimed that those living in these communities were illegal immigrants from neighbouring Togo, Benin or Ghana, but many evictees counter this argument proving they are indeed Nigerian.

Nigeria has recently emerged from a months-long recession, the result of the slump in global oil prices. But you wouldn't know it looking at the shiny glass office blocks and swish residential complexes being built in Lagos.

Valuable waterfront real estate

Lagos is surrounded by water — from the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the lagoon which gives it its name. A waterfront property is a property developer's dream. The cost of land is high and those who live on it stand in the way of huge profit.

Not far from Otodo Gbame, in the upmarket Ikoyi area, the sun beats down on the concrete shell of a four-bedroom house that is being redeveloped for Nigeria's moneyed elite.

Nearby, a multi-storey office block climbs upwards and on another main road, bulldozers and diggers move in and out of a site for a new luxury hotel.

They did not send us any notice, we were taken by surprise- Elizabeth Medejiten, 79

Nowhere is the wealth gap more apparent than on Banana Island, a patch of reclaimed land that did not exist 10 years ago, where guards now control access and multi-million-dollar compounds glimmer with gold decor on the gates and peacocks parading on the grass outside. 

The state government claims Otodo Gbame is a recent, temporary settlement. Elizabeth Medejiten, 79, disagrees. She was born there, she says.

Looking thin, her cheeks scarred with tribal markings, she says she is still angry at losing her home and possessions one year after the eviction.

"They did not say we did anything. They did not send us any notice, we were taken by surprise," she says. "Now we put a mat on the floor and sleep, the sun and the rain beat us. Everything is like that, we don't know when it will be alright."

Former residents of Otodo Gbame now sleep under bridges, in canoes on the water or have moved in with friends and family in overcrowded conditions in other waterfront communities that are similarly under threat. 

Sleeping under a bridge

Amnesty estimates that some 300,000 more people are at risk of being made homeless as the state government pushes through its development plans. 

Canoes with makeshift roofs over them are being used as shelter by evictees from a community in Lagos. (Amnesty International Nigeria)

For most Lagosians, housing is a constant worry and will continue to be, with the city's population growing at a rate of nearly four per cent every year.

In June a court ruled that the evictions without resettlement were unconstitutional. It ordered a halt on further forced evictions without consultation and agreement to provide alternative accommodation. 

But the government has yet to comply. In the meantime, Elizabeth Medejiten, Julius Oladele and Aliete Avosetien sleep where they can, looking out onto the newly built but still empty luxury housing, wondering where their home could be in the megacity.


Anna Cunningham is a senior freelance multimedia journalist. She has reported for the CBC since 2009, based in Mumbai, Paris and Lagos, Nigeria. She is now London-based. Anna was previously staff at the BBC for 10 years. @journo_anna