By Morayo Adebayo
Today we celebrate World Habitat Day and this year’s theme, as declared by UN Habitat, is ‘Housing Policies: Affordable Homes’. This theme is in line with commitments Nigeria made under the Sustainable Development Goals, to ensure that everyone in the country has access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and essential services by 2030.
The reality in Nigeria, however, couldn’t be further from this goal. Currently, the country has a staggering housing deficit of 17 million, while thousands of people have been victims of forced evictions and many more live in constant fear of being made homeless overnight.
In 2007, UN Habitat dubbed Nigeria “one of the worst housing rights violators in Africa, if not the world.” Between the year 2000 and 2009, Nigeria forcibly evicted more than two million people.
Has the situation improved since? Not really. Tens of thousands more have been chased out of their homes and places of business by government bulldozers and police gunfire, without adequate notice, alternative housing or compensation. In Rivers State, authorities forcibly evicted at least 28,600 people between 2009 and 2016. In Lagos State, authorities forcibly evicted at least 50,000 people between 2013 and 2017. Some have lost their lives as a result of the forced evictions; others are still missing and no one knows what happened to them.
Inevitably, the victims in all this are the poor, who live in informal settlements, and whose land is coveted by state authorities and influential citizens for the development of high value real estate. According to the Word Bank, 50% of Nigeria’s urban population live in informal settlements.
Forced evictions constitute a gross violation of human rights and are illegal under international law. However, all too often, Nigerians find their homes destroyed in the name of ‘security’, ‘development’ or to make way for the creation of ‘mega cities’. The courts are very clear that housing is a human right. Justice Kutigi, of the Abuja High Court, in his landmark Judgment in the case of Chief Jacob Obor & ors. v Federal Capital Development Authority & ors (Suit No. CV/3998/2012), on 2 February 2017, stated: “The right to housing should not be construed narrowly to mean having a roof over one’s head but it should be viewed broadly as a right to live somewhere in relative peace, security and dignity. There is a responsibility on governments to create housing policies to enhance these values. Our great country is under obligation to refrain from and prevent forced evictions and demolitions which cause massive and frightening dislocations to families and communities without some sort of engagement with the affected people/communities.”
While the courts are unequivocal, many state governments, in practice, do not recognize that housing is a human right. Worse, they continue to forcibly evict residents and demolish homes without adequate prior notice, provision of adequate alternative accommodation for those rendered homeless, nor compensation for the losses incurred.
In Kaduna State for example, following threats by state authorities to demolish about 1000 structures in Gbagyi Villa community, residents filed a case (Joshua J. Nyam & ors. v Governor of Kaduna State & ors. – Suit No. KDH/KAD/218/2016) at the High Court of Kaduna State on 10 March 2016. The High Court issued an injunction order on 7 April 2016 preventing the government from demolishing their houses pending the hearing of their case challenging the government’s claim to the land. However, the Governor of Kaduna State, on 21 July 2016, visited the community and said that the forced evictions would proceed regardless of the court order. He said: “These buildings will have to go… we will give everyone the opportunity to show that he or she has title to the land and approval to build. If you don’t have these two the law will apply and we will take the buildings down …this is a criminal conduct, the case in court is a civil matter…they are two separate matters”. Although the demolitions have not been carried out yet, residents continue to live in fear that the governor will make good his threat to raze their homes.
Their fear is far from baseless. Lagos State repeatedly violated court orders and forcibly evicted several communities, rendering more than 30,000 residents homeless. The governor, on 9 October 2016, issued a threat to demolish all informal settlements along the state’s waterfronts and creeks which are home to at least 300,000 people. On 7 November 2016, the State High Court, in the case of Akakpo Agemo & ors. v Attorney General of Lagos State & ors. (Suit No. LD/4232MFHR/16), issued an injunction against the demolition. However, between 9 and 11 November 2016, at least 25,000 Otodo-Gbame residents were forcibly evicted. Again, on 26 January 2017, the court which found that the forced evictions and threat thereof were unconstitutional and illegal, renewed its order restraining the state government from carrying out the demolition. But state agents once again ignored these court orders and forcibly evicted about 4,700 residents who remained in Otodo-Gbame.
World Habitat Day presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the housing situation in our cities. Forced evictions, which often make people homeless, are a major step backwards in achieving affordable housing for all. If authorities in Nigeria are serious about meeting the country’s international commitments on sustainable development and in particular housing, they must first comply with court orders and put an end to forced evictions.
Adebayo is a researcher at Amnesty International, Nigeria.