Amnesty International, on Friday took a swipe at the Lagos State Government for carrying out its threat to demolish the homes of about 30,000 residents of Otodo Gbame, a community in Lekki axis of the state despite a court order.
The rights group, in a statement on Friday evening said the government “must take immediate steps to provide alternative accommodation for those who were made homeless by fire that engulfed the community.
The statement noted that while it was unclear who started the first fire on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, it quoted eyewitnesses as saying the Police looked on as the fire rage, in what may suggest official conspiracy.
This, it continued, was made evident as the Police officers prevented the victims from putting out the fire.
“After the fire stopped in the afternoon, the police and a demolition team returned overnight with a bulldozer,” the statement added.
It quoted eyewitnesses as saying “the police then started the fire again, forcibly evicting thousands from their homes,” adding that at no point were firefighters seen.
“Thousands of residents of Otodo Gbame watched in horror as their homes and possessions were destroyed literally overnight, and their futures plunged into uncertainty. What makes this especially shocking is that on Monday this community was granted an injunction preventing the Lagos State Government from proceeding with the planned demolition of the informal settlements along the State’s waterfronts – the authorities involved in this destruction are in flagrant violation of the law,” said Amnesty International Nigeria’s Researcher Morayo Adebayo.
“We are therefore urging the Lagos State authorities to immediately establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the shocking incident at Otodo Gbame, and provide adequate housing and compensation to all those who have lost their homes.”
Amnesty International said it spoke to eight residents who described what they saw, recalling that the chain of events began on Monday, November 7, with a “scuffle” between youths in Otodo Gbame and youths in a neighbouring community.
The “scuffle” escalated on Wednesday morning and resulted in a fire, even a statement by police said they had intervened to “restore calm”.
A 22-year-old woman said that on Wednesday morning, she saw youths setting fire to the homes, and that the police had prevented them from intervening or collecting their belongings:
“We [tried] to pack our things but the police [stopped] us, when we tried to pack; they [threatened to] shoot us […..] we all left empty-handed.”
By the afternoon of Wednesday, approximately a third of the community was already destroyed by the fire.
A witness told Amnesty International that the fire stopped around 1.30pm, although there was still smoke in the community.
Later that night, at around 11.30pm, the police returned with a bulldozer and began demolishing the remaining houses. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that they also set houses on fire as part of this forced eviction, which continued into late Thursday afternoon.
One witness also told Amnesty International that after the bulldozer demolished their houses, the police set the rubble on fire. Other eyewitnesses also said that the police were setting fire to houses that were still standing.
A 39-year-old Otodo Gbame resident described to Amnesty International the chaos that ensued when the unexpectedly, resumed overnight on Wednesday:
“Police were firing guns [into the air], everybody was running helter-skelter so they had to run for dear life […] They did not allow anybody to rescue his property, everything was burnt. I was only able to rescue [a] few [items]. Most of the property that was burnt is my wife’s property, clothes and children’s clothes. I have [a] TV and other things; they were burnt down.”
He also reported that he saw people falling into the water in the panic, including young children who were apparently unable to swim, a situation confirmed by other residents who told Amnesty International that several people drowned, although the organization could not verify this.
Another resident, a 28-year-old man said: “In the middle of the night, I was sleeping when somebody came to wake me up, [saying] that there was a bulldozer in the community. I had to come out and walk to a place where I can be safe and [watch] it. The bulldozer was working [clearing houses]. They [the demolition team] began to set fire to the houses they had cleared already.”
Amnesty International confirmed with the Public Relations Officer of Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA) that the agency was part of the demolition team sent to Otodo Gbame.
A police statement made on 10 November also confirmed that the “State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development would move in to demolish the remaining shanties and clear the rubble caused by the inferno.”
Residents told Amnesty International that on Friday morning, policemen returned to demolish the few remaining structures.
With police back at the site, there are growing fears that the neighbouring community called ‘Chisco Ikate’ will also be destroyed. A resident from this community told AI that a demolition team arrived Friday morning with a bulldozer.
On 31 October the Lagos State House Assembly passed a resolution calling on Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to halt the demolition plans, and on 7 November Lagos State High Court granted an interim injunction preven?ting the Lagos State Government from proceeding with the demolition of the informal settlements along the State’s waterfronts, including Otodo Gbame.
AI called for an immediate end to further destruction of houses in the Otodo Gbame and neighbouring waterfront areas, and a moratorium on mass evictions within Lagos State until there are regulations in place to ensure that such evictions comply with safeguards that are required under international law for any eviction to proceed.
These standards prohibit evicting people at night and the deliberate destruction of property including through arson. The deliberate burning of people’s houses and structures during the demolition exercise by the police may constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for which suspected perpetrators must be brought to justice as a matter of urgency.
“The wave of mass forced evictions across Lagos’ waterfront communities is shattering lives. We are calling for the State authorities to respect their obligations under international law by stopping these demolitions, and providing alternative housing for all those already made homeless,” said Morayo Adebayo.