Profiting from the plight of Makoko-Iwaya waterfront community in Lagos

Makoko Ferry

The quest for more tourist centers in Lagos State, as a means of earning foreign exchange may have driven many to suggest the remodeling of Makoko/Iwaya waterfront regardless of the feeling of the residents who want to remain the way they are to preserve “what our forefathers left for us.”

The predisposition of these residents however run contrary to official calculations that the occupants may either be forcefully ejected or resettled by the government in its plan to make the environment align with the Lagos city mega project.

Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Community is one of the largest low-income communities in the metropolitan area of Lagos. It is a community that enjoys frontage to the Lagos Lagoon and rich history in aquatic trading and harmonious relationship with all the neighboring communities. It comprises of settlements on land and lagoon with diverse population of Egun, Ilaje, Ijaw and Yoruba extractions. Its economic structure revolves around the use of water predominantly for fishing, wood logging and boat making.

In the recent past, the community has been at the brink of extermination by both natural and man-made forces.   Last year the Akinwumi Ambode government moved against shanties on the Lagoon shoreline bringing down more than 800 in its wake. The areas affected were the Lekki axis. Makoko was saved because of court injunction that restrained further onslaught on these shanties.

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, 9 November 2016, a gang of boys had entered Otodo Gbame community, a fishing settlement on the edge of the Lagos Lagoon in Lekki Phase I, made up predominantly of Eguns and other ethnic minorities in Lagos and began setting fire to houses in the community.

The police reportedly arrived the scene shortly thereafter but rather than address the situation, allegedly opted to lend assistance to the spreading of the fire.

A Rights Activist, Megan Chapman, Co-Director of Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), said that the police shot into the community and chased away persons who were bringing water to put out the fire.

It was when help from other Egun communities around Lagos Lagoon such as Makoko and Oke Ira Nla arrived that residents succeeded to quench the fire and the police turned back.

“By the time JEI arrived in the Otodo Gbame, about a third of the community, an estimated 800 structures had been razed to the ground and fires were still smoldering across the community. An estimated 10,000 people rendered homeless in a matter of hours tried to recover what properties they could and dozens of people huddled in boats off the shore of the community,” Chapman said.

Makoko community could have been affected then but were spared by the law.

The government however has been circumspect in dealing with the issue of demolishing the structures especially because of judicial injunctions. Besides, the Egun people, occupiers of these shorelines seem very adamant and may-be recalcitrant and very unwilling to be resettled.

In 2012, when former governor Babatunde Fashola moved against Makoko, the residents cried foul, alerting of plans by Fahola to reclaim the place for high net worth Nigerians to acquire like Maroko. They said that excuse by the government to curb expansion into the Lagoon was purely a smokescreen.

But the government was not deterred.  Fashola said the intervention had become necessary to halt the continuous expansion of the community into the lagoon with its negative impact on the environment.

Addressing protesting Makoko residents who came to the Lagos House, Ikeja to appeal for a reconsideration of the decision to demolish parts of the fishing community, Fashola said that while the state government was finding a solution for residents within the recognized boundaries, it would not allow further expansion of the community.

He explained that rather than maintain the established boundary, what had happened over the years was a rash of illegal shanties, which expanded towards the Third Mainland Bridge and underneath the high tension electricity cables across the area.

Expressing willingness to meet with genuine representatives of the community, Fashola advised them to be careful of people who are profiting from their difficult situation. He also advised the community to resist being used by people who want to take advantage of them adding that some people were already collecting grants from international communities under that guise.

“The truth must be told; some people are benefiting from your difficulty and that is the truth. They are taking advantage of you in the guise of being your friends. They are taking all sorts of grants purporting to help you but it never gets to you. But as your government, we understand the challenges you face there and we are working to solve them”, the governor said.

The government was also uncomfortable with the piling of saw dust on the lagoon, discharging wastes in it and blocking of the discharge points for storm water which had contributed to the flooding in places like Bariga, Shomolu, Ebute-Metta, Ogudu, Owode, Ajegunle and Ikorodu, among others.

However, the government’s explanation appears not in sync with the people. Taiwo Shemede, son of the Baale of the fishing community told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY that official pronouncements have never been in tandem with actions.

“We know what they want. They have been looking for a way to take over this place. They want to do with this place what they did with Maroko. It is only because we don’t have people to speak for us,” he lamented.

However contrary to Shemede’s position of helplessness of the community, there are civil rights Lawyers that speak on their behalf. One of them is Barrister Felix Morka the Executive Director of Social Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC), a non-governmental organization. The organization was established in May 1995 in Lagos. The founder claims it is a non- partisan organization set up to provide succor for common people.

The ties between this Lawyer and the community seem to run deep. Presently the community does not freely give information to outsiders except with the express permission of Morka.

Also following the seeming refusal of the community to relocate from the settlement, a remodeling plan was presented by Morka and some groups to the government to give the area a new look. The development initiative was developed by the Social and Economic Rights Action Center, (SERAC), Heinrich Boell Foundation and other non-governmental organizations in collaboration with residents of the community.

Morka stated that the organizations went to work following the reactions of the residents of the waterfront to a demolition by the state government. According to him, environmental experts then carried out a research on the community showing the remarkable culture and the historical antecedents of the fishing community.

He explained that the plan was a product of a community-led and people-centered development model expressing the hope that the development model when presented to the state government would be adopted.

The government is yet to be categorical on this suggested remodeling plan.  However most Lagosians believe that adopting such a plan may simply be a way of enriching some individuals when the state government is in a better position to handle such a matter.

John Barber, a Lagos resident, told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY that what Fashola said about some people profiting from the plight of the community from international bodies is not out of place.

He said that although many go to them in the name of helping them, it may just one of those antics of Nigerians to reap from people’s sufferings.  He said he was in support of the plan to relocate the community because of the danger the dirty environment poses to the health of Lagosians.

Also Peter Isaka, a resident close to Makoko said when he heared people speaking in favour of the community to draw international attention, he knew they were up to something.

“Don’t get me wrong. There are genuine people defending them. But I see some who are purely fake just looking for how they will use them to make cheap money from international bodies.

“You are not going there to help them, like train their children, take care of the poor among them and to see how you can improve their conditions. But you go there to ask for money from them to take the government to court. Does it make sense,” he asked?

For analysts, a trip to the Makoko waterfront community presents a disgusting site. It also gives a feeling that the community is neglected or unwanted. A first time visitor to the area will always find it disgusting to go through the dirty stinking canal waters, inhaling polluted air and seeing all manner of decomposing rodents, human wastes and the likes, floating on the water with a sinking feeling of throwing up.

Along the water street, there are shanties on either side with several petty provision stores, barbers shop, and other small businesses.  To a stranger, it is a squalour community that is unfit for human habitation, but to the dwellers of this slum, it is a way of life perfect and suitable for them, something like “paradise on earth.”

The Makoko slums exist in their own peculiar world. Nicknamed albeit with a heavy sense of irony, the Venice of Africa, the oily waters provide a way of life for the fishing community but also the greatest dangers, spreading disease through the overcrowded population.

Sprawling out from what was originally a small village in the 18th century, it has been consumed by Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.

The Makoko community dwellers possess a high degree of vulnerability to epidemics and natural disaster due to their immediate environment. The living conditions there are in direct contrast to the state government’s perceived efforts in the last 16 years, to remodel Lagos to which billions of Naira has been sunk. It is one of the 42 blighted communities identified in 1984 for intervention by the Lagos State government in its attempt to improve living conditions of the people.


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