LAGOS — Sheltering under planks on his boat moored at a waterside slum in Lagos, fisherman Thomson Pascal is trying to protect his six children from the rain flooding into what is now their new home.
He is one of 30,000 residents who have been living in boats, shacks or in the open since bulldozers escorted by policemen destroyed their slum dwellings as competition for building land heats up in Nigeria’s booming commercial capital.
The site of their former settlement is now guarded by police and young men. A developer has unveiled plans to build a luxury residential and commercial complex there.
As with most things in Lagos, home to 23 million, the housing problem is magnified by the sheer size and energy of Nigeria’s megacity. Space is scarce as a result of new building projects, a high birth rate and the arrival of thousands of people every day from all over the country looking for work.
The Lagos State government said it had evicted the fishing community from the Lekki peninsula because their slum was a hideout for kidnappers and posed a risk to public health.
Authorities ignored a court injunction banning any demolition.
Residents and rights groups say this was an excuse to help a local businessman get rid of a settlement that had existed for decades so he could build more skyscrapers, hotels and malls.
“We don’t have anywhere else to go to. I sleep in this boat with my family,” said Pascal, cradling one of his young children in a makeshift cabin built from wooden planks saved from his former home.
“The government sent police to chase us out of our land with guns,” he said, an account confirmed by other residents and rights groups such as Lagos-based JEI and Amnesty International.
At least two people were killed, residents say.
They ended up in another slum, mooring their boats or moving into already crowded shacks. Locals already struggling to survive refuse to allow the newcomers to catch fish.
“We are too many now, for instance 12 to 15 people sleeping in a small flat,” said Agbojete Johnson, head of Pascal’s new community. “If government is not ready to relocate them … we shall have no other choice than to chase them away.”
Living in a leaky three-room wooden house, Johnson said he struggled to feed his 20 children. “This man has even 32 kids,” he said, pointing to another community leader sitting next to him.
The Lagos state commissioner for information, Steve Ayorinde, did not to respond to phone calls.
“The demolition of #OtodoGbame was carried out as a security measure in the overall interest of all Lagosians,” a Lagos State body tweeted in April.
Officials also had warned of an “environmental disaster” after a fire destroyed much of the Otodo Gbame settlement due to a conflict between residents in November.
But residents said youths from another community claiming the land had set their wooden houses on fire while police had prevented them from extinguishing the blaze and later sent in a bulldozer to flatten the wreckage.
That was a month after the Lagos government had set a one-week deadline for the slum dwellers to move out.
A Lagos construction firm has announced plans to build an “eco-friendly” business city for 44 billion naira ($145 million) in the area. It denied, via local media, any involvement in the demolition but confirmed it had approval for the project.
The firm could not be reached for comment.
Police denied any involvement but residents and rights groups say they have seen policemen, including senior officers, during the demolitions.
Nigeria’s population is set to nearly double to 400 million by 2050, making it the third most populous country after China and India, according to U.N. estimates.
Massive building projects, fueled by oil money, are in the works in Lagos. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, is building an oil refinery and petrochemicals plant, while more luxury flats are planned in Lekki, one of the city’s most desirable areas.
Such projects attract thousands of job seekers every day from across the country. Most Nigerians live in poverty as the oil wealth benefits only a small elite.
Officials say the influx has grown in the past two years due to the failure of several cash-strapped federal states to pay civil servants’ salaries and the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in the north.
That makes it hard to plan roads, schools or transport in Lagos. By the time a project is finished it must cater to a much larger number of residents than expected.
Liborous Oshoma, a lawyer, said the Lagos government made the problem worse by removing slums to build luxury towers that are too expensive even for people on regular incomes.
“If you see the way Lagos State Government is going about grabbing, you know, waterfronts for the rich, it’s almost as if the Lagos State Government is trying to push out … the poor,” he said. “Many new buildings … are empty.”
The slum clearances have not only uprooted the fishermen.
“I haven’t been back to my school since April as it’s far away and I cannot afford the transport fee of 1,200 naira [$4],” said Edukpo Tina, a 21-year-old university student who has been living in a shack since being evicted from Otodo Gbame. “My daddy is a fishermen while my mum sells fish and none of them is doing their job anymore,” she said.