When Raymond Amosu paddled his family to safety in the midnight of November 9th, he steadied the canoe, turned and cast a last look at what used to be home. Tongues of fire licked away, furiously, at the three bedroom enclosure where he had married his wife, Okelusi, and raised eight children.
His eyes watered.
“I did not remove anything except my fishing nets,” Mr. Amosu, 48, a fisherman, said.
In the early hours of November 9, a gang of boys with reported ties to the powerful Elegushi chieftaincy family, entered Otodo Gbame community – a peaceful fishing settlement on the edge of the Lagos Lagoon in Lekki Phase I, made up predominantly of Eguns and other ethnic minorities in Lagos – and began setting fire to houses in the community.
Mr. Amosu said he was asleep when his wife woke him around midnight with screams of ‘fire, fire.’
“All the people in the community woke up. They were putting fire everywhere. They destroyed everything,”
About 800 homes were affected in a massive destruction that rendered an estimated 10,000 people homeless, according to the Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), a non-governmental organisation that had worked extensively with the community people.
This destruction occurred barely a day after a Lagos court ordered the state government to immediately suspend its planned demolition of shanties along creeks and waterways in the state.
It also came one week after the state House of Assembly appealed to Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to reconsider the planned demolitions.
‘An ethnic clash’
On the evening of November 9, the Lagos State Government released a statement authored by the state’s Police Command attributing the “crisis” in the community to a clash between the Eguns and Yorubas.
Dolapo Badmos, the Public Relations Officer of the State Command of the Nigerian Police, said the “Egun community mainly made up of people from Republic of Benin,” occupied illegal shanties.
“We were alerted about the breakdown of law and order in the area and immediately went to check Otodogbami community, Ikate Lekki Phase 1, where there is a fight between the Benin-Yoruba communities fighting over the supremacy of the territory,” said Ms. Badmos, a superintendent of police.
“It’s an illegal settlement area, most of the structures there are shanties and because of a protracted dispute between themselves, they set fire on their different shanties. The Police moved into the area to restore peace.”
The community people, who said they are mostly from Badagry but have lived in Otodo Gbame for over a century, insisted the crisis was triggered by a group of youth, who with government backing, invaded their homes and unleashed violence on them.
Solomon Akojenu, chairman, Otodo Gbame community, said the youth were planted by those who wanted to evict them from the community.
“They have been coming to rent houses from us and we thought they were legal entities, not knowing that they have a mission for coming to the community,” Mr. Akojenu said.
“This week, they started padlocking people’s houses, extorting money from people forcefully.
“That was what took them to the house of a man called Jonas, where they went, padlocked the wife’s room and expected the woman to come and pay them N20,000. That’s what led to this clash. They went extorting money from people, that they should pay N5,000, N10,000, N20,000.
“After locking their houses, they said they are now the ones in charge, the landlords.”
At about 7.30 a.m., on November 8, Alfa Salako said he was on his way to his brother’s house when a group of boys, armed with machetes, marched into the community and headed to the Baale’s (traditional leader) house.
“Those people, they did not come to the Baale and say ‘this is what we heard, what is the problem? Can you find out somebody who did such a thing? No. They came to Baale’s place and began to break bottles and use machetes to slap people,” said Mr. Salako, 42.
On Thursday afternoon, the entire part of the community on land had been destroyed. Dozens of armed police officers kept watch as a backhoe pulled down the remaining structures that were still standing.
Those living on water were removing the zinc sheets on the roofs of their wooden homes and frantically packing their belongings into canoes.
“They told us to leave immediately because they are bringing speed boats to come and destroy everything,” said Francis Esisu.
In a statement on Thursday, JEI condemned the actions of the police and other private parties working on their behest.
“We decry the extremely false and misleading press release issued by the Nigerian Police Force in the late afternoon of 9 November 2016 that seeks to characterize the police’s actions as a ‘rescue,’ while announcing that the community in question will be taken over by the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development and remaining structures will be demolished,” said Megan Chapman, the group’s co-founder.
“We note that there is absolutely no legal basis for eviction or taking over of land in the aftermath of either security or fire incident. We further note there have been no statutory or paper notices whatsoever served on any residents of Otodo Gbame.
“Rather, the police are acting completely outside the scope of the law and in overt disregard for a subsisting order of court. We call on all conscientious citizens concerned for democracy and rule of law to join in condemning this action.”
A Death Blow
Over the past two years, the Otodo Gbame people had fought to remain in their community amidst threats of eviction from the Elegushi chieftaincy family and the government.
In 2014, a prince from the royal family arrived the community to place a seven-day eviction notice.
The inhabitants headed to court. By 2015, the community had instituted, at least, two suits before the court – one over land ownership against the Elegushi family at the state high court and another over the destruction of over 250 of their houses in 2013 at the federal high court.
PREMIUM TIMES’ repeated requests to interview Saheed Elegushi, the traditional ruler of Ikate, met a brick wall. An aide to the king told this reporter to “be visiting and, maybe, one day the Oba will be in the mood to talk.”
But in an interview he granted the News Agency of Nigeria last year, Mr. Elegushi said the people at Otodo Gbame were not originally settled there.
“It is important to first and foremost know the facts,” Mr. Elegushi said.
“You, visit the place and assess the soil there. Does it look like a place that has been in existence for 300 years? All these people are squatters from Banana Island, and other transit places.
“Are you going to tell me that somebody would be somewhere for 300 years and there would be no proper structures (on ground)?”
On October 9, Governor Ambode ordered the demolition of illegal structures in waterfronts across the state and gave the inhabitants a seven-day ultimatum to vacate the areas.
According to the governor, such shanties are often used as hideouts by kidnappers and militants before using the waterways to move their victims to another location.
“You will see that most of the issues that we have with kidnappings are being brought up by those who are illegal settlers by the waterfront,” Mr. Ambode said while inspecting the Ilubirin Housing Scheme on Lagos Island.
“We will commence demolition of all the shanties around the creeks in Lagos State and around our waterways in the next seven days. I have given directives to that effect to the appropriate agencies.”
The governor’s directive triggered a wave of protests from waterfront residents who marched to the Government House to register their displeasure. But their calls for a retraction of the notice were ignored.
Earlier in the year, in March, over 100 slum dwellers in Otodo Gbame community besieged the Lagos State Government House protesting dredging and sand-filling activities near their homes.
They demanded an immediate stop to the dredging activities at the Otodo Gbame lagoon by Destiny Dredgers’ International (DDI) Ltd, purportedly owned by Lekki Gardens.
The land reclamation activity began around August, last year, with the community people watching helplessly as the massive dredging destroyed their fishing traps as well as cut off access to their traditional fishing grounds in the lagoon.
”The sand-filling by DDI is causing serious suffering and hardship to the people of Otodo Gbame and is even threatening our way of life and very existence,” the community stated in a letter to Mr. Ambode and Mudashiru Obasa, Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly.
The letter was signed by Dansu Hunkpe, the Baale of Otodo Gbame; Paschal Tosinhun, a community leader; and Emmanuel Anasu, the community para-legal.
“The sand-filling of our lagoon and fishing grounds has caused severe hunger in the land. We no longer have money to send our children to school since our fishermen’s work has been cut off,” the letter had stated.
Tales of anguish
But this latest incident has dealt a death blow to the people’s efforts to remain in their community.
At least seven people drowned in the lagoon in a melee that ensued after police arrived on Wednesday morning and began firing gunshots and tear gas into the air.
According to Tina Edukpo, a resident, “Police came again after midnight with caterpillar [bulldozer] and started breaking everywhere, putting fire on peoples’ houses. They are seriously beating our people and threatening to shoot unless we leave. All of us are on top of water now, there is nowhere to go.”
By Thursday afternoon, the entire community had become deserted, and the only sign of life was armed policemen patrolling the grounds.
A missionary in the community said the police aided the youth in setting fire to their homes.
“I had rushed into my room to pack my things when I peeped through a hole to the next room where my friend stayed and saw some policemen igniting the place with matches and kerosene,” said the missionary who requested not to be named.
“The choking smoke made me to pick only a few belongings and leave several things behind.”
The missionary said he had overheard a senior police officer telling his boys on Wednesday to “arrest anybody you see quenching the fire. This place must go down.”
“The fight was masterminded by the sponsors of the Yorubas,” he added.
For Andrew Awule, the challenge was where to take his wife, nine children, and 103 year old father.
“I don’t know where to take him,” he said of his father.
“I was born here and have lived all my life in this place,” said Mr. Awule, 44.
“I’m going to the church now (Ave Maria Catholic Church, Ikate) to see if I can get a place where they can stay.”
As evening fell in Otodo Gbame on Thursday, and with no inkling of where to go, families and properties crammed into dozens of canoes floating on the edge of the community. Young men kept watch on rooftops, for the sign of the police speed boats.
Mr. Amosu’s family was one of them. Inside his small fishing boat, his wife and eight children competed for space with his fishing nets, the only property he managed to salvage.
“This is the only place I know, but they have destroyed everything,” he said.
“I have to hide my family in one corner for now.”