…for little Helen Avonda, her life indicts the human conscience, making one guilty by association with a reckless humanity. Her bereavement is ours by the guilt of that association and one hopes she finds a lifeline ahead… The future is homelessness and floating on a rickety boat.
Helen Avonda is not popular, for instant recognition. She is a little girl of about 10, with a sprightly spirit who, perhaps having no understanding of the chaos around her, was found running around with her peers in playful abandon. Her father had died in the ensuing fracas during the demolition of the Otodo-Gbame riverine community in Eti-Osa local government area of Lagos State.
Her father, Elijah Avonda, was among the fatalities largely under-reported in the story of the sacking of that community by government bulldozers. On March 17, 2017, the Lagos State government, citing environmental and security concerns, had unleashed terror on the community, crushing homes and livelihoods alike.
“We were not allowed to pick a pin from our homes”, cried Solomon Hennu, a leader in the community. “The police were everywhere, shooting and tear-gassing. Some people fled into the lagoon and drowned. Many were injured. There was no prior notice, none! The matter didn’t start today. It’s even in court and there is a court order restraining the government from demolishing this place. The government disobeyed the court order.”
Others were reported to have died from the violence of hoodlums allegedly sent there by the popular Elegushi family. The family is reported to be laying claims to the land and is said to be in cahoots with the state government.
There are allegations that the state government is appropriating the land for purposes of gentrification. That thinking is not far-fetched, given a familiar history of the government forcefully ejecting poor slum dwellers from lands that were soon converted to swanky elite estates. There are already speculations that some Chinese have paid N300 million for a part of the land. In its bid to build the much-bruited “megacity”, the state government has been caught in the moral dilemma of eclipsing the poor to accommodate the rich. With a surface area of less than 3,500 kilometers, the state is pressed for space for its 21 million population.
But the poor are too many. They constitute nearly two-thirds of that population and, quite ironically, displacement aggravates poverty, opening the door to more social deviance and attendant insecurity. In other words, the poor are not going away anytime soon. And until poverty is officially criminalised through the death penalty, there is no hope for a poorless megacity.
Not that poverty is not actually officially punished in Lagos. Only that many are not aware of their criminal status – one brought upon them by economic handicap.
“I met some inmates during my recent incarceration at the Kirikiri Medium Security Prison”, writes Olorunfemi Adeyeye, a young Lagos activist locked up for the umpteenth time on frivolous accusations. “Some of them were arrested and charged to court for very ridiculous offences like ‘Conduct likely to cause breach of peace’, ‘Street hawking’ and a very funny one I learnt of yesterday…some were arrested for having ‘no real means of livelihood.’ How do you send someone to prison because he has ‘no means of livelihood’, and later tell him to pay a fine as much as N100,000 or serve a jail term of six months? From which means would he pay the fine?”
Adeyeye is one of many activists who have borne the brunt of anti-people repression in the State. After being rusticated by the University of Lagos for being critical of the school management, he has been arrested and detained on empty charges for about five times, sometimes alongside fellow rights activists. Ujunwa Atuenyi, a Guardian reporter, was assaulted by officials of the state environmental taskforce for taking the photograph of a citizen being brutalised by the officials. Peter Eke, publisher of Biafra Times, was arrested and detained for “sedition”. Even a planned nationwide protest tagged the “Tuface Protest” was banned by the Lagos State police command.
From Otodo-Gbame to the metropolitan streets of Lagos, there have been several cases of abuse and repression. The element of surprise is that Akinwunmi Ambode, the Lagos governor, enjoys the reputation of an easy-going, peaceful man of power, even as the state prides itself as a free, cosmopolitan society. With copious positive reviews on performance, the governor sweetens this sour taste and coasts ahead in public adulation.
Repression of the poor has been a longstanding state notoriety in Lagos. Governors come and go, their electoral campaigns often tinged with populist boasts. Yet the poor remain the same. In these parts, there is no such thing as a government of the poor. Politicians are basically rich and have therefore already chosen their side, never mind all rhetoric to the contrary. It is what it is.
State officials argue that Lagos will be overrun by public indiscipline and abuse if governed solely by sentiments. To be fair, some of the ‘clean-up’ exercises of the government actually helped decongest public spaces and ease up traffic. Sentiments had created an indulgent state in which major roads became roadside markets, bulging with filth and crime. The challenge is to find a balance in which development will have a human face. Officials claim there is not enough money to resettle all displaced persons, whom they accuse of illegal habitation anyway.
It may get worse: with heedless urbanisation and deplorable state economies in most other Nigerian states, Lagos will continue to be the lure of mindless emigration, pitching the poor against the poor, the poor against the rich, and the poor against the government. The social rift will leave the poor further pauperised, bludgeoned by superior forces on all sides. But because they have no other place to go, they will keep coming to their doom.
The consequences are dire. “As I speak with you now some families are living, sleeping in open boats, floating on water in the cold in Otodo-Gbame”, said John Avonda. “They have nowhere to go. They lost everything. Everything! No money, no business, nothing!” His voice yo-yoed between sadness and aggravation. Crime is heightened, not prevented, by displacement. The impunity of the state government is manifest in the contempt of court and disregard for the agitations of rights and civil society groups demanding redress and humanitarian aid. With a despised judiciary and complicit security agencies, the poor are left to ferment in the mire of their own frustration. And living on the edge, like the said families on boats, has a potential for tragedy, if not for reactionary criminality. Not all lives matter, sadly.
Meanwhile, interventions by Spaces for Change, a Lagos-based rights advocacy group, through press briefings, engagement with the state government and other collaborative efforts with civil society, finally forced the hands of the Lagos State government to bring succour to the displaced. The government has set up a committee to collate the losses and draw up a list for humanitarian aid necessary. A good measure, only that it is merely palliative and does not address the fundamental issues with the urban poor and perennial forced evictions. The government rebuffed appeals by the NGO for the institution of a sustainable framework against future evictions. Nor is it clear when the relief will come. “The list shall contain the names of displaced persons, the details of the properties they lost, and any other formal registration instrument that they have. The state authorities plan to verify this list before they can commence the relief support efforts,” reports the rights group. The NGO is currently conducting its own independent loss verification exercise in line with its mandate to provide interventions to displaced persons.
Now strewn with heaps of debris is Otodo-Gbame, once home to thousands. Mangled utensils, ripped clothes, and other articles of habitation lie amid the ruins of wooden shacks. A bulldozer squated within sight, catching its breath from the work of destruction, its fang restfully kissing the earth. Resplendent in his safety apron, its operator looked weather-beaten and poor.
His face looked indifferent but, for being mandated by power to draw his own breath and bread from the destruction of his kind, he looked pathetic on a closer inspection. The fate of the poor!
And for little Helen Avonda, her life indicts the human conscience, making one guilty by association with a reckless humanity. Her bereavement is ours by the guilt of that association and one hopes she finds a lifeline ahead. Her dreams are innocent, like her life and future. She wants to be educated and influential. But her father is dead, her mother is poor, and her siblings are many. The future is homelessness and floating on a rickety boat.
Immanuel Anyanwu-Ibe is a blogger at Spaces for Change.