“The value of that land is huge” | Inside the tragic attack and demolition of #OtodoGbame

otodo-gbame

By Mazi Emeka

Sporadic gunshots and the choking smell of tear-gas wake the “peaceful” fishing settlement of Otodo-Gbame, Lekki Phase 1, Lagos state, on Sunday March 9, 2017. Minutes later, Daniel Aya (20 years old) will fight for his life on a fishing boat, surrounded by fleeing kinsmen – broken men and women whose fight for their ancestral home had left them bewildered and homeless.

Aya would go on to lose the fight – the way his kinsmen lost their homes and properties that night, only his was more grave, more painful, was final.

“A bullet pierced his throat while he was carrying his child to safety,” says Celestine Ahisu, a displaced fisherman and the youth leader of Otodo-Gbame.

Aya is now in a mortuary, his body deposited there by Megan Chapman of the Justice Empowerment Initiative (JEI).

Monday (last name omitted) was far luckier than Aya. The sixteen year old was shot in the chest while helping his mother gather a few belongings to escape the early morning raid by state security agents.

Once a slow waterfront settlement of about 36,000 persons – comprising mostly of ethnic minorities, Otodo-Gbame stands no more. In its stead are piles of rubble and smoldering debris, police motor boats patrolling around, preventing curious people and former residents from nearing the settlement.

Ahisu, the youth leader, is forty-one, with four kids. His wife – an Ebonyi state indigene – refuses to leave his side despite the danger and constant attacks they face in their community. One time, Ahisu recalls, he had to take his wife and kids to Ibadan for safety.

“I took that woman to Ibadan. She refused to go! She says she wants to suffer with me. I said I don’t want to leave my people, I have to support my people. She too says she wants to support my people; so, we just pack ourselves here.”

“I am a fisherman, I can’t leave my work and my people,” Ahisu says. His wife adamantly refuses to stay without him. They return to their waterfront home together.

Ahisu likens the attack on Otodo-Gbame settlement to a war film. They were sleeping when the attack happened. He remembers “packing” his children inside his boat when the attack happened.

In an attempt to save their lives, some other people jumped into the water – swimming to safety – or death.

At present, he is squatting with a friend. Ahisu is lucky, far more so than most who have nowhere to squat or live. Some of his people now live in their boats, under the rain and the sun, with their wives and children.

In all, JEI has traced the displaced persons to over 16 locations within Lagos. However, many are still unaccounted for.

Even in his loss, Ahisu is quick to defend the pride of his people, saying, “It was not only shanties there. We also had houses, block houses.”

Justice for all

“Today is busier than other days,” the man sitting at the reception tells me when I arrive. He explained to me what the JEI does and how their volunteer service works. Because of the tragedy at Otodo-Gbame, displaced persons from the settlement trooped in and out of the place in search of answers, comfort, aid or whatever they could get from the hands (donations) of strangers.

The receptionist – still smiling – writes my name on a piece a paper, disappears, reappearing seconds later without the piece of paper.

Approximately ten minutes after I arrived, Megan Chapman, a wiry American with wide blue eyes, comes out to greet me. She takes me to her office, which she shares with her co-founder Andrew Maki – an  American as well – who makes a bullheaded attempt at spelling my Igbo last name without my assistance.

The JEI is a non-profit founded by Chapman and Maki to ensure justice, protection and respect for low income-urban dwelling individuals.

The organization had filed a suit against the Lagos state government to stop the demolition and, by extension, displacement of people living in slums and waterfront shanties. Their prayer was heard by a Lagos state High court, which granted an injunction ordering the state government not to demolish any of the proposed waterfront properties. The case was referred to the Lagos State Multi-Door Court House for mediation.

The court’s ruling was liberally ignored by the Lagos state government, when on Sunday, agents of the state besieged Otodo-Gbame, shooting sporadically into the air, setting homes afire and effectively displacing thousands of people living in Otodo-Gbame. All in a day’s work.

JEI heads to court again. This time for a contempt of court proceeding and if possible compensation for the victims displaced.

Proud heritage

Chapman introduces me to Ahisu, the youth leader and we hit it off . It’s impossible not to – Ahisu has a lot to say. We are surrounded by noise and movement – from the traffic at the Sabo-Yaba junction below and from the murmur of voices and movement in the JEI office.

Like most residents of Otodo-Gbame settlement, Ahisu is an Egun – he explains that his ancestors migrated from Badagry to other waterfront settlement across Lagos.

Egun people are spread across Lagos and Ogun states. They make up an estimated 15% of Lagos state’s population and is one of the three major ethnic groups in Lagos state, the other two being Yoruba and Awori. For years now, this ethnic group has complained of their exclusion in governance of the state.

“Badagry is the cradle of civilization in the whole Nigeria,” Ahisu begins.

He says the Otodo-Gbame settlement has existed for over a 100 years and now the Lagos state government is trying to “exterminate it” and the people within.

“We settled there because of fishing; we don’t know any other job apart from fishing! It is our forefathers that started it and that’s why we always settle at the ocean banks.”

“I was born and bred in Otodo-Gbame,” Ahisu continues. “Otodo-Gbame means community in a swampy area in Egun translation. Good!”

