On Sunday, the 9th of April 2016, armed policemen and other paramilitary agents under the aegis of the Lagos State Government visited the settlement of Otodo-Gbame.
That day, they set fire to what was left of it, chasing its inhabitants from their homestead for what now looks like the final time.
Images have since emerged in the news and on social media.
We have seen young men with bullet wounds, pregnant women and the unborn in rickety boats — an entire community floating in the Lagos lagoon as their homes burned in the distance.
Otodo-Gbame, egun for ‘houses built in the swamp’, is an ancestral fishing settlement situated on the edge of the Lekki Pennisula, on the banks of the Lagos Lagoon.
Most of the people make a living from fishing, a way of life that has defined them since their ancestors settled there in the 1800s.
The men, who are the primary fishers, spend most of their day in the Lagos Lagoon.
By tradition, the day’s catch is then sold to their wives who sell them in surrounding communities and markets as far as Ita-Faji and Ogun State.
Ahisu Celestine is a native of Otodo-Gbame and a graduate of Lagos State University who is the youth leader of his people and the face of his community’s struggle against the higher ups.
According to him, their fore-bearers moved there from Badagry to flee attacks from the British and the prospect of being sold into slavery.
Now they face similar attacks, albeit from familiar faces and the people who should protect them.
According to Celestine, the 9th of April was simply the most prominent battle in a war that has been on-going since 2014.
For the better part of the past three years, there has been an ongoing tussle between the Lagos State Government and a people who want little more than to live in a home that has been theirs for as long as their fathers can remember.
It started on the 11th of November 2014, “that was the first day we had an attack from a neighbouring community, the Elegushi”, Celestine begins.
“There’s a guy called Wasiu Elegushi. He wrote a short notice that was not signed by the royal family”, he says.
“The notice said within one week, we should move out because they want to sell sand. I have a copy of that notice”
The Elegushi are an ancient royal family that have ruled over the area known as Ikate since 1606. In recent times, the kingdom has gained more influence as large areas of Ikate-land have become prime real estate.
“We called their elders to tell them what happened.” Celestine continues. “What they told us was that they did not know anything about it”.
“Before the one week elapsed, the guy brought thugs, numbering about 70 with guns and machetes. We were unarmed. This thing led to the death of one of our residents, a guy from Calabar named . They shot him”
The thugs came again, a few days later on November 17, killing one of their people called Wesu Fazir. He lived behind Celestine’s house.
The matter was reported to the police and the residents filed a law suit through their Baale, a local community leader. The case was transferred to the Lagos State High Court, Igbosere where it was pending. Wasiu was arrested and held in Panti.
Weeks after, he was out, walking the same streets he had before sanctioning the death of two Otodo-Gbame residents.
“We don’t know how it happened” Celestine says, gesticulating angrily with his arms stretched out. “They just used their power as a kingdom to get him released”
A relative calm followed. There were no attacks on Otodo Gbame for the better part of two years, until on October 9, 2016, Governor Ambode issued a statement stating that all water-front communities in Lagos would be demolished.
“Why do they want to this? We are indigenes of Lagos! Is it because our job is fishing that they want to pursue us”, Celestine asks in the course of our conversation. “They’ve done this kind of thing to Maroko people, at the end, na to share the land”
He should know. In the years before Maroko was destroyed to give way to what is now the prime real estate of large parts of Victoria Island and the Lekki Pennisula, Celestine attended school there, at Moba Primary School.
After the demolition, the school was moved and re-named Itedo Primary School.
To avert facing the same fate, the Otodo-Gbame joined forces with The Nigerian Slum and Informal Settlement Federation (also known simply as The Federation), and made monthly contributions to finance their struggle.
They wrote to the Lagos State government making their case for why, as indigenes of the state, they should not be displaced.
According to Celestine, his people have been voting in elections since the beginning of civilian rule and politicians had come to their community in the past to canvass votes.
They have the voter cards to prove this.
“We have a representative from community, , he’s from . He represents us in the Lagos State House of Assembly. There’s another person from in the National Assembly. We have our voters card. We cited all these things”, he explains.
The Lagos State government chose not to entertain their pleas so, Celestine says, they filed a suit seeking an injunction.
“The Injunction was granted saying that the demolition of all waterfront communities should be on hold” he said, “We were happy that as this injunction was granted, there would be no problem”
There is a pattern to most land disputes in Lagos, especially as far as they involve indigent communities. It begins with royalty.
The Lagos State government affords a special status of recognition to certain kings and obas, one of which is the Oba of Elegushi.
These Obas often enforce dominion over smaller neighbouring communities, who even though they have Baales or local heads, do not have any obas recognised by the government.
Where they try and this fails, the larger, stronger community marginalises their smaller peers, instigating its residents against them by labelling them outsiders and raising questions about their history and way of life.
This is what happened in Otodo-Gbame.
“We saw new faces in our community” Celestine says. “Fight just happened somewhere. Our Baale called the police (to tell them), ‘fight is happening at the extreme end of MTN’, we don’t know what happened”.
'MTN' is a small shantytown that stands between the main access road to both communities and Otodo-Gbame. According to Celestine, his people leased out the land to the residents in return for isakole (tribute).
The purpose was to provide a place where domestic and menial workers in the more opulent Lekki axis could erect small structures to live in.
“They began using them against us”, Celestine says.
When the police responded to their call, they arrested 27 members of the community, including the Baale.
When Pulse visited Otodo-Gbame, we met few residents of MTN who had found a way to remain there, despite their homes being destroyed.
The Balogun or Security Officer of the community claims that youth from Otodo-Gbame had attacked the community in the recent past..
One such instance was cited. In November 2016, young men from Otodo-Gbame are alleged to have kidnapped and tortured a young man, Hakeem, from MTN.
Celestine denies this, “That’s a fallacy. It is an untrue statement. They want to smear our reputation. We gave them the land, why would we want to attack them?”
Days after the attack, while they were expecting the Baale, on the 9th of November 2016, security agents visited the community, armed with weapons and fuel, with the support of armed thugs wearing reflective vests.
“When we tried to stop them, they said it was order from above, that the Governor Ambode is aware of it” Celestine says.
“When the fire started from the extreme end, nobody could stop it because they were shooting sporadically” he adds, “thugs were following them with locally made pistols. We had to run for our dear lives”
The residents jumped into the water and swam into the lagoon to safety. Some were tenants who could not swim. They were not as lucky as their patrons.
“We had about 15 bodies floating in the water. We were able to recover about 5 or 6.” he adds. “Some of them were togolese, some were our people from the Egun tribe”
That night, excavators came to finish the job, demolishing structures built with cement blocks such as the community school and health centre.
All these happened despite an existing court injunction.
Celestine says his people appealed to the courts after the incident.
Months after, on March 17, 2017, the two parties were directed to the Lagos Multi-Door Court-House to explore mediation.
The first meeting was unsuccessful, and the proceedings were adjourned to the 29th of March.
Despite this, security agents from the government and thugs from the Elegushi continued to attack the community in spurts.
The attack on the 9th of April was the death blow.
“That was the day we left the community” Celestine says, suddenly downcast at the thought of that night. “All the roads leading out were blocked, that's why we were surprised”. “People were moving away in tears, leaving their property”, he mutters under his breath.
Celestine lived in Otodo-Gbame with his wife, an indigene of Ebonyi, and three children; Chukwuemeka, Chukwuebuka and Senami.
When the attacks started in 2016, he relocated them to Ibadan, but they returned, saying this was their home and they would remain as long as they could.
“When they started firing the teargas, I saw my children sneezing. crying. I had to jump inside the water. I held my children and my wife” he gestures, as if to wrap his arms around his family. “I paddled my canoe away”.
In the time since this attack, despite the public outcry that followed, the Lagos State government has not reached out to the people of Otodo-Gbame.
Statements issued from the office of the Governor have claimed that the community was destroyed because the state had strong intelligence reports that militants had moved into the area in preparation to launch attacks in Lekki and the Victoria Island axis.
There has been no information or evidence to support this. Not a single gun was recovered at the scene of the demolition.
In the weeks since, it has emerged that the land on which Otodo-Gbame stood will soon be home to the high-rises that stand defiantly in the distance.
The Elegushi Royal Family has reportedly revealed plans to establish a $300 million new Imperial International Business City (IIBC).
The new 200 hectare city will be built on reclaimed lands and dredged areas of the Lagos Lagoon within the kingdom. It will also be the first eco-friendly smart business city in Africa.
To the government, this must make sense. It is a policy of displacing poor indigent communities in place for new, complex structures as it continues its aggressive push to turn this congested home of over 20 million people into what successive governors have called a ‘Mega City’.
It has happened in the past, in Maroko, Badia and Kosofe