Our canoe snakes its way sluggishly through dirty waters. We waddle through used plastics, pieces of rubbish, abandoned boats and wooden structures floating on the Lagos Lagoon.
An unclad little girl stoops over the edge of a wooden pavement, defecating into the water. At a nearby decrepit structure, a group of excited children dip their hands into the smelly water, their clothes soaked in it.
“Our streets don’t smell,” John, the 14-year-old boy paddling the canoe, tells me. “It is because you are not used to this environment,” he added, smiling.
John is a resident of Makoko, a crowded slum listed as one of Africa’s oldest and most famous slums. Known widely as a fishing village, Makoko has survived the Lagos government demolition threats a couple of times.
John says some of the people still live with the fear of eviction, especially after the Otodogbame invasion. “But me I don’t care,” he says, in pidgin English.
Unlike John, Elijah Atipo, my tour guide and fellow passenger on the canoe, cares. We journey toward Sogunro and Oko-Agbon – two slum communities adjoining Makoko – to speak with affected Otodo-Gbame evictees.
Mr Atipo himself is an Otodo-Gbame evictee and he speaks of the last invasion of the riverine community, teary eyed.
“I remember very clearly the last invasion. It was on a Palm Sunday,” Mr Atipo says.
“No one could take anything from their homes, our properties were all destroyed. It was actually a war.”
He spoke of the violent eviction of the midnight of April 9, 2017, when the police and unidentified armed men invaded the community with bulldozers and chased residents with gunfire and teargas, setting their homes on fire afterwards. But before the April attack, there had been records of destructions and deaths.
The first major destruction exercise occurred in the early hours of November 9, 2016, when some boys with reported ties to the Elegushi chieftaincy family entered the community and set fire to houses.
The destruction occurred a day after a Lagos court ordered the state government to immediately suspend its planned demolition of shanties, and barely a week after the state house of assembly appealed to Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to reconsider his demolition plans.
Earlier, the government had announced plans to demolish shanties, as part of a state-wide policy to clear up to 300,000 people from informal waterside settlements.
The Justice and Empowerment Initiative said about 800 homes were torched in the November attack that rendered about 10,000 people homeless. According to Amnesty International, eyewitnesses said some residents drowned in the nearby Lagoon as they ran to safety amid the chaos.
Mr Atipo said although he lost no member of his immediate family in the attack, many other residents were missing after the attack. “No one can accurately account for the number of people that died during the invasions,” he explains.
He now lives around the University of Lagos (UNILAG) environment, studying Web and Graphic Design in a technical school with the support of the JEI but his parents live in a community in faraway Ikorodu. “The place is relatively cleaner and safer,” he says of his parents’ Ikorodu residence.
Other Otodo-Gbame co-evictees, like Pascal Tosinhun, however had no such luxury.
Sick wife, dead grandson
“My wife is sick now, she is inside that crowded building,” Mr Tosinhun says, his head slightly bent, as he points in the direction of a nearby wooden structure built by the International Mission for Soul Salvation Church.
“My grandson died few months ago; medical people said it was due to all the pressure, chaos, the change of environment and lack of proper care.”
Back in Otodo-Gbame, before the eviction, Mr Tosinhun says he was a known and influential community leader. A socialite, he owned a firm that built and sold canoes in the community, in addition to being a water supplier. He is now a shadow of his former self.
“I have not eaten anything today,” he says, during an interview at noon. “Go check where my wife sleeps, with some of our children. There are four families sleeping in that small room, a family has about six to seven people or more.
“Many times, I go out in the night to hang anywhere, inside the church, anywhere. The Church that built this structure tried, but the problems are just too much.”
Inside the makeshift wooden structure built by the church, Mr Tosinhun’s bedridden wife, Lali Tosinhun, sits on a wooden bed, a few drugs packed in a bowl beside her.
She says she was a successful food seller at Ita-Faji in Lagos Island, before the invasion shattered her business and rendered her penniless. “My legs are swollen; I am very weak,” she struggles to say. “The nurse says it may be due to anxiety and ‘overthinking’,” she explains, forcing a bland smile.
The wooden structure built for evictees by the church is a makeshift one-storey building with about three rooms downstairs and a room at the top. The room occupied by the Tosinhun family houses four other families, each with an average of seven members.
“I don’t sleep here in the night,” Mr Tosinhun says. “You can hardly breathe if you sleep here. Even my children are in scattered places in Ajah now; here cannot contain us. It’s a tragic life that we are living.”
Rebecca Omolaja doesn’t want to speak to PREMIUM TIMES. She looks pale and haggard and struggles to explain that she is ill. When she attempts to speak, she bursts into tears. She finally says a few words, punctuated at every juncture with tears.
The night before PREMIUM TIMES’ first visit to Makoko and its environs, it rained heavily in some parts of Lagos. This reporter confirmed that two residents of the Sogunro community died in the lagoon due to the thunderstorm that heralded the rain. While many residents in wooden structures in the community complained of the devastating effects of the rain, Mrs Omolaja, who sleeps in an open space outside of a wooden structure in Sogunro, says she has no one to complain to.
“My husband died few months ago,” she says, amid tears. “The hospital people said he died of ‘overthinking’. So who do I complain to?”
Mrs Omolaja has four kids: Ope, a two-year-old boy who clings to her as she speaks to us, and three others who had gone out to nearby Iwaya area to fend for the family before our arrival. She too sits idly on the cold plank that is her bed as she explains how the cold of the previous night had taken a toll on her health. It was around 1:00 pm when we arrived her open space but neither she nor her son, Ope, had eaten since the previous night.
