The men in naval uniforms charged into the Nigerian waterfront village of Okun Glass in the morning, chased out the residents, then called in the bulldozers.
The de facto village leader, 75-year-old Dauda Musa, said he fled as the men fired guns into the air. “They demolished our homes,” he said, standing in the rubble of what was once home to 3,000 people down the coast from the megacity Lagos.
Nigeria’s navy said it had moved in to clear an illegal settlement – and accused some of the residents of vandalizing nearby pipelines to steal crude. “This operation was not conducted in secrecy,” naval commander Thomas Otuji said.
Musa said his fellow villagers were farmers and fishermen, not thieves. And rights groups say the raid on Jan. 3 was part of a much wider trend where the government, backed by the military, clears informal settlements to make way for luxury housing and other developments.
The accusations and counter-accusations highlight an increasingly fraught confrontation between officials, activists and small communities, exacerbated by the dramatic expansion of Nigeria’s cities, most of all Lagos – a coastal giant that dwarfs the capital Abuja inland.
“There have been persistent evictions across Lagos. Dozens of communities on the island have been evicted,” Akinrolabu Samuel, a campaigner with the Nigeria Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, said at a rally against the evictions this week.
“It’s because of real estate,” he added. “It’s for real estate development.”
Around 600,000 new people arrive in Lagos every year, according to the stats group BudgIT, many of them pouring into ramshackle settlements, joining thousands of other impoverished families who have lived there for generations.
The United Nations said in September Nigeria was struggling to deal with a mounting housing crisis – and mass evictions were making the situation worse.
In 2017, a coalition of communities won a court judgment against Lagos state government, arguing that evictions without notice and resettlement were cruel, inhumane and degrading.
The government appealed, and the case was this week adjourned to June 2021.
The Nigerian government has regularly defended the evictions and demolitions, saying the have targeted settlements that are homes to criminal gangs, making them a security threat.
The “administration is law-abiding … But that does not mean it will allow indiscriminate erection of shanties on the right of way for roads and other projects,” said Gbenga Omotoso, commissioner for information and strategy for Lagos state government.
In this case, he said, the state government had not ordered the demolition of Okun Glass. “It may have been a security matter on which the Navy can speak,” Omotoso added.
Back on the coast, villagers picked through broken wood and crushed concrete, looking for anything salvageable underneath the coconut and mango trees that they said they had harvested for decades.
“They chased us into the lagoon with our wives and children,” said Dauda Musa. “We are left with nothing.”