In one of the numerous shanty homes dotting Kuchigoro village in Abuja lives Mercy and her family. After their home was demolished in September 2006, the mother of five said they have struggled to get a decent housing ever since.
“With the small money we had left, we went to Gwagwalada (a suburb of Abuja) but it was not convenient so we came back to Kuchigoro,” said Mercy.
Her home was among many others demolished by the government nine years ago, in a renewed drive to restore the original master plan of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.
The Abuja Master Plan officially came to existence in 1979. Part of the plan was to resettle indigenous people that inhabited the space that would now become Nigeria’s capital city in 1991.
The Nigerian government, however, did not go through with its resettlement after finding it cumbersome and decided to allow the Abuja natives remain in their settlement. The settlement expanded as the indigenous people sold or rented lands and houses to people who moved to the city from other parts of Nigeria and could not afford the expensive houses in the formal market.
But since 2003, the Abuja Ministers have repeatedly destroyed homes they claim violated the master plan. Thousands of home in settlements like Kuchigoro have been flattened in the last decade, leaving people like Mercy, homeless, scraping for a living and feeling despondent.
“Till today, I am still sad. I have not recovered. My husband has started his taxi business again, but I don’t have money for any shop, so my children and I are suffering”.
The Federal Capital Development Authority, according to Mercy, gave the Kuchigoro residents no prior warning of the demolition.
The demolition occurred while Mercy’s husband, a cab driver, was away for his business. She watched helplessly as her home and her stall were razed with everything in it.
The demolition not only left her family homeless, it also took away Mercy’s only means of livelihood – a grocery stall – as bulldozers and backhoes rolled into Kuchigoro and levelled homes, shops, and churches mostly on non-indigenes.
Mercy and her husband, in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece, had separately moved to the Abuja from the Eastern part of Nigeria –Anambra, after the city was made Nigeria’s capital.
Mercy and her husband got no compensation after their house was demolished neither were they entitled to automatic relocation. Unlike indigenes who, although would face the harrowing experience of demolition including a sense of loss of the socio-cultural deprivation, would be provided formal housing at ‘resettlement’ sites, non – indigenes or migrants do not exactly have rights within the city.
The Abuja development authority treats the indigenes and non-indigenes differently and demolitions generally target houses that non-indigenes live in.
According Nosike Ogbuenyi, the spokesperson of the Minister of Abuja, Bala, Mohammed, the Abuja authorities will not demolish homes of indigenes until resettlement sites are prepared. But since late 2005, the FCDA has offered some non-indigenes, affected by demolitions, a plot of land in relocation sites that are currently under construction. However, this is on condition that they pay N21, 000 for administrative fees, and a further N600 per square metre of land.
Mercy’s family could not afford to pay this amount. This not only left them homeless, it put their children out of school, Mercy said. She added that she no longer earned money and her husband hardly raked in enough to feed let alone, buy uniforms or books.
Mercy told this reporter that since the demolition, her husband has moved on with his taxi business. He is hardly at home and does not really understand the intensity of suffering Mercy and her children go through to feed.
“I am starving,” Mercy, who was breast feeding her fifth child as she spoke, told this reporter.
“My children don’t even eat well, I feel like hunger will kill me,” she said.
“I am not lazy, I want to work. Before the demolition, I had a shop where I was selling ‘provisions’. I was making money then”.
“But now I sell banana, the money that I make is nothing. But the worst is there’s no money for school,” said Mercy.
The gender perspective
Socio-cultural factors ensure that women bear the bulk of the burden that comes with demolitions. “The women bear the brunt of the pain that comes with demolition because the men can perch on trees when their houses are demolished,” said Gimba Gbaiza, the leader of Greater Gbayi Development Initiative, a group that advocates for the rights of indigenous Abuja residents.
Despite the fact that the right to privacy is fundamental human right guaranteed by legal instruments such as the Nigerian Constitution, Mr. Gbaiza’s statement exposes the heightened social privacy needs of women who face harsher criticisms if they “expose” certain parts of their body or face the risk of violence perpetrated against them.
The Executive Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Adetokunbo Mumuni, said while every victim of forced eviction suffers, women are especially vulnerable.
“Women in all groups are especially vulnerable given the extent to statutory and other forms of discrimination which often apply in relation to property rights (including home ownership) or rights of access to property or accommodation and their particular vulnerability to acts of violence and sexual abuse when they are rendered homeless”.
In patriarchal societies like Nigeria and in urban poor settlements like Kuchigoro, it is common to see the men go out to eke a living leaving the women to unpaid jobs like managing the home. Like Mercy, some of the women engage in trading, which allows them tend to their children as well and earn some money too.
As a result, witnesses of the demolitions and ensuing attacks are mostly women.
Tales of women
Because they happened to be at home as demolishers bulldozed buildings, a huge number of non-indigenous women residents of Kuchigoro witnessed the razing of their homes, and some of them their shops that helped served as another means of income for their families.