“He (Ope) will eat when the rest come back in the evening,” Mrs Omolaja says. “They work as maids in canteens around Iwaya area; they will be back––Ope will be fine.” She explains that the three kids (an 8-year-old; a 10-year-old; and a 12-year-old) earn N300 each after the day’s work, money with which the family feeds and buy drugs. She explains further that the children stopped schooling after the eviction.
“They were schooling in Lekki but we can hardly feed now, so schooling is not an option,” she says, again amid tears. “Their father’s death too compounded our problems.”
Seven children, no apartment
Mrs Omolaja was not the only Sogunro resident affected by the thunderstorm of the night before PREMIUM TIMES’ visit to the community. A dredger, Whelken Kosi, his wife and seven of their children were also affected.
“Since we got here after the eviction, we’ve all been sleeping in the open here,” Mr Kosi, 43, says. “Sometimes, the children get space in the room owned by our host. Many times they don’t. The room is crowded already. It rained last night with serious thunder, the children were just shaking.”
Mr Kosi’s host lost his child to the thunderstorm of the previous night before PREMIUM TIMES’ visit. The deceased boy had gone fishing and was reportedly brought back dead after the storm. Mr Kosi says the family has been thrown into mourning since the incident.
His wife, Kwenkeh Ayensi-Kosi, pleads for help from well-meaning Nigerians. “Our host who is struggling is now bereaved,” she says.
“I used to sell ‘provisions’ in Otodo-Gbame but not anymore. My husband is now a fisherman but there is no money. Almost everyone here is a fisherman. I am shattered now, we need urgent help.”
Mr. Kosi says although the old Otodo-Gbame residents have become dispersed and they do not have details of what is happening to others, he has heard that many people have died since they moved into Makoko and its adjoining communities.
“We just don’t have the exact figures. Too many people have died, especially children. Those who aren’t dead among us are like walking corpses due to ‘excessive thinking’ and depression,” he concludes, with a deep sigh.
The man standing beside him, Senu Abdulsalami, nods his head in agreement.
Mr Abdulsalami squats on the veranda of a relative’s wooden apartment in Sogunro community, together with his wife and her mother. He is one of the few indigenous Eegun Muslims affected by the Otodo Gbame invasion. He explains that the church management has been supportive but they have barely received any support from any Muslim organization.
“The church doesn’t discriminate; they give us materials sometimes but the tragedy is too much for them to effectively handle. We have however not heard from Muslim organisations and I am not the only Muslim affected. We are many. Our hosts and extended families who give us food are beginning to complain. They are poor themselves already.”
Mr Abdulsalami sleeps on a wooden plank placed in the open veranda of the house his wife, her mother and their teenage son squat in. The place is surrounded by women smoking fishes. He explains that the building was already congested before they and other evicted families packed in.
“As the man, I sleep outside here, with mosquitoes and heat and smoke from the firewood,” he says. “Sometimes, the women smoke their fishes till 2’o clock in the morning; that means I don’t sleep until they are done and the smoke is gone. In the day, there is nothing to do. Too many people are doing the same thing here. I think I am one of those ‘walking corpses’ they talked about.”
“Sick, dying people everywhere…”
Agbojete Johnson, the community head (Baale) of Sogunro, explains to PREMIUM TIMES that an epidemic looms in the area due to congestion and poverty.
He says: “If you have small food, you have to think about the people who live with you. There is no food, everywhere is filled up.”
Sogunro, together with five ‘separate villages’––Oko-Agbon, Adogbo, Migbewhe, Yanshiwe and Apollo––form part of the communities collectively known as the Makoko-Iwaya waterfront. The population of residents varies according to unofficial figures, between 40,000 to about 80,000.
Mr Johnson, the community head, says the community is saturated already and the situation has been worsened by the influx of the Otodo-Gbame evictees.
“The place is congested already; it is now over-congested. People are falling sick every day. Too many people are living in small apartments. Many sleep outside, even inside this my palace. Sick, dying people everywhere…”
He called on government to address the Otodo-Gbame crisis and cater for the people’s welfare.
A people left in the lurch?
Over the years, the Otodo-Gbame people 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 and by 2015, the community had instituted 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.
On the October 9, 2016, Mr Ambode ordered the demolition of illegal structures in waterfronts across the state and gave the inhabitants a seven-day ultimatum to vacate the areas.
Last November, the people stormed Lagos House in Alausa, Ikeja to protest the delay in their resettlement. In his reaction, the State’s Commissioner for Special Duties and Inter-Governmental Relations, Seye Oladejo, said the government was aware of the peoples’ pains and would ameliorate their plight. Residents lament that nothing has come out of the promise.
On Thursday, calls and messages sent to the state commissioner for information and strategy, Kehinde Bamigbetan, were not responded to.
Like Mr Tosinhun, many residents of Otodo-Gbame who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES believe they were short-changed by politicians in the state who only lured them to vote their parties and rejected them after the election.
“We voted Ambode, I remember very well,” Mr Tosinhun, a community leader who said he was privy to the details of the meetings, explains. “Before the (2015) elections, there had been threats but Baba (Bola) Tinubu intervened and begged us to vote APC when the war started with the Elegushi people.
“The same Ambode we voted for was the one who evicted us.”