‘Let's eradicate poverty, not poor people’

27Dec 2017
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
‘Let's eradicate poverty, not poor people’

IN November 2016, a relentless government-owned bulldozer cost Celestine Ahisu his home, his business, and his peace of mind in one fell swoop.

Until then he’d been one of 30,000 residents of the Lagos fishing community of Otodo-Gbame. That is before the police arrived one night and evicted everyone, putting an end to the shanty settlement.

Otodo-Gbame was the ancestral home of the Egun, who migrated from neighbouring Benin Republic and Togo more than half a century ago; a melting pot of many ethnicities, like its parent city of Lagos.

Its curse is the desirability of its lagoon-front location, sandwiched between the upmarket Lekki Phase 1 development and the well-heeled Elegushi housing estate.

After the bulldozers did their work, people with nowhere else to go tried to return but were cleared again in March, and then again in April.

The police seemed determined to make that last visit final, firing off volleys of teargas and live rounds as people scrambled into canoes to escape across the water. They were also accused of setting fire to the shacks and razing the settlement to the ground, although the Lagos State government claimed it was the residents who were the arsonists.

An estimated 11 people died in these cumulative evictions, with many more unaccounted for in the ensuing chaos and panic.

Rich versus poor

Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode justifies the demolitions on the grounds that the neglected settlements along the city’s creeks and waterways harbour criminals and hoodlums.

The reality is that Otodo-Gbame’s community of fishermen and traders are the latest victims of an unequal contest between the landless poor and a wealthy business and political elite with a vision for a shiny new and prosperous Lagos.

The centrepiece of that ambition is Eko Atlantic, a multi-billion dollar residential and business development on 10 square kilometres of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean – touted as Nigeria’s answer to Dubai.

A year after the destruction of Otodo-Gbame, the diggers and graders are tearing up its white sands to build Periwinkle Estate, a high-rise property development that will be part of the new skyline.

Forgotten in this quest for progress are Otodo-Gbame’s former inhabitants. They are still trying to come to terms with their evictions, a trauma that ripples through their lives.

Homelessness is one problem: many still camp with relatives and friends. Joblessness is another: the bulldozers flattened a community that was already vulnerable.

 

 

“Many of the young people from Otodo-Gbame who volunteer with us come around with a change of clothes in their bag,” said Olutimehin Adegbeye of Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, an NGO that works with the community. “They may have plans to stay with a friend or relative for that night, but they do not know for sure where they will sleep. That’s how things are.”

Ahisu, a former community leader, is yet to get back on his feet. For a month he slept rough on the streets after he sent his family to live with relatives in Ibadan, 135-kilometres north of Lagos.

They are back with him now, squeezed into the home of a cousin and his family. Ahisu was an electrician, but his tools were destroyed and his business has now gone.

“It is difficult to cope now, my brother,” Ahisu told IRIN. “Sometimes we struggle and manage to eat just twice a day, and my children are out of school because I can’t afford it.”

Roseline Alphonse’s husband, the father of her six children, was missing for months after the eviction. She sells tomatoes and pepper in the market, and her children hawk in the streets to get by.

“I am responsible for all of us,” she said. “We live in an uncompleted building in another slum with no doors or windows, so we use mats to replace that.”

For some, the consequences of the hardship and deprivation are far worse.

“We meet every month and then you hear stories about deaths and how people are suffering from all those diseases that come because of hunger,” said Ahisu. “We have buried more than 15 children in this community.”

Unpaid compensation

The land on which Otodo-Gbame once stood is claimed by the property developing Elegushi royal family.

The government has ignored court injunctions ordering it to stop clearing the settlement as well as a landmark ruling in June 2017 that declared the evictions illegal and awarded compensation to the victims.

“I've seen so much, but never seen where the full weight of government brutality is brought upon people already poor and powerless like the case of Otodo-Gbame,” said Betty Abah, founder of CEE Hope, which advocates for the rights of women and girls in slums.

Last month, 600 protesters occupied the governor’s office to demand the compensation ordered by the court three months ago, and threatened an all-night vigil. The police moved in aggressively and arrested 158 people.

“We won the court case and the judge invalidated the quit notice, ordering that we get compensation and resettlement,” said Ahisu. “At midnight, the light was switched off and they were brutalised.”

Amnesty International has called for “the immediate and unconditional release” of all the arrested protestors and an independent investigation into allegations of excessive use of force by the police.

In the ongoing tussle between the state government and its critics, the authorities cast the Otodo-Gbame fishermen as playing “the victim”, out to “demonise government”, and accuse Amnesty International of “bias”.

But activists urge that the fundamental rights of the displaced should be recognised and respected.

“Every Lagosian should be treated with dignity, whether rich or poor,” said political commentator Japheth Omojuwa. “Let's eradicate poverty, not poor people.”

Ahisu said he was pinning his hopes on divine intervention rather than justice delivered through the political system.

“Only God can help us,” he told IRIN. “This government that was supposed to be democratic has shown itself to be autocratic.”

 

 

 

 

 

In the same vein, African cities share three features that frustrate their development. They are crowded “but not economically dense”. That means low investment in infrastructure, business, and affordable housing. It’s an urbanisation of people, not capital.

African cities are also disconnected. They are collections of small, fragmented neighbourhoods poorly served by unreliable transportation.

African cities are also costly, both for residents and businesses. That’s a consequence of being inward-looking rather than export-orientated.

All these problems magnify the disaster risks for citizens.

Despite the discouraging scale of the problems faced, there are many examples of African cities trying to come to grips with their challenge.

Otodo-Gbame was a 30,000-strong shanty settlement – until the bulldozers arrived. The problem for its inhabitants was the desirability of its lagoon-front location, which Lagos property developers had long eyed.

 

   Nubians are a tiny ethnic group that has been discriminated against for decades. Earlier this year, their ownership rights to 288 acres of Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, was finally recognised. The hope now is that the government will be alive to its responsibilities, and deliver on a better life to the hundreds of thousands of others that live in Kibera.e new Dubai, is at the expense of poor communities like Otodo-Gbame.

A biting commentary on why providing poor people with security of tenure is a more effective way to upgrade cities rather than tearing down people’s homes in the name of development.

Urban disasters present humanitarian agencies with a challenge. Aid workers need to learn how to collaborate with local NGOs, government authorities and the private sector if their interventions are to be successful. African cities share three features that frustrate their development. They are crowded “but not economically dense”. That means low investment in infrastructure, business, and affordable housing. It’s an urbanisation of people, not capital.

African cities are also disconnected. They are collections of small, fragmented neighbourhoods poorly served by unreliable transportation.

African cities are also costly, both for residents and businesses. That’s a consequence of being inward-looking rather than export-orientated.

All these problems magnify the disaster risks for citizens.

Despite the discouraging scale of the problems faced, there are many examples of African cities trying to come to grips with their challenge.

Otodo-Gbame was a 30,000-strong shanty settlement – until the bulldozers arrived. The problem for its inhabitants was the desirability of its lagoon-front location, which Lagos property developers had long eyed.

 

   Nubians are a tiny ethnic group that has been discriminated against for decades. Earlier this year, their ownership rights to 288 acres of Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, was finally recognised. The hope now is that the government will be alive to its responsibilities, and deliver on a better life to the hundreds of thousands of others that live in Kibera.e new Dubai, is at the expense of poor communities like Otodo-Gbame.

A biting commentary on why providing poor people with security of tenure is a more effective way to upgrade cities rather than tearing down people’s homes in the name of development.

Urban disasters present humanitarian agencies with a challenge. Aid workers need to learn how to collaborate with local NGOs, government authorities and the private sector if their interventions are to be successful.

  

  Path to recovery and growth

 

That  the Nigerian economy has been in recession since last year is no longer news. In 2016, overall economic output regressed by a factor of -1.8 per cent, the worst since the height of our tragic civil war in 1968. External reserves dwindled to a dangerous $27 billion while exchange rate nosedived to N493 to the US dollar on the BDC market. Public debt has risen to an unprecedented high of 5 per cent of GDP even as inflation rose to a high of 18.9 per cent.

Manufacturers have been groaning under the weight of scarce foreign exchange, which has compounded the problem of capacity under-utilization. Layoffs have been going on quietly in the industrial sector as well as in banking and finance. There is a growing threat of hunger as food output is declining in the face of farmers-herders conflict in the Middle Belt, which is unarguably the bread basket of Nigeria. Across all tiers of government, public finances are in dire straits, as workers and pensioners are owed backlogs of payments going back months, if not years.

Public debt currently stands at US$36 billion, precisely the same amount we had when the Obasanjo administration in 2005 decided to negotiate a settlement with the Paris Club. Our only saving grace in the current situation is that the bulk of national debt is denominated in Naira. But with a debt-service ratio of 66 per cent, we have reached the maximum threshold on our debt sustainability levels.

The incidence of poverty is reaching harrowing proportions. Unemployment is bordering on crisis proportions, with incidences of youth unemployment as high as 70 per cent in the poorest regions of the North-East and North-West. The state of the nation is best described by the term anomie; a term crafted by the 19th century French sociologist, Emil Durkheim. Rural banditry is on the increase, in addition to armed criminality and a looming nightmare of random, nihilistic violence. There is social decay everywhere; and with it an all-pervading atmosphere of emptiness and gloom. Meanwhile, the political class continues to bicker over the spoils of public office, with a fractious, ruling party on one hand, and a chimpanzee-dominated opposition on the other.

At no time has our nation ever been brought to such humiliation as it is today. Matters have not been helped by the health status of our President. The ultimate tragedy is that the President's worst enemies are those he has trusted the most; the intrigues would have impressed the Medicis of medieval Florence.

It is universally acknowledged that this recession was not precipitated by the current administration. It derives from decades of poor policy choices, irresponsible leadership and an unsustainable political economy anchored on collecting petro-dollar rents from treacherous multinational oil companies. Added to it is the grim reality of grand corruption. According to the London-based Chatham House, the national treasury was losing US$1 billion monthly from oil theft, known locally as "oil bunkering."

Towards the electoral cycle of 2015, there were rumours of opposition politicians amassing military arsenals in readiness for Armageddon in the event that they did not win the elections. Investors took cover by offloading Naira and stashing up dollars. The dollarization of the economy has become a nightmare that would not go away. The dollar became the currency of settlement in political horse-trading in smoke-filled chambers. Foreign investors took the cue and started selling up and squirelling their capital abroad. Local tycoons changed their savings into dollars and stashed them in domiciliary accounts while others sent theirs abroad. An estimated US$50 billion left our shores in what has become a fatal financial haemorrhage for our economy.

Whilst it is true that the APC-led administration inherited an economic crisis; the truth must be told -- it went ahead to nail the coffin by its wanton acts of bungling incompetence. It took several months before a cabinet could be constituted, thereby losing a lot of valuable time. It also took even longer to develop an economic blueprint that would provide a strategic framework for frontally tackling the economic recession. The greed and myopia of the National Assembly has not helped matters. Imprisoned by a total absence of moral scruples, it woul not sign up the annual budget before its cut is guaranteed. Even as we write in this rainy month of April, the 2017 budget is yet to be finalised; even as the gaunt, haunting eyes of children stricken by cerebrospinal meningitis stare at us, begging for mercy and reprieve from a sentence of human-induced death, the politicians continue their games of blackmail and gross rent-seeking.

We were delighted when a couple of weeks ago President Muhammadu Buhari launched the national Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). I congratulate the administration for this initiative. I'm aware that most of the technical work was done by the Minister of National Planning in collaboration with his Minister of State, Ms. Zainab Ahmad and the Director-General of Budget, Ben Akabueze. These gentlemen and gentlewoman have worked very hard to hammer out this new economic blueprint that, if rigorously implemented, can turn around the fortunes of our economy. The priorities of the new plan - power and infrastructure, food security, good governance, employment, human development and industrialization are unassailable. The plan also makes it clear that a sound macro-economic environment and an efficient public sector are critical to long-term recovery and growth. I could not agree more.

Where I have reservations relates to the nitty-gritty of implementation. The big elephant in the room is the public service, with Byzantinism, venality and sloth. No matter how visionary your economic plan as a statesman or practical economist, you would have to rely on civil servants to implement it. The ERGP can only succeed if the right vehicle is structured for its rigorous implementation.