Governor Ambode, Please End The Social Cleansing Of Otodo Gbame

Dear Governor Ambode,

Twenty-seven years ago, your predecessor, Governor Raji Rasaki socially cleansed Maroko when he evicted the 300,000 residents in what a number of commentators describe as one of the largest forced evictions in Nigerian history. Four years ago, your immediate predecessor Governor Babatunde Fashola engaged in another form of social cleansing when a number of beggars were sent to Kirikiri and Badagry Prisons for conducting themselves as “disorderly persons without any visible means of livelihood.” In early April 2017, the Lagos Sate Government under your leadership engaged in social cleansing when it forcefully evicted the residents of Otodo Gbame community by demolishing their houses.

The recent raid on the Otodo Gbame community isn’t the first time that the fishing community has come under the crossfire of your government. On 9 October 2016, you ordered the demolition of all shanties along the Lagos shorelines and gave a seven-day ultimatum for people living in the area to evacuate. On 31 October 2016, the Lagos State Assembly passed a resolution calling on the government to put a halt on the demolition. On 7 November 2016, a Lagos State High Court ordered your government to cease with its demolition plan. However, through a strange formula, Otodo Gbame residents have been subjected to several invasions since your October announcement. In November 2016, a strange fire occurred in Otodo Gbame, which razed down a sizeable part of the settlement; according to one of your spokesmen, the fire was attributed to inter-ethnic clashes. Shortly after the fire, the settlement was sealed off and the police and members of the Lagos Task Force used bulldozers to demolish the houses. As a consequence, 30,000 settlers were evicted. In January 2017, a Lagos Court issued an injunction halting the ongoing eviction, however in March 2017, government officials raided Otodo Gbame and demolished more houses.

In short, Otodo Gbame is under siege from the Lagos State Government and the Lagos Task Force and police have become a pseudo occupying force terrorising the vulnerable residents. The inhabitants have not only been evicted and seen their homes destroyed, they have also been beaten, arrested, shot and killed. Sir, your government’s treatment of the residents of Otodo Gbame is a crime against humanity and it is in contravention of local law, international law and moral law.

Despite the order from the Lagos State Assembly and Lagos High Court to discontinue the eviction, you have refused to obey. Your government’s actions are in contravention of the Nigerian Constitution, which stipulates, “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly — no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.” Instead, the government has come up with claims and denials to justify its actions. Your government claims that it wants to maintain law and order (even though it has broken the law in the process); your government claims that through its action, it is protecting lives and property (even though it is destroying lives and property in the process); your government claims that the waterfront settlement is illegal; your government claims that the Otodo Gbame indigenes do not have any title or government approval; your government claims that there are no structures to demolish in Otodo Gbame ; your government claims that it wants to prevent environmental disaster. Your government denies that its agents set fire to properties; your government also denies that it disobeyed the court order. As Governor of the great state of Lagos, you are the Chief Executive of the State who signs laws. During your swearing ceremony, you said under oath, “I will discharge my duties to the best of my ability, faithfully and in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the law.” Whenever the Chief lawmaker becomes the Chief lawbreaker, it sends the wrong signal to the citizens.

Besides breaching the law of the land through your forceful eviction of the Otodo Gbame residents, you are also in contravention of the international law. Your government’s ill treatment of the residents is a breach of their fundamental human rights. Nigeria as a member of the United Nations has ratified a number of United Nations Human Rights Conventions and committed itself to obey these human rights documents. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Nigerian government is obligated to “refrain from, and protect against, forced evictions from home(s) and land.” A review of the UN’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement is worth reading. According to the Guidelines, “States should refrain, to the maximum extent possible, from claiming or confiscating housing or land, and in particular when such action does not contribute to the enjoyment of human rights.” When you gave the seven-day ultimatum for the poor people living in the shanties along the Lagos shorelines to leave, you did not give them adequate notice.

You also breached international law by failing to provide opportunities for dialogue and consultation with the affected group. Your government failed to consider and explore all possible alternatives to evictions thereby leaving the settlers with no option than to be homeless at best and drown in the lagoon at worst. Your government failed to protect children during the eviction. It was reported that in the pandemonium resulting from the eviction, a number of children ran into the river in panic and subsequently drowned. Some children missed their exams because of the eviction. Your government failed to ensure that those evicted were provided with essential food, appropriate clothing, essential medical services and childcare facilities. When the government failed, the good people of Lagos State stepped in by raising funds to provide for the needy. Your government failed to provide the forcefully evicted people access to legal counsel, restitution, resettlement, rehabilitation and compensation. Your government should have considered using neutral observers to monitor the eviction to ensure that it was in accordance with international human rights principles.

In addition to breaking local and international laws, you have also broken the moral law/God’s law. Governor Ambode there is no doubt that you are a devout Christian. The evidence is clear. We have seen images of you worshipping alongside Daddy GO at the 2017 Annual Thanksgiving Service; we have seen images of you worshipping at the CAN inter-denominational divine service which took place at Shepherd Hill Baptist Church; we have seen images of you worshipping at the 2016/2017 Legal Year church service at Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina; we have seen images of you in the company of powerful anointed men and women of God. However being a true follower of Christ is not only limited to attending church services and hanging out with the clergy.

