One of Africa’s oldest and best-known slums is being dismantled
Aug 18th 2012 | LAGOS
“PADDLES splash through oily water and propel dugouts along narrow channels separating wooden shacks on stilts far out in the shallow lagoon on which much of Lagos, Nigeria’s business hub, was built. A quarter of a million people live in Makoko, learn to swim before they have walked on land, go to school, buy goods from traders drifting down the main channels, build fishing boats and go to sea. A few narrow bridges connect elevated platforms anchored, like everything else, six feet below the waterline. They say the only thing you won’t find in Makoko is a grave.
Or the government. For more than 120 years the fishing community has been left largely to its own devices. But that changed last month when a hundred officials with chainsaws razed dozens of shacks. Lacking property deeds, residents were given only 72 hours notice to go. One died in a clash with police. Steve Adji, an indignant community chief, says, ‘The government speaks of shanties but these are homes.’
Lagos has long been a byword for urban chaos. Traffic is legendarily bad, crime is a perennial sore and public services reach few. Re-elected last year, the city government is striving to change all this. It has commissioned a rail network, tried to control unruly motorbike taxis and invested in roads. The clearing of slums is part of its effort to unclog the city and spur the economy. But all too often it is the poor who pay the price.”
A long-standing (but perhaps unnecessary) debate in the field of human rights is that of economic security versus political freedom. States that stress collectivism such as China and some Islamic states, argue on the global stage that without financial security, political freedom is meaningless. They see sound economic conditions as a precondition for the enjoyment of political freedom. What good is the vote if the people have no shoes in which to walk to polling stations? Conversely, advocates of the latter argue that individuals can use free speech and their own autonomy to create the conditions that lead to economic prosperity for themselves and society as a whole. This notion is highly compatible with laissez-faire free markets and cultures of self-sufficiency, e.g. Western European countries and the U.S. It is far better that some people walk barefoot to polling stations on voting day than not have a voting day at all.
Although my interview subjects in rural Nigeria have not heard of this debate, they struggle with it all the same, just framing it in different terms. I asked them a series of questions about how the oppressive military rule of the 1990s, namely that under General Sani Abacha, compares to today’s democratic administration, albeit a less-than-flourishing one. It was in the 1990s that many of the most notorious human rights abuses were committed in Nigeria, and Ogonis in particular suffered some of the worst. During this decade Nigerian dissidents were killed, tortured, disappeared by state agents, women were raped as a means of asserting political power, and there was virtually no free speech. Today, endemic corruption debilitates government and for the majority of citizens, Nigeria continues to be a really…unfair place to live. However, political freedom is vastly improved from what it was 15-20 years ago. Surely Nigeria must be a better place for Niger Deltans now than it was then, right?
From the perspective of most of my respondents, it isn’t. All but three of my interview subjects said that either there is no change at all now from how the government was under military rule, or even more surprisingly, almost half of them told me that things were better in the 1990s. There are several explanations for this. They may have wanted to make their current conditions seem as dire as possible because they hoped for money after the interview, or because they viewed me as representative of some Western power that could help them. Some research indicates that people tend to remember the “good ol’ days” while their current difficulties seem more salient. For my middle-aged research subjects, they may not have had the adult responsibilities or political consciousness to view the state in the same way then that they do currently. For example, a 20-year-old may not think about the importance of fair taxation in the way that that same 40-year-old supporting a family later on thinks about it.
Of those who told me that life was better in the 1990s, there were two types of answers. One smaller group said that society was less chaotic then and the public sphere was more orderly. The strong arm of Abacha ensured that petty thievery was minimized and that economic transactions were regulated. Women described markets where they sold goods as being more organized and predictable. They said they could plan out their family diets better because they knew how much goods would cost in coming weeks and months.
A more common answer though was simply that things were cheaper in 1990s relative to their income. That’s it. The women I talked to wanted food, medicine, clothing, and housing to be affordable. They viewed inflation and unstable prices today as infringing on their well-being more than the threat of village pogroms and extrajudicial killings of family members. They care about fair elections far less than they care about the availability of zinc roofing. They care about the number of independent media sources far less than the amount of cassava their naira can buy. Although I think their responses are a reflection of political marginalization of Nigerian women and the widespread notion that politics are a male realm, they also indicate that their current economic conditions are so precarious that they are willing to living under tyranny to be able to purchase more than a day’s worth of food at a time.
I haven’t done the background reading on this finding yet, and I am sure other research out there has found the same in the global south. It makes me wonder how vastly different human rights deliberations at the EU would be if they weren’t dominated by rich men and had a few rural African women present.
