Exclusionary city

The destruction of Tarkwa Bay in Lagos and the battle over what makes a city and who belongs in it.

Image credit Damilola Onafuwa.

On January 21, 2020, members of the Nigerian Navy stormed into the communities of Okun Ayo and Tarkwa Bay. They gave one hour to all the residents to leave their houses and the area before the beginning of the demolition. This forced eviction, the last of two dozen that Lagos state embarked on decades ago, made 4,500 people homeless, pushing the total of evictees to 10,000. Four months later, without any offer of relocation or compensation received, the residents now face the global pandemic of COVID-19 in the shelters they have been able to build in neighboring informal communities. For the very small minority who has been able to stay in Tarkwa Bay, harassment and threat of eviction is part of their daily life, although both are forbidden by an order of interim injunction from the Federal Court of Nigeria.

Tarkwa Bay was a rare example of social mix in Lagos, a city where new islands are springing up as enclaves for the rich. Tarkwa Bay was packed with Lagosians coming to enjoy the beach and the constant party mood during weekends and holidays. Artists were coming to escape from the Lagos traffic and buzz, and express their creativity in this green temple. But most importantly, Tarkwa Bay was home for thousands of women and men because it was the only Lagos they could afford. Although a polling station was installed for every election, Tarkwa Bay was never included in any electric network. Despite having no access to basic services like water, electricity, sanitation or roads, hundreds of families were raising their children, sending them to school and making a living in Tarkwa Bay. They were overcoming those difficulties to bring this place to life even during a time of flooding. People living in Tarkwa Bay were, and still are, the real and human face of that buzzword resilience.

Tarkwa Bay and other communities were sacrificed in the fight against “pipeline vandalism,” despite Nigerian law prohibiting all forms of collective punishment. Pipeline vandalism refers to the act of damaging petroleum pipelines to get free access to crude oil or other petroleum products. In places like Tarkwa Bay, most people get power by using fuel powered generators. With no electric grid, no filling station, petrol is on everyone lips. It is what will allow some light at night, your phone to get through the day, and fresh air from the fan. But something bigger was at stake with this wave of evictions and demolition: land.

On January 24, representatives of Lagos State Government declared that they were already planning to develop a luxury tourist complex in Tarkwa Bay. Land speculation is not something specific to Lagos or Nigeria, but poor informal communities always pay the highest price by being displaced to create space for high-brand luxury real estate projects. The expansion and “modernization” of Lagos was achieved at the price of displacement and worsening living conditions of the poorest parts of the population.

The Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, supported by the Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), has been fighting tirelessly for the dignity of the poor and the respect of their rights. On January 30, they brought the matter to the High Federal Court, which granted an interim injunction to stop any further demolitions while waiting for the case to proceed. Activists presented the evictions as a clear violation of human rights. Forced evictions are not just about crushing down houses and displacing population, they tear families apart, they stop children’s education, they put people in stages of despair one can’t imagine. Did you ever wonder what you will bring with you if you were said to leave your home in one hour? Do you know where you will go? Will you have enough cash to pay the skyrocketing price for the boat to take your family and belongings to safety? These are the kind of choices Tarkwa Bay’s residents had to face.

Image credit Damilola Onafuwa.

Tarkwa Bay is not an isolated incident, it is part of a process to decide what makes a city and who belongs to the city. Every “new” part of Lagos comes with the displacement of poor communities. Lekki was built on the remains of Maroko, that you (re)discover while reading Chris Abani’s beautiful novel: GraceLand. Eko Atlantic City—if it ever becomes a reality—did not only reclaim land on the sea, it destroyed the vibrant and peaceful community of Bar Beach. In some parts of Victoria Island, we can see road signs indicating where Bar Beach is.

In 2017, real estate pressure on the waterfront convinced Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to declare that all informal settlements on the waterfronts will be demolished. During this blatant attack on poor communities, Otodo Gbame—a fishermen community in Lekki—was destroyed overnight making 30,000 homeless. As of today, Otodo Gbame and Tarkwa Bay communities are still waiting for their cases to be ruled on by a court.

Lagos faces a tremendous challenge regarding housing, there are more and more people to house on very limited available land. Just like many cities around the world, Lagos has currently zero affordable housing programs on the ground to allow the less privileged of its population to live in decent and adequate conditions. If you take a drive around Ikoyi, you will see dozens of towers in construction or newly erected marketing their luxury apartments and amazing facilities. If you go at night, you will see no light on in those apartments, because no one can afford those apartments. They’re empty. Forced evictions, like the ones of Tarkwa Bay or Otodo Gbame, are counterproductive. They simply displace populations: people move elsewhere where they will try to restart their lives in the same conditions. No argument can justify forced evictions, especially not development.

We all have a role to play in ensuring that Lagos’ modernization and development are not achieved at the price of poor communities. Everyone should be able to enjoy the benefits of development. Next time you see an ad for a new “affordable luxury” estate, like Ilubirin, ask yourself: what was on ground on this land before this project? Lagos does not need to become the new Dubai or any other city in the world; it needs to become a better version of Lagos that allows everyone to live in better conditions. To quote Cyprian Ekwensi, who beautifully captured the spirit of Lagos is his book People of the City: “There comes a time when—in contemplating any crime, especially the large-scale, carefully planned type—one has to sit back and muse over the question ‘Isn’t there an element of sport in all this?’” It is time to put an end to the forced evictions’ game and to start the one about the inclusive development of cities.

Further Reading

Homeless in the city

The periodic evictions of poor families in Nairobi follows in a long tradition in Kenya, dating to colonialism, to keep the city as a space for the elite.