By the time the dust settled, hundreds of homes were gone, replaced by a tangle of broken planks and crushed metal, and thousands of homeless residents. And the bulldozers responsible for this destruction in a section of Badia East, a slum settlement along a century-old railroad that runs westwards across Lagos, towards Apapa.
Badia is one of more than 100 slums in Lagos. Its people insist they have the Federal Government documents that assigned occupancy rights to them almost four decades ago, and that the parties laying claim to the land — a loose coalition sometimes fronted by the Lagos State Government, and at other times by a powerful traditional ruler in the area — have yet to produce any compelling documentation proving their own claims. We take it for granted that in Nigeria, all the power of the state will be arrayed on the side of privilege.
It’s been almost three years since the demolitioners were last here, in February 2013. (Before then, they showed up in 2003, 1997 and 1986). When I visited in September 2013, many of the displaced people, expecting little in the way of redress, had moved on with their lives. Those who had nowhere to go stayed behind, squatting with friends, or sleeping in churches, or on the balcony of the community hospital run by the Médecins Sans Frontières — now a casualty of the most recent demolitions.
In April 2014, I spent three weeks in Brazil on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the International Reporting Project of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. We visited three cities – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Recife — learning how the country was dealing with social and development issues.
One experience that stood out was a visit to Providencia, the oldest favela in Rio de Janeiro. There, I learnt something very interesting: that Brazil’s constitution guarantees squatters’ rights. According to Article 183, “An individual who possesses an urban area of up to two hundred and fifty square meters, for five years, without interruption or opposition, using it as his or as his family’s home, shall acquire domain of it, provided that he does not own any other urban or rural property.”
Appropriation of the land by the state can only be done for compelling reasons, and must be accompanied by “prior and fair compensation in cash”. This is how the favelas (slums) have come to endure this long, in some of the most prized sections of the city. (Even then, on account of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the municipal government has been hard at work finding reasons to evict Providencia’s residents.)
This legal principle that allows a squatter to take possession of a piece of land by fulfilling certain conditions (including a minimum occupation period) is known as “adverse or long possession”, and is found in many jurisdictions around the world. Lagos’ slums, many of them long occupied — Badia had been continuously occupied by these evictees since 1973 — do not enjoy similar protections. Andrew Maki, co-director of the Justice and Empowerment Initiative, a non-profit organisation that provides legal support to underprivileged communities like Badia, explains that adverse possession does exist in the country, but it “isn’t very developed”, and tends to be interpreted conservatively by the courts.
Lagos is Nigeria’s smallest state by area, and high rates of migration mean that there is severe pressure on the limited land — 20 per cent of the state is made up of water. In the last two decades, the city-state has expanded rapidly in every direction. North and north-west, it has spilled into Ogun State, so that four of Ogun’s 20 local government areas are now considered to be part of the “Lagos Metropolitan Area”. (Even Victoria Island on the southern flank, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, now has the multibillion-dollar Eko Atlantic City reclamation project ongoing, which will expand it by about nine square kilometres).
When I visited Badia three weeks ago, two unfinished five-storey apartment blocks had risen on the site of the 2013 demolition. They are part of the Lagos State Home Ownership Mortgage Scheme (Lagos HOMS), created by former Governor Babatunde Fashola to provide housing for middle-income state residents at reasonable interest rates (9.5 per cent, compared with the 18-25 per cent available from commercial banks) and a repayment period of 10 years; much longer than the 12 to 18 months Lagos property developers typically allow.
But those apartments will be unaffordable for the displaced residents of Badia East, who are mainly artisans and petty traders and port workers. Instead of forced evictions, we should be focusing on crediting them with the rights that will enable them unlock the value in the land they have occupied for decades. On the beachfronts of Brasília Teimosa in Recife, northeastern Brazil, I saw evidence of the regeneration possible when the government steps in to support, not undermine, slum-dwellers.
Nigeria’s governments — federal and state especially — should focus on a combination of immediate and longer-term action to demonstrate that the country exists as much for the poor as it does for the rich and powerful, when it comes to matters of land rights. The quick-wins would include granting residents of slums like Badia land titles, as well as digging up any arcane laws that ought to protect them (so they can be tested in the courts). For the medium-term, basic infrastructure to seed functioning communities should be provided: roads, pipe-borne water, schools, and hospitals. Citizens have a right to these amenities, and no government or government official should ever think that they’re doing us a favour by making these things available. Also, state governments should be compelled to digitise their land registries and make them easily accessible to everyone.
The long-term stuff would be the arduous task of ensuring that our problematic land laws — backed by the military-decreed Land Use Act dating back almost 40 years, which vests absolute control of land in the state governors — are revised. (‘Land Reform’ was one of the headline items on President Yar’Adua’s Seven-Point Agenda, and he even set up a Presidential Technical Committee on Land Reform in 2009, regarding which nothing has been heard since his death).
Credit should go to civil society groups such as the JEI, and the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre which are fighting hard to defend the property rights of squatters and slum residents. As the country continues to urbanise, tensions around land will inevitably rise. Nigeria’s bottom millions deserve as much protection as the privileged classes.