This month, thousands of Nigerians have been rendered homeless after police stormed Otodo-Gbame, a riverbank community in the country’s commercial capital, Lagos, razing homes and chasing away residents with bullets and teargas. This comes after 4,700 people in the settlement had their homes demolished in March, and 30,000 were evicted last November, so altogether tens of thousands of people have been systematically chased off lands that they have inhabited, in many cases, since the colonial era.
Officials initially cited environmental concerns as the reason for the demolitions, but now claim the blanket evictions are a security measure against “militants” purportedly using the communities as a base. The demolitions have gone on despite a January court injunction ordering they be halted. Rights groups now suggest more than 300,000 people face similar eviction from waterfront communities across Lagos.
Aside from the flagrant use of state power against defenceless citizens, the events highlight wider class tensions and the unsustainable crony capitalist system in Africa’s most populous country, where two in three people live in poverty.
Few Nigerians doubt that the appropriated lands, located on choice waterfront property, will be used to build more luxury enclaves for Nigeria’s elite to isolate themselves from the mass poverty they helped create. This would not be the first time the state has evicted residents from desirable land, citing environmental concerns, only for swanky estates to be built there.
On paper, all Nigerians have rights. In practice, state power is often brazenly deployed to subjugate the poorest and weakest citizens in the interests of the rich and powerful who usually operate above the law. Hence, Nigerians often say the only true crime in Nigeria is being poor. In a state where to be poor means to be utterly powerless and stripped of dignity, many see wealth as the only means of safeguarding themselves from such wanton oppression, a perception which helps propagate the corruption Nigeria has become notorious for, as many resolve to get rich by any means necessary.
The truth is, while only the wealthiest can afford homes in the kind of luxury enclaves that will likely be built on land seized from the Otodo-Gbame settlement, much of the middle class, rather than kicking against the system, are resigned to the realities of Nigeria, observing the wealthy enviously and dreaming of one day affording such blissfully isolated luxury. They, too, want to escape the chaos and poverty of much of urban Lagos, where some 21 million people live crammed into an area barely two-thirds the size of London.
Moreover, these luxury enclaves with their surrounding shopping malls, country clubs and swanky restaurants are hailed by the government as signs of Nigeria’s “development” and “progress”. The Lagos state government has said its evictions are all part of its plan to turn Lagos into a “mega-city”. As many Nigerians in the privileged classes dream of Nigeria having its own Dubai, a world-class, ultra-modern city that would be a source of national pride, more than a few view the mass slum evictions as a “cost of development” worth paying.
The contempt and disregard for the poor regularly exhibited by the Nigerian state is by no means restricted to the elite classes. I come from a middle-class background and the environment I was socialised in taught me to disregard poor Nigerians as an irrelevant nuisance. They were ignorant and their poverty was off-putting; best thing was to keep as far away from them as possible. Even my father, himself from very humble beginnings, insisted I avoid mixing with “riffraff” and “street children”. Surrounded by a seemingly endlessly expanding ocean of poverty, the instinct of Nigeria’s privileged classes, including those who themselves grew up poor, is to distance themselves from the majority as much as possible. They seem terrified of perhaps “catching” the poverty bug.
After constructing a socioeconomic system that has mass-produced poverty, the privileged classes now seek nothing less than to escape into luxury enclaves and limit any interaction with their majority poor fellow citizens. This hardly seems a viable long-term plan. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once quipped that “under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” Indeed, no socioeconomic system yet invented is bereft of exploitation.
But what does differentiate the various nations and economic systems in the world are the rights they guarantee their citizens, especially those who are most vulnerable. Right now, the only thing the Nigerian state guarantees its poorest citizens, including those of the Otodo-Gbame settlement, is oppression, subjugation, indignity and contempt. The poverty-producing and oppressive nature of the Nigerian system has already spawned revolts against the state, be it by Islamist Boko Haram terrorists, saboteur militants in the oil-producing Niger-Delta region, or Igbo secessionists demanding an independent state of Biafra in the country’s southeast.
Yet Nigeria’s ruling class continues to smugly assume they can carry on oppressing the rest of the country and simply isolate themselves from the poverty they helped create, fenced away in their luxury enclaves where they and their families live privileged lives while the rest wallow in poverty and envy them from the sidelines. This is not just morally wrong, it is an unsustainable socioeconomic model, especially considering that the number of poor Nigerians is expanding at a rapid rate, in line with the country’s demographic boom. The army of poor and disenfranchised is growing, and with each Otodo-Gbame it only grows bigger. Nigeria’s elites ignore this at their peril.