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Demonising the poor: campaign to tag Lagos waterfront dwellers as criminals is wrongheaded  

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Fisherwoman in Otodo Gbame back to work after the demolition of the community

By Kayode Ogunbunmi

I write in response to a series of articles published in The Punch, The Vanguard, and This Day, among others, on January 7-8, 2017 in which statements were made by one Ade Williams, CEO of the Safe Habitat NGO, about the alleged complicity of waterfront communities in the perpetuation of crime and other social ills in Lagos state.

Firstly, Williams’ opening insinuation that the waterfront communities in the Eti-Osa area are full of foreigners is patently false. The vast majority of settlements in the area described in the article as ‘Ebute-Ikate’ are decades or even centuries-old Egun fishing villages, and the use of language like ‘aliens’ and ‘criminals’ to describe entire communities with populations in the tens of thousands is at best irresponsible and unarguably dehumanising.

Further, by describing an imaginary crisis in which middle- and upper-class Lagosians are under attack from the Egun people, this article invites its readers to feel a reflexive animosity towards citizens who actively contribute to the state’s economy via fishing, trading and other blue-collar work that all Lagosians rely on to survive.

Also, Ade Williams’ revisionist description of the events of September 2014 which recast a violent land-grab as an “inter-tribal war” is borderline myth-making. Historical coverage of those events in international press like Al Jazeera reveals what actually happened, which is that an attempted land-grab between September 11 and 17, 2014 led to the murder by hired thugs of at least two Otodo Gbame residents.

The community, convinced that Wasiu Elegushi was behind it, subsequently took the Elegushi family to court to seek justice and establish their rights to the land. Considering that records of the legal proceedings are available, it seems apparent that any re-telling in which the role of the land-grabbers is completely erased simply reveals itself to be in the service of said land-grabbers.

Current events which serve as a background to the falsehoods contained in the Safe Habitat statement include the fact that the Eti-Osa waterfront communities have in recent months been overrun by demolition teams consisting of police personnel, henchmen and caterpillars. Governor Akinwunmi Ambode on October 9, 2016 announced plans to demolish all waterfront communities in Lagos state. Subsequently, between the 9th and 10th of November 2016, a clandestine operation took place around midnight which rendered the 30,000 residents of Otodo Gbame homeless. Following general outcry over the violence deployed against the community, there was a brief period of peace in the area. Then in early January 2017, Safe Habitat, an NGO with no traceable track record, showed up in multiple mainstream newspapers detailing serious concerns about communities in Eti-Osa and requesting the government’s swift response.

If, as Safe Habitat suggests, there are in fact security concerns in the area, how will demolitions and the entrenchment of poverty serve to address that? In the highly unlikely event that both Boko Haram terrorists and Niger Delta militants were hiding out in majority-Egun settlements along the Lagos lagoon, surely an arrest operation involving military personnel would have been the appropriate response, rather than setting fire to people’s homes? The Lagosian public is not stupid, and it is highly insulting that we are expected to believe such badly conceived and transparent smear campaigns against the State’s poor.

Upon close inspection, the January 8 publication is revealed to be little more than a deliberate attempt to demonise the people of Otodo-Gbame and its surroundings in the public consciousness, in a bid to lay the groundwork for their eventual dispossession. Williams’ clear call to the government to ‘dislodge the occupants’ of waterfront communities in the Eti-Osa area from their homes lays the intent behind these publications bare: certain parties are interested in that land and are thus attempting to manipulate the public via the media into antagonism against its current occupants.

Evidence has abounded for years to indicate that the Lagos state government has significant difficulty catering to the needs of its massive, ever-increasing population. Thus, rather than enacting top-down policies which disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of citizens while enriching a select few, the state ought to partner with informal settlements like those currently under attack to upgrade the solutions they have created to problems of scarce housing and other social services. Unfortunately, the fact that these waterfront communities are being maligned in the press in such a coordinated fashion, while urban planning authorities remain silent, might suggest that there may be no intention to engage with the Egun people to find a positive way of incorporating their homes and livelihoods into the Lagos megacity dream.

As a concerned citizen who has actually visited Otodo Gbame and met many of its residents, I really hope that I am wrong about the State’s intentions for its people. The government does not exist only to advance the interests of the rich and powerful; in fact, every government should be measured by its ability to protect its most vulnerable populations. This is Lagos state’s chance to show its commitment to the interests of all Lagosians by fostering progress, rather than deepening poverty. Lagosians are watching. Eko o ni baje.