(The Otodo-Gbame Demolition. Credit: JEI-Nigeria.)

The demolition and forced eviction of the Otodo-Gbame waterfront community in Lagos drew international attention to the Lagos State government for its human rights violations. A series of demolitions by state security forces in 2016 and 2017 left at least one dead, several injured, and thousands homeless as men razed buildings with fire and bulldozers. Although these demolitions were particularly extreme, they were not unprecedented.

Several other urban poor communities in the city have also experienced mass demolitions, and elsewhere, residents of informal settlements fear that their communities could be next. What is the source of this fear? Will the government be able to count on their continued cooperation?

These are a few of the questions I explored during my visit to Lagos in January. The work was facilitated by Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), a non-governmental organization that supports the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation (the Federation). Together, JEI and the Federation work to empower residents of informal settlements to hold the government accountable through legal assistance, community organizing, and social media awareness campaigns. In addition to leading workshops on sampling and survey methods for the Federation’s data collection team, I spent time getting to know some of the communities that JEI and the Federation support and interviewed residents and community leaders about the political challenges they face.

Left: Temporary structures built after a demolition in a community. Right: Touring a community with residents and Federation/JEI representatives. Credit: Nicole Wilson.

Sources of uncertainty

The pervasive tenure insecurity is due at least in part to competing claims on the land where these informal settlements sit. Much of the land in Lagos is controlled by a few traditional chieftancy families, who claim ownership dating back to the pre-colonial era. But the Land Use Act of 1978 vested almost all land (except a small number of existing titles and land held by the Federal government) to the governors of each state, who then distribute use rights. At least, this is the interpretation of the law promoted by the government, although JEI staff noted that this is a common misunderstanding of its actual legal effect.

When demolitions occur, residents often don’t know who is responsible. As one interviewee noted, “we don’t know whether we are fighting against [an] individual, whether we are fighting against government, whether we are fighting against Oba [king] … we don’t even know.” Even though the state is generally the primary actor in these demolitions (state equipment is used and state agents are present), they are typically perceived as collaborations between these traditional families and the state. In some cases, this makes it easier for the state to deflect blame and make accountability more difficult.

Demolitions also create uncertainty among citizens by deepening distrust in the government. Although there are several reasons for this distrust, one important factor is the perceived motivation of the state. Community members consider the government’s publicly stated reasons for demolitions – usually environmental or security concerns – to be lies, propaganda, and excuses. Instead, demolitions are understood as simply furthering the “selfish interest” of leaders who want the land for their own gain rather than for the good of society. Community members recognize that the removal of existing structures is sometimes necessary for development projects, but historically, they have not benefited from any development that follows demolitions, even when they were promised that they would.

Cooperation without trust?

Nicole (center) with members of the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation. Sulayman (left) has also been trained as a community paralegal by JEI.

Despite this widespread lack of trust, community members do express willingness to cooperate with the state. When demolitions happen, citizens understand that the government wants them off the land, and they are often willing to leave. But without adequate compensation to settle somewhere else, they are actually unable to comply with the state’s demands. In the words of one resident, “If there is a place, we are ready to go. Resist? No, no, no… if there is compensation, we will take [it] and leave.”

Community members also continue to vote and to pay property taxes, sometimes citing their “civic duty” as the reason for doing so. However, given their own past experience with the state, and their future uncertainty given the possibility of demolition, they are hesitant to take the government at its word. During my visit, a public agency was proposing a development project to assist an informal community, hoping to change the reputation of the government and earn the community’s trust in the process. However, residents were outspoken about their demands for assurance and evidence – rather than unbacked promises – that they wouldn’t be taken advantage of. Remembering the events at Otodo-Gbame, citizens remain uncertain, and fearful, about what the state will do.

Nicole Wilson is a first year PhD student in the MIT Political Science Department, with interests in enforcement and informality. Her research in Lagos is funded by the MIT GOV/LAB seed grant program. Nicole holds a master’s degree in Justice, Law and Society from American University and undergraduate degrees in sociology and criminal justice. Before coming to MIT, she worked in Lagos as a research associate for the Lagos Trader Project, a panel survey of informal shop-owners in the city. She can be contacted at newilson@mit.edu.