- Nigeria: Legacies of General Sani Abacha (sahelblog.wordpress.com)
Since 2009, there have been ongoing demonstrations by shantytown residents against Governor Amaechi’s plan to tear down 40 waterfront slums in Port Harcourt. Around 200,000 residents live in these slums, making the area the most densely populated part of the city. State security forces have used extreme force in both their evictions and their reactions to the demonstrations. The justification for this use of force is the demolitions are part of the state’s effort at “urban renewal” and the police have argued that the waterfront is the epicenter of urban crime in Rivers State. Protestors have asked, “Do criminals stop being criminals because you destroy their home?” “Won’t making people homeless force them into criminality in order to survive?” While the state is framing its arguments in terms of modernization and public safety, the waterfront tenants are framing theirs in terms of individual human rights. Ultimately, the conflict arises from the singular challenge facing Port Harcourt and all Nigerian cities: overpopulation in a climate of scant resources.
In trying to project what the future of Port Harcourt living may look like, it seems helpful to look to its far larger neighbor Lagos. A few decades ago Lagos had the same population as Port Harcourt has today, 3 million. Port Harcourt’s port, the second busiest in the country, and may in the future compete with that of Lagos. Both cities span across various islands and continually struggle with land erosion into the sea. Their dense populations create issues of housing scarcity and debilitating traffic. Today’s problems in Lagos could very well be those of Port Harcourt tomorrow.
Is Lagos the future of coastal urbanization in Nigeria?
There is truly no other place like Lagos, for now at least. It is the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa one of the fastest growing in the world. Less than fifty years ago, a scenic Lagos had a population of 300,000. There was a highly suspect census conducted a few years ago indicating that the current population was 9 million, but that even government officials admitted that was impossible. Today the population is at least 16 million. In ten years, Nigeria’s largest city will have 25 million residents, making it one of the planet’s top five megacities.
The main problem for Lagos is that that although 600,000 people move there every year, there is physically nowhere for them to go because the city is a collection of islands. The scant land that exists is swampy and unstable, easily eroding away during harsh weather. Nigerians are survivors though, highly adept at making it through the most adverse conditions, so some of the ¾ of the city population that live in shantytowns have responded by building floating slums out of garbage. Lagos produces hundreds of tons of garbage every day. One source said that it was 300, another 9000, so let us assume it is somewhere in between. Some of the new arrivees have devised an ingenious system of creating their own new land based on all this garbage. They dump (or pay someone a small fee to dump) the rubbish to float on the water where they wish to expand onto. Then they gather sawdust from the local timber yard (Lagos has the largest one in West Africa) and leave it on top of the floating rubbish for six months to help it decompose. Then, bucket by bucket, they place sand on top of the sawdust and when that is packed down, the rubbish/sawdust/sand layers become stable enough to build a home on. It is an incredibly resourceful system of land-filling.
The largest slum, Makoko, built half and mile into the water of Lagos Lagoon, is home to 100,000 people who live in homes perched on stilts. There, everything from taxing people to selling herbal medicines is done on canoes. Residents use larger canoes to transport children to school, ferry commuters to their day jobs on the mainland, and even move machinery and building supplies. They are some of the few Lagos inhabitants who may be able to avoid the infamous traffic, including the single 12-mile long go-slow that forms every morning and evening every weekday on one of the city’s three main bridges.
It is not unusual to spend 4-5 hours per day stuck in traffic in Lagos. It is just part of living there. The only way to avoid it is to have the good fortune to be able to live and work on the same island, which is really only a possibility for the wealthy. One solution is to take often dangerous okadas (motorcycle taxis) but riders must be willing to arrive at their destination dirty, sweaty or wet from rain. The traffic problem is so bad that it is part of the reason that the country capital was moved from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. Here is a video on the city problems, of which there are many. In all fairness however, there is never a dull moment in Lagos, and it can offer some of the most memorable scenes to be witnessed in Africa, e.g. a calf strapped to the back of a bicycle, a multi-million dollar yacht sailing past beach shantytowns, hundreds of Muslims wordlessly and simultaneously stopping their bartering to pray together amidst freeway traffic. Fascinating place to visit, less than optimal place to live:
One problem that isn’t discussed enough here is the way that climate change will negatively impact Nigeria’s coastal cities, specifically Lagos and Port Harcourt. The slums were built by rural farmers from inland Nigeria who couldn’t make ends meet in the countryside and came to find economic opportunities in the big city. West Africa has been suffering from an unprecedented drought for a decade now, attributed by many scholars to global warming-induced desertification of agricultural land. At the same time, rising sea levels are pushing Lagos residents farther inland as they try to avoid flooding. Although sporadic at the moment, clashes over land and resources will only increase in the coming years as these two groups are forced into conflict with each other.
Even after years of living in these conditions, many of the rural-to-urban migrants speak with yearning of their home village, and maintain the hope that they will save enough money to return one day. These conversations make one wonder why the state doesn’t invest in making villages more livable, instead of trying to accommodate the influx of arrivees in cities. Rather than perpetually building and rebuilding urban roads, an ongoing financial drain, those funds could be used to improve key national highways that allow the non-urban to better transport their agricultural goods to market. Rather than building new university campuses where the flood of aspiring students are, it makes much more sense to build a university in a smaller town where students will move to and can have a more affordable cost of living anyway. The government should be responding to the Lagos population crisis reactively instead of proactively, and in a way that gives Nigerians a positive incentive to leave the cities if they wish to.