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Demolition of Nigerian shantytown leaves thousands homeless

July 24, 2012 | 10:52 am

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In the shadow of the Third Mainland Bridge in the Nigerian city of Lagos, fragile wooden huts have stood for decades on stilts above the water like long-legged birds. Beneath steaming traffic jams, the people of Makoko drift across the muddy lagoon in canoes, casting nets for fish.

But after giving residents 72 hours to leave their homes, state authorities began demolishing the shantytown a week ago. Community leader Timothy Huntoyanwha was shot to death by police Saturday as protesters resisted the demolitions, sparking new demonstrations Monday.

It's just the latest of many evictions of poor and marginalized communities in shantytowns as slum dwellers come under increasing pressure from property developers. Amnesty International has often criticized Nigerian authorities over the evictions.

This is not the first attempt to wipe out Makoko. Similar demolitions and evictions took place in 2005. In a notice of eviction earlier this month, Lagos authorities called the shantytown "unwholesome" and out of keeping with Lagos’ "megacity status." Lagos Gov. Babatunde Fashola said there were plans to build something much grander.

"We have a plan to turn that place into the Venice of Africa. I am committed to the idea," he told protesters from Makoko on Monday, ruling out any reversal of the demolition order, Nigeria's Daily Trust newspaper reported.

Like Venetians, the people of Makoko live on the water. But Makoko is not exactly Venice. The water beneath the crowded settlement sloshes with human waste and rubbish.

Blogger Daniel Howden, recalling a boat ride, described "the endless supply of raw sewerage, falling at eye level from a thousand crude outhouses, turning the water so dark and viscous that it seemed to part only reluctantly on either side of the hull."

Toddlers sit on narrow verandas just feet away from the water. Homes are connected by narrow walkways -- sometimes just a precarious plank. Women sell cooked food and vegetables from their canoes, and many of the children in the slum are unable to attend school.

Makoko has long huddled on the fringe of the lagoon. Its residents, who originated from fishing villages elsewhere in the country, saw the Third Mainland Bridge built and the skyline of Lagos rise, and clung on like limpets as the city developed.

The latest demolitions have left thousands homeless, many with nowhere to sleep but in their canoes, resident Peter Hunsa told the Nation newspaper.

"I am more than 60 years old," he said. "I was born in this community. The Egun people have been living here for more than 100 years.

"Where do they want me to go now?" he said. "We are fishermen. We did not go to school."

Nigerian human rights lawyer Femi Falana said in a telephone interview that the demolitions were illegal.

"No adequate notice was given," Falana said. "No alternative accommodation was provided. The government simply moved in. Thousands of people have been displaced. We have seen mass demolitions. Most of the houses have been pulled down."

Amnesty International has long campaigned against the demolition of slums by Nigerian authorities, saying the destruction deprives people of housing and often a means of earning a living.

Amnesty International Nigeria expert Lucy Freeman said in a telephone interview that more evictions and demolitions were planned in coming months in Port Harcourt and the capital, Abuja, where 18 or 19 communities are scheduled to be emptied of their residents by the end of August.

"At the very least, the government is supposed to make sure that no one is left destitute or subjected to further violations," Freeman said of the Makoko demolitions. "These are families and children."

Amnesty International, citing research by the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization, said that more than 1.2 million Nigerian slum dwellers from over 23,000 households in 30 shantytowns were evicted from 2000 to 2005.

"Governors seem to think that people will go back to their villages," said Freeman. "But of course they don't. They're just poorer and they have less to survive on. They're going to build structures which are worse.

"They're not going to leave Lagos because that's where they make their living."

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-- Robyn Dixon

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