When you live in an area without public amenities and not recognised by the government, not many things are certain. One thing though is quite likely: without much warning bulldozers might arrive one day to level your property. In Lagos, slum dwellers and villagers have been opposing illegal evictions with varying degrees of success. What can others learn from their experiences?
The morning she went to harvest her cassava but was denied access to her land, Selimoto Rufai’s livelihood came under threat. Rufai was born and raised on the Lekki coast in the far east of Lagos State, and the plot had provided for her and her family of seven for years. But now the Lagos State Government had acquired the land mass for the Lekki Free Trade Zone (LFTZ), an industrial development project comprising 16,500 hectares. By law the Lagos State Governor can acquire land in the public interest, as long as residents are notified and compensated by the authorities. However, most people who had been living in the area for decades say they had never been consulted and only learnt about the project at the opening ceremony early 2006.
Taken by surprise the day security men guarding the land earmarked for the Free Trade Zone refused to let her go to her farming plot, Rufai, a local women leader, quickly went around the villages to mobilise the women. They marched to the site bare chested and carrying branches in a peaceful protest. “The men stood behind the wives. We all stood together”, Rufai says,
Their daily demonstrations, public protests and the legal action of the communities made the government retrace its steps, according to Baale Jegede, who is the traditional chief and also the leader of the Lekki Coastal Communities. He was involved in the negotiations that finally led to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2007 between the government and the villages along the Ibeju-Lekki coastline.
Jegede explains the details of the MoU as he is standing by the tarred road along the coastline that has become the demarcation line of the LFTZ project that now splits the area into two. He points to the left side of the road: the communities agreed to release this part of the land for the Free Trade Zone. He goes on to explain that the land on the right hand side towards the coast, initially also assigned to the industrial complex, now remains for the villages and fishermen. To compensate for the lost farmland, the government agreed to provide the communities 750 hectares of land elsewhere. Also, the communities were promised a 2.5% equity share in the Lekki Joint Venture.
The fairly effective community response to the eviction threat in Ibeju-Lekki was supported and coordinated by the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC), a Nigerian non-governmental human rights organisation. Its executive director Felix Morka was a driving force behind the actions, says Baale Jegede: “When the government came to claim our land, I ran to Felix Morka right away. He helped us to start the discussion with the government.”
The Lekki coastal communities are not the only ones in Lagos threatened with eviction, says SERAC director Morka: “When you live in a slum, in an area not provided for by the government, you know one day the government will come knocking. These people are vulnerable.”
In his office on the Lagos mainland Morka contemplates what communities under threat of illegal eviction could learn from the Lekki experience. There can be no such thing as a standard approach, he stresses, because no case is the same. But in all cases the first step is to make the people aware of their rights. “Building consciousness is our main strategy,” says Morka, who stresses it is a cumbersome emancipation process which should start long before the bulldozers arrive. People in vulnerable communities are often illiterate and feel powerless against the government. When you manage to convince them that they can fight back effectively, according to Morka, you have won half the battle.
Step two is the paper trail: responding to the government action by letter to let them know their actions will not go uncontested. The Land Use Act provides for compensation for forced eviction but these procedures are hardly followed. In Morka’s experience a combination of legal action and public protest serves best to illustrate the determination of the people who are affected: “The authorities simply don’t expect resistance. That is why every time you fight back, they back down quickly. They don’t have a plan B.”
Once you’re at the negotiation table, the SERAC director advises communities to demand financial compensation rather than resettlement: “The courts are empowered to order resettlement, but you can’t expect much from them. They’re heavily compromised. And government has never offered resettlement to anybody. If you’re lucky, they give you money. That is your most realistic option.”
The result of six months of negotiations was what Morka calls “the most comprehensive, rights based MoU of citizens with the Nigerian government”. Negotiating parties, apart from the communities, were the two companies involved in the Lekki Free Trade Zone and the Lagos State Government. They also needed some sensitisation, says Morka: “Once they understood it was more cost effective to deal with the issues in one legal framework, rather than to have to cope with all kinds of claims afterwards, the negotiations became easier.” That realisation and the preparedness of the Lekki coastal population paved the way to the agreement, says Morka. “A united community is a critical precondition to a successful battle”, the Lagos lawyer states. Something Baale Jegede confirms, when asked for the secret of his community’s success: “We are together. We don’t allow the government to divide and rule us.”
How far a fractured community can frustrate the negotiation process was illustrated by the case of Badia, a Lagos slum near the National Theatre. Bulldozers started razing the area in February 2013. The demolition and forced eviction was put to a halt when SERAC intervened and pointed out the area was part of a World Bank project to upgrade urban slums. In the bargaining process inhabitants whose houses had been destroyed had a strong position until a group of them grew impatient and decided to go for a much lesser amount in compensation. A lot of people now regret this, but the agreement they signed against SERAC’s advice also absolved the government of any further responsibility. An inhabitant of Ijora-Badia who wants to remain anonymous describes how she was pressured into signing the lesser deal. “I didn’t want to. Thought the money was little. But the pressure was too much. Some big men wanted money for Christmas.”
For the people in Ibeju-Lekki, the struggle is not over. Not all government’s promises made in 2007 have been met yet, says Baale Jegeda. There is a dispute over the farm land agreed upon in the MoU. According to him, government cut the plot into two, claiming the other half should go to the people of neighbouring communities who were not involved in the MoU. This is under contest and the physical transfer of the land is therefore yet to occur. Up till now, women like Selimoto Rufai are still waiting for new land to farm on. Baale Jegeda: “We are still fighting for our land. But we know our rights now and will stand for them.”
Written by Femke van Zeijl.
Photo credit: Femke van Zeijl for HBS. Nigeria