Why Are Lagos's Waterfront Communities Being Destroyed?

Lagos shanty town
Children paddle boats to their Makoko shanty home in Lagos, Nigeria, on August 30, 2012. The governor of Lagos state has acted on its pledge to demolish the state's waterfront settlements, saying that they are a public safety concern. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty

Living on the waterfront comes naturally to residents in Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city.

The city's name was given to it by Portuguese explorers and translates from Portuguese as "lakes," a reference to the water sources surrounding the port city.

But now, the city's waterfront settlements have become a point of conflict. Activists have blamed police and government authorities for demolitions and fires in the waterfront community of Otodo Gbame in the past week, which have allegedly left tens of thousands of people homeless and resulted in several casualties.

So what exactly is going on on the waterfront in Lagos?

What happened?

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, several fires were started in the Otodo Gbame community, an informal settlement located in the Lekki area of Lagos. The identity of the firestarters has not been confirmed, but when police arrived on the scene, they allegedly aided the spread of the fire and stopped residents from attempting to put out the fires, according to activist group Justice & Empowerment Initiatives Nigeria (JEI).

After a police inspection Wednesday during which the community was sealed off, residents told the JEI that police returned the following night with a bulldozer and began destroying more of the structures.

A spokesman for the Lagos police force told Reuters Thursday that officers had made several arrests for starting fires, but denied the JEI's claims that police had destroyed buildings. A police statement Thursday, cited by Amnesty International, said that the state's urban development ministry would "move in to demolish the remaining shanties and clear the rubble caused by the inferno."

Speaking to Newsweek Monday, JEI co-founder Andrew Maki says that police officers remain in the community, harassing people and forcing them to leave. "At this point, nearly every structure in the entire community has been razed to the ground," says Maki.

Lagos governor
Akinwunmi Ambode, now the governor of Lagos state, gestures after voting in gubernatorial elections in Lagos, Nigeria, on April 11, 2015. Ambode seems determined to press ahead with demolitions of waterfront settlements in Lagos. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty

Why are the evictions happening?

Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode announced on October 9 that he intended to demolish all shanties and slums along the city's creeks and waterways. Ambode issued a seven-day ultimatum for people living in illegal slums to evacuate, citing issues of health and public safety, including kidnappings.

"We will not allow a few sets of people who come into Lagos illegally, then stay on our waterfront and use it as an opportunity to kidnap our people," said Ambode, according to Nigerian newspaper Punch.

Owners of illegal structures along the water ways have been given a seven-day ultimatum to vacate. pic.twitter.com/eLO7GdjdIh

— Akinwunmi Ambode (@AkinwunmiAmbode) October 9, 2016

With a population estimated at more than 20 million, Lagos is one of the biggest cities in Africa. Ambode has said that the state government intends to build an additional 187,5000 houses in the next five years to reduce the significant housing deficit, estimated to be around 2.5 million across the state.

Following protests from residents, the Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Steve Ayorinde, said the authorities planned to press ahead with the demolitions. Ayorinde characterized the residents of the waterfront communities as "miscreants, street urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers" and said the government intended to crack down on the construction of illegal settlements.

But the plans hit a stumbling block on November 7, when a high court in Lagos ordered the government to suspend its plans to demolish the waterfront communities in response to a petition from residents. Yet despite the court order, it appears that the state authorities have pressed ahead with its plans.

Where are the residents going?

Otodo Gbame is a fishing settlement, and the majority of residents belonging to an ethnic minority called the Egun. Maki says that another organization, the Nigerian Slum and Informal Settlement Federation, has estimated those displaced from Otodo Gbame as around 30,000, and says that the majority of the almost 2,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed.

"People are fleeing into the water," says Maki. "It was a forced eviction without any legal notice to the community in advance, no announcement that we're coming to your community to evict you, no emergency relief provided, no alternative accommodation, no compensation for property lost."

Amnesty International has also called on the state authorities to provide alternative accommodation for the people evicted, saying that many of them had been left homeless.