I understand your desire to make Lagos a first class city, however, Lagos cannot become a first class city as long as it has third class citizens who have been stripped of their humanity. Every time the Otodo ‘Gbamians’ cry to you, it appears to fall on deaf ears. In February 2016 when there was a measles outbreak in the area, which killed twenty-six children, you failed to visit the area, instead, you were pictured celebrating with the high and mighty at the Sun Award Ceremony at Eko Hotel & Suites. The following month some of the residents came to your office to protest the life-threatening dredging and sand filling activities at the Otodo Gbame lagoon by Destiny Dredgers’ International. They left disappointed after being told that they could not see you because you were attending the birthday celebration of the leader of your political party. They are now crying to you, pleading with you to stop their eviction, yet no one seems to be listening to them. They are however consoled by the fact that even though the governor may refuse to listen to their cries, the Governor of governors is not ignorant to their cries.

In 1996, Gregory Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch in a seminal paper titled Eight Stages of Genocide identified the stages often involved in a genocide namely: Classification, Symbolisation, Dehumanisation, Organisation, Polarisation, Preparation, Extermination and Denial. For the sake of clarity, I am not suggesting that your government is engaged in genocide, I only want to draw out how some of your government’s actions are similar to some of the stages identified by Mr. Stanton. The Otodo Gbamians have been classified Vis a Vis other Lagosians into “them” and “us.” They have been “othered” into Egun’s distinct from the majority Yoruba ethnicity. Their nationality has been called into question with claims that they are not Nigerians but from the Benin Republic. They are symbolised when they are given names. For instance, your Commissioner for Information has described them as “Miscreants, street urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers” who live in, “Ramshackle structures, sheds, canopies and shanties.” The dehumanisation of the resident of Otodo Gbame has been explained in detail above. The Organisation against the residents is in full force through the police and other members of the Lagos State Task Force. The Preparation stage is evidenced by the identification and separation because of their ethnic identity and social status.

Your government has modified the noun — Otodo Gbame with the adjectives — “illegal” and “criminal”. What is it that makes Otodo Gbame a crime zone? Is it the poverty level in Otodo Gbame? Is it the location within the prime waterfront areas, which is desired by the wealthy, or is it because the residents don’t have friends in high places? Robbing poor Peter of the necessities of life to pay rich Paul with the luxuries of life is ugly, ungodly and unacceptable.

Lagos has become a two-tier state in which a few people live the Lagos dream as millions live the Lagos nightmare. As governor, you are meant to govern both the high and the low without favoritism. But your government’s attitude towards the people living in the waterfront shanties is indicative of an asymmetrical approach to governance. During the governorship election, both the poor and the wealthy came out to cast their vote for you. However, it seems that your government smiles when it is in the midst of oligarchs, property developers and political heavyweights; but this smile morphs into a frown once the most vulnerable and marginalised Lagosians enter into the frame. The high and mighty will always be able to take care of themselves and it is for that reason that the government needs to go the extra mile to protect the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Lagos. If your government is eager to evict people, may I suggest that it channels its energy towards evicting those who use political office and political connections as a means for extracting rent out of the state, rather than targeting the last, the least and the littlest.

As you drive through Lagos and look out of the window of your official state car, I guess you must be proud with the development taking place at Eko Atlantic and the new skyscrapers and sea view mansions that are springing up, but I hope that while on the move, you also reflect on the words of Jimmy Carter, “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.”

I don’t know what the future holds for the people of Otodo Gbame and the 300,000 people living in other riverine communities in the Lagos, but based on present trends, the future looks bleak. Maybe in a few years’ time, the residents would be forced to relocate to another area of misery and watch from afar as their ancestral home is overtaken by rich bankers, rich politicians and rich business tycoons living in million naira sea view apartments and driving million naira cars. But despite this, I read somewhere, “If you see the extortion of the poor or the perversion of justice and fairness in the government, do not be astonished by the matter. For the high official is watched by a higher official, and there are higher ones over them”; I read somewhere, “Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise”, I read somewhere, “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted and justice for the poor.”

As Lagos State prepares for its fiftieth anniversary, the Lagos@50 party is in full swing. The billboards showcasing those who have been successful in the State is displayed throughout the city. We see the image of a cheerful Soni Irabor with the inscription “Lagos Is My Success Story- Land of Peace.” We see the image of a relaxed Aliko Dangote with the inscription: “Lagos Is My Success Story — Land of Business.” We see the image of an elegant Folurunsho Alakija with the inscription: “Lagos Is My Success Story — Land of Wealth.” Lagosians would be more informed about the unsuccessful side of State if the images and stories of residents in the waterfront communities were also displayed on billboards. It is time for Lagosians to see the image of a tearful Julius Oladele with the inscription: “Lagos Is My Horror Story — Land of Terror.” It is time for Lagosians to see the image of a sad Tina Edukpo with the inscription: “Lagos Is My Horror Story — Land of Poverty.” It is time for Lagosians to see the image of an inconsolable Emmanuel Oluwagbemi with the inscription: “Lagos Is My Horror Story — Land of Sorrow, Tears and Blood.”

In conclusion, I plead with you to use your good office to stop the social cleansing of Otodo Gbame and other waterfront settlements.

Eko o ni baje.

Selah.

Ahmed Sule, CFA

@Alatenumo

April 2017.

CC

African Union

Amnesty International

All Progressives Congress

Association for the Prevention of Torture

Attorney General Abubakar Malami

Campaign for Democracy

Centre for Democracy and Development

Centre for Human Rights and Ethics in Development

Chief Judge of Lagos State

Christian Foundation for Social Justice & Equity

Committee for the Defence of Human Rights

Festus Keyamo

Human Rights Africa

Joe Odumakin

Justice & Empowerment Initiatives Nigeria

Kayode Ogundamisi

Lagos State Executive Members

Members of Lagos State House of Assembly

Morayo Adebayo

National Human Rights Commission

Nigerian Bar Association

Nigerian Civil Right Movement

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

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Pastor E. A. Adeboye

President Muhammadu Buhari

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Writer and social critic