His forebears, themselves fishermen who knew the ocean so well, had sought for and found settlement in Otodo-Gbame during the British violent incursions into Lagos in the late 1800s. Badagry was the first point of call for the British and from there their influence spread across and beyond the Niger.

And, as Ahisu points out throughout our discussion, “civilization” in Nigeria started from Badagry before spreading to other parts of the country. To Ahisu, Eguns are the real indigenes of Lagos “because the first storey in Nigeria stands there, the first primary school in the entirety of Nigeria was built there and the first [water] well, then o, before civilization came, was there.”

Ahisu is immensely proud of his heritage and he makes no effort to hide it or make less of it. Still, I am worried that grave matters like these boil down to ethnic differences.

Speaking on how his ancestors found Otodo-Gbame, Ahisu says: “Because we are fishermen, we had to be going up and down till we found that community. It was inside [the] bush, no civilization, no real estate deal, but we liked that kind of place because of the nature of the place” (it is close to the ocean, hence suitable for fishing).

On settling, the Eguns were exposed to other minor ethnic groups in the area. They co-existed for several years in peace, exchanging culture and beliefs.

All this changed when the Lagos real estate boom began.

A penny for your land

Even though Ahisu acknowledges the unity and togetherness between the Eguns and Aworis (which, he says, the Elegushi Chieftaincy family are among), Ahisu still blames their neighbor the Elegushi family for the misfortune faced by his kinsmen in Otodo-Gbame.

“When you are eyeing a land, you will use government influence and they will crown you.”

He points out that because the Egun are under represented in government and are less powerful than their neighbors, they are often oppressed by the Elegushi family who use their influence in government to bully them.

According to materials on the JEI website, the Otodo-Gbame settlement has been attacked several times by people seeking to force them out of the property. The most recent was in October 2016, about 800 structures were reportedly burnt down and an estimated 10,000 people displaced by the fire. According to eyewitness accounts cited by the JEI reports, the attack was allegedly committed by the Elegushi family with the support of the police.

In March this year, the community was attacked again.

“The government is doing the eviction. Lagos state government has forces on ground. But we believe that the driving force behind it is the Elegushi family because there is a project they are interested in doing on that land. It is called the International Imperial City (N.B: the right name is Imperial International Business City {IIBC}), they’ve been publicizing it since last year.”

The IIBC, Chapman tells me, is expected to be as massive as the ongoing Eko Atlantic City project.

On the accusation that kidnappers, militants and other criminal elements live amongst the Otodo-Gbame residents, Ahisu has a lot to say.

“When it comes to elections they will remember us. But when it comes to demolish house and build big, big mansions, they will remember kidnappers and militants. Lagos state government is not pro-under privilege people. They are not pro-poor people. They are only campaigning for rich men! Anytime they want to develop this state, it is only for rich men!”

Chapman, on her part, points out that it makes no logical sense for the government to say that the settlement was destroyed because of crime. While she strongly argued that Otodo-Gbame residents were relatively peaceful, she also noted that destroying the settlement will simply force the supposed criminals out of the area and into other areas of Lagos – essentially guaranteeing that the same criminals will replicate their activities elsewhere.

Even as she throws out the government’s security excuse, Chapman names the reason for the attack: Land grabbing.

“No matter the excuses government is giving – it is not about security, it’s not about the environment. It is land grabbing. The value of that land is huge.”

Land grabbing 2.0

Otodo-Gbame is a worthy piece of real estate, it falls in line with the intensive investment of highbrow properties across the Lagos Islands – including the Eko Atlantic City.

The Imperial International Business City (IIBC) is a $300 million project that will be built on  “reclaimed Lagoon extension of the kingdom and would be the first eco-friendly smart business city in Africa.”

The project, which is billed to kick off this year, is a joint venture between the Ikate Elegushi family and Channeldrill Resources. The IIBC will expand the Ikate kingdom and also extend Lekki Phase 1.

The land on which Otodo Gbame stands has been in contention. Last year, the Elegushi family secretary, Muritala Elegushi, while laying claims to the land, also issued a warning against persons linking the family  to attacks in Otodo-Gbame.

“The Elegushi royal family is the rightful and legal owner of Otodo-Gbame land, a fact that can be confirmed by the inhabitants. The family obtained court rulings from the Magistrate’s and High Courts of Lagos to take possession of the land,” the statement read.

“Due to our magnanimity and in spite of the security threat the community poses to the neighbourhood, we left the inhabitants alone in order to keep the peace. Contrary to  reports that the fracas in the community was instigated by the Elegushi family, we wish to tell the whole world that it was a crisis that originated purely from internal disagreement among the inhabitants. The Elegushi family has nothing to do with the violence.”

Ahusi, the youth leader, insists that the royal family are immigrants from Ife even though they are members of the Awori ethnic group.  He argues that the claim on Otodo Gbame by Elegushi family isn’t true as the Eguns have dwelt on that land long before the Elegushis arrived Lagos.

What the future holds

The JEI isn’t giving up the fight either. Using legal measures, the organization is prepared to go all out to ensure justice for marginalized Otodo-Gbame residents.

“We may take the case to the ECOWAS community court of justice, we are also looking  if we can petition the ICC for crimes against humanity,” Chapman says.

There is a hint of stubbornness in her big blue eyes as she talks. Somehow, I knew even though the fight ahead isn’t going to be easy, Chapman and Maki are ready to see it through to the very end.

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