Angela Idii, another female resident, sells Akara (bean cakes) to according to her, “support” her four children, her brother’s son and her husband. Like Mercy, she watched helplessly as the bulldozers tugged at her house and stall, leaving it in shreds.
Her stand where she sells akara is one of the first casualties when demolitions occur. She has resorted to selling on just a table without the usual umbrella to give her some protection from the sun. Ms. Idii said this is to enable her quickly move her items away in case another demolition occurs.
She told this reporter that she feels stuck because as a traditional caregiver, there are not many viable alternative jobs that will let her care for her children and earn an income. “I have only secondary school certificate and I cannot even find it”. “My husband is an auctioneer (he sells houses on behalf of indigenous residents of Kuchigoro) and that is a man’s job,” Ms. Idii said.
“The money I make from the Akara is too small. The expense is bigger than the profit,” she said.
After toiling hard under the scorching sun, frying akara with coal that pierces her eyes and burns her hands, she makes about N500 a day, never enough to cater for her children.
“My children are in school. But it is only by the grace. Every term we will beg and beg till we complete payment for school,” she said.
As a semi-literate women, neither Mercy nor Ms. Idii can take up skilled jobs in offices where they might earn enough for child care and other daily expenses.
Stories like these abound in Kuchigoro.
Shekwonye Asabe, an indigenous female resident, narrated how women suffer from the demolition exercises and the neglect of the community by the Federal Capital Territory Administration.
She said with residents not eager to invest in building standard houses with proper toilet facility since they might be demolished, collapsing sewages and toilets that have little or no access to water, a lot of women come to her constantly complaining of diseases like Urinary Tract Infections. She said they complain “that their private part is itching”.
Women are particularly prone to UTIs gotten due to lack of toilets or poor sanitary conditions because they have shorter urethras that make it easier for germs to get to the bladder.
The demolitions and the consequent lack of standard buildings with toilets or lack of access to water in toilets only magnify the health challenges the have to go through.
Ms. Asabe, who is also a nurse at the Maitama General Hospital, said the “men can use the open, but we women we need privacy, so we have to use the toilets as they are”.
She said the women watch and see their children who suffer from the effects of the dirty environment of Kuchigoro.
The Executive Secretary of the FCDA, Ismaila Adamu, vehemently refused to speak to this reporter because she works with PREMIUM TIMES, an online newspaper that focuses on objective investigative pieces.
“Write the Minister (of the Federal Capital Territory),” he said. “I am not saying anything”, he added when asked if the FCDA took into cognisance the plight of women, especially non-indigenous ones when embarking on demolitions.
But Mr. Ogbuenyi insists that the government has not neglected Kuchigoro even though it “is an informal, illegal settlement” and concluded that the government has done a lot for the community.
He said “There is electricity. They put transformers in the settlement”.
As for what the government is doing to help ameliorate the plight of the women in the settlement, Mr. Ogbuenyi said the government recently “gave them immunisation”.
Mr. Ogbuenyi said the houses that were demolished were not planned and the government “has plans to make sure they are relocated once the budget for the relocation has been approved by the National Assembly”.
Human rights abuse
The right to housing is a universal human right. According to Mr. Mumuni, Nigeria is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which protects the rights to adequate housing.
Mr. Mumuni, buttressing Nigeria’s outright violation of the right to housing by engaging in forceful evictions, cited a gamut of human rights instruments including the International Covenant ton Economic Social and Cultural Rights (which Nigeria is a party state), the 1988 Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 adopted by the General Assembly and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Nigeria has also ratified.
All instruments guarantee legal protection against forced evictions and even directs states to promote the right to housing.
“The 1988 Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000, adopted by the General Assembly recognized the fundamental obligation of states including Nigeria to protect and improve houses and neighbourhoods, rather than damage or destroy them,” Mr. Mumuni said in a mail responding to questions from this reporter.
He said the Nigerian government should desist from forceful evictions, punish its agents or “third parties who engage in forced evictions and ensure that when evictions are absolutely unavoidable, appropriate alternatives are provided”.
The Chairperson of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu, told this reporter that the commission has organised sittings to hear the cases on forced eviction and demolition in Abuja.
He said the commission will be “reconvening towards the second week of June”.
Mr. Odinkalu said he cannot comment on pending cases but will make the reports of the sitting public as soon as it is completed.
Possible way forward
Mr. Gbaiza of Greater Gbayi Development Initiative, said the women need financial assistance from the government and the private sector. If they can get 10 to 50 thousand naira, it might go a long way to assist the women,” he said.
Some of the women in Kuchigoro think that investment in their education or training will help them improve their earning power and save them from the brinks of poverty.
Isaac Happiness said most of the women in Kuchigoro have no skill or education to be employed as productive workers or no capital to start up a business. She asked the government to come to their aid in these terms.
Ms. Asabe agreed that women in Kuchigoro need to get educated or trained so that they might be empowered.
(Mercy’s surname and husband’s name were not included because she asked to remain anonymous).
This story was done for the WATCH project which focuses on gender and urban poverty in Abuja. The project is being implemented by MIND.