Nigeria's big city razes homes as poor left behind


LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — The bulldozers came at dawn to this neighborhood of shanty homes and concrete buildings in Nigeria's largest city, followed by riot police carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The police banged on doors, corralling the thousands who live in Ijora-Badia off to the side as the bulldozers' blades tore through scrap-lumber walls, their tracks grinding the possessions inside into the black murk of swamp underneath. Days later, children picked through the field of debris, their small hands dodging rusty nails to pull away anything of value left behind.

The demolition of this slum neighborhood follows others in Lagos, a city of some 17.5 million inhabitants where a dozen can sleep in a single room and more flock to every day from the countryside. While the city continues to grow, the government has started programs to improve roads and railways, but target poor neighborhoods for demolition and street traders for arrest.

Activists say Lagos' government continues to lay sod for parks to beautify a city long thought of as a nightmare of urban planning, but the facelifts often come at the expense of the poor without a thought about what will become of them.

"A megacity is not about its physical size or its beauty, but its people," said Felix Morka, executive director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center, which is contesting the demolitions in court. "The poor also live here."

Poverty is difficult to escape from in Lagos, even on its islands, home to its political and business elite. Those missing limbs or with facial injuries approach cars idling at intersections to beg. People bathe naked alongside highways or use ditches for toilets. Even those considered as being in the middle class live in crowded tenements or in informal settlements that spring up in the corners of abandoned properties and even on stilts over the Lagos Lagoon.

Ijora-Badia, alongside a road leading to Lagos' main port and across from its major brewery, sits on marshy soil. The first settlers were moved here when the government started constructing the nearby National Theatre in the 1970s. In the time since, Ijora-Badia grew along the railroad tracks and is now home to thousands of people.

The bulldozers arrived there on Feb. 23, a Saturday morning, along with the police. They tore down the homes quickly, leaving most people to sleep outside afterward. Days later, they were crowded into a community hall, an open-air room covered by a thin tin roof. Others slept in a nearby church, their possessions gathered on top of benches under the watchful eyes of pictures of Jesus Christ near the altar.

A spokesman for Lagos state government did not respond to requests for comment about the demolition.

All the newly displaced people interviewed by The Associated Press described being taken by surprise, with some saying that a local chief may have given his blessing for the homes to be razed. Stella Omogbemi said the police chased her away without a chance to gather anything.

"I said: 'I owe the government one bullet, you should shoot it now,'" Omogbemi said in the Yoruba language of southwest Nigeria.

On Thursday, days after the demolition, a single bulldozer continued to grind the remains into the ground. One man, who once ran a used oil shop in the neighborhood, stood barefoot in a swampy patch now completely turned black. With oil up his calves, he bent down with a rag to soak bits of it up, wringing it out into a nearby bucket.

The reason for the demolition is unclear. Some at the site said they believed the area would be converted into an upper-class housing estate, which seemed unlikely as it sits in an industrial area.

This is the latest of a string of demolitions to target slums in the city, most conducted without any prior warning. In July, police and state officials began razing homes in the waterfront slum of Makoko, an iconic neighborhood of Lagos where thousands live in shack homes rising out of the city's lagoon on stilts. The government stopped after a public outcry, but many fear officials could resume tearing homes down at any time. Similar demolitions have occurred elsewhere in the country, including Port Harcourt, where activists say some 25,000 families lost their homes.

The same fear permeates Ijora-Badia, where homes on the edge of the demolitions also saw their walls knocked down. Local activists say they'll challenge the government in court. However, justice from the courts can be incredibly slow in Nigeria. Others worry the same system that allows government corruption to flourish will affect the courts.

Friday Ogunyemi, a 21-year-old university student who lost all his admittance records and paperwork, said people can't expect the government to come to their aid, despite the nation abandoning military rule for democracy in 1999.

"They treated us like we are not Nigerians, like we are not existing," Ogunyemi said. "Our dividend of democracy is a bulldozer."


Associated Press writer Lekan Oyekanmi contributed to this report.


Jon Gambrell can be reached at .