“I found this demolition as an inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of the right to dignity enshrined in Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”
– Justice Onigbanjo of the Lagos High Court, Thursday, 26 January 2017.
Since Justice Onigbanjo of the Lagos High Court delivered his epoch decision on Thursday, 26 January 2017 in a lawsuit filed by more than 20 member communities of the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation against the Lagos State Government (LASG), the news have reverberated beyond the shores of Lagos, nay Nigeria. It was instant global news headlines in many online newspapers (including EnviroNews), notable Slum NGOs’ newsletters from different continents of the world, international organisations news portals and commentaries from law pundits/human rights activists, women groups, and globally-acclaimed urban planners.
Justice Onigbanjo was not afraid to act within his legal authority. He acted as an arbiter and interpreter of the law in a dispute between the government and the governed in accordance with the dictates of the Nigerian Constitution, which guarantees “the right to dignity for all citizens.”
Using his discretion and God-given wisdom further, he directed the two warring entities (slum communities and the Lagos State Government) to embrace dialogue and find an amicable solution to the dispute that brought them before the court. To the belief of the learned judge, peoples’ lives must not be degraded at the altar of urban development. There must be a compromise and just compensation for people affected by unavoidable demolition arising from inevitable urban renewal for overall public good.
No Lagosians can doubt the good intention of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode in making the Lagos mega city a place comfortable to live, work, move around unhindered and play under a secure and wholesome environment. He has embarked on a gamut of infrastructural provisioning projects, social amenities, public transportation and environmental improvement and city beautification in the effort to make the Lagos mega city a hub on the African continent and a city of international status. In the process of doing this, it has come at a cost to the government and umbrage from a certain group of Lagos residents, most especially the marginalised urban poor and those living along the ubiquitous lagoon waterfronts whose shanty settlements had either been bulldozed or slated for imminent demolition due to insecurity and subhuman living conditions.
As well-intentioned the aim of the government seems to be, the brute force approach it took was roundly condemned and thus caused the LASG negative publicity both at home and in the international community, particularly among the proponents/advocates of “inclusive city.” Could it have been done differently without degrading the humanity, dignity, and families of over 30,000 slum residents and more without just compensation for the indignity suffered by the families affected? Will urban planning technocrats in government and other professionals have a rethink of slum bulldozing and the courage to press for more inclusive Lagos mega city? Are they ready to honestly advise the government to brace up and plan for urbanisation and not try to halt it? Are the planners ready to assist the government in planning for inclusive cities generally? These are unassailable questions that the LASG must try to reflect upon and be dispassionate in providing very truthful answers.
The planning and management of cities in the 21st century globally call for inclusiveness of all city dwellers in the social, political and economic fabrics of the city whether rich or poor, male or female and with equal oppourtunity for a decent life. Particularly, national governments all over the world are enjoined by the United Nations to imbibe good governance and be pro-poor in their planning efforts for the marginalised group as echoed at the just-concluded Habitat III Conference held in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. The adopted New Urban Agenda, a document endorsed by member nations at the Habitat III Conference, called on governments to ensure that “cities and human settlements are participatory, promote civic engagement, engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants.”
The collusion between the waterfront dwellers and the LASG could have been avoided if, ab initio, the latter has carried along the former at the initial stage and intimate the people about the good intention of the government to redevelop the waterfront. During the public hearing/consultation, the issue of compensation and alternate settlement area could have been sorted with relate ease. All things considered, the waterfront dwellers have their nuisance value to the mega city. Their men engage in daily fishing as their occupation while the women are fish sellers. They both occupy an important spot in the food chain supply/food security to most residents of the mega city. They provide an invaluable service.
They also have their political relevance and civic value; they are willing tools in the hands of the politicians who often seek their votes during general elections (Federal, State, and Local Government elections). If the waterfront dwellers discharge their civic duties responsibly by voting for State and Local Governments’ elected officials, it behooves the government to listen to the genuine complaint or agitations of the people in time of crisis. Some of these people are responsible citizens who pay their taxes to the government, no matter how minimal is the amount.
Dislodging them from their source of livelihood and abode without any resettlement plan does not conform to international best practice. This inadvertent gaffe has been the undoing of the LASG, notwithstanding the good intention of the government to turn the waterfronts to a linear development for tourism and entertainment activities.The LASG seems to be at a crossroad on the next step it will take having been ordered to suspend further demolition of the waterfronts pending a court-ordered mediation of the legal tussle through the Lagos State Multi-Door Courthouse for an amicable settlement of the matter.
Any proponent of good city planning would lend support to the ongoing transformation of the Lagos mega city into a more functional, liveable and environment-friendly urban hub. No doubt, the colonies of the shanty and unauthorised structures along the waterfronts are unsightly and constitute a serious health risk for the city residents and a bad image for the entire city. However, it must be pointed out that these shanty developments are a cumulative effect of dereliction of duty and laxity in enforcing planning and building regulations for so many years. As a result, the proliferation of such illegal settlements was intensified anywhere they could be found along the lagoon shores. The human population also increased astronomically raising a social problem and grave moral issue for the government to manage.
The present administration is battle ready to rid Lagos of unauthorised development and unequivocal about its resolve for “zero tolerance” for ramshackle structures along the waterfronts throughout the state in the bid to restore the city masterplans. The LASG cannot be faulted for taking such proactive decision. However, caution must be taken about the approach or methodology applied. Such action should not cause untold human hardship or at the detriment of a particular voiceless group of people. If there are causes to dislocate families, those affected must be adequately compensated and resettled where possible. The scenario that led to the present face-off between the LASG and the waterfronts communities must be guided not to repeat itself in the future.
Therefore, we want to counsel that the remaining unoccupied waterfronts or any area earmarked for future development must not be left unprotected if incursion by illegal developers is to be forestalled. Squatters are like birds, they squat on any available city space. The LASG should mandate that unoccupied waterfronts must be sign-posted with a strict warning to ward-off itinerant or hobo people who are likely to jump on the vacant space and erect illegal structures. The struggle for survival by the urban poor in a rapidly growing megacity like Lagos is a constant struggle. The urban poor would employ any means legal or illegal to eke a living.
Those in government with a remit for urban development should be not deluded with the notion that where one lives determines your access to oppourtunity. It is erroneous. Different oppourtunities must be created for all strata of city dwellers irrespective of their social status. Rather than ignore the existence of the urban poor, it is the duty of the government to strive to accommodate the “left behinds” by providing social safety nets to ameliorate their burden of poverty and not aggravate them with unpopular urban development policy.
By Yacoob Abiodun (Urban Planner and Planning Advocate, Parkview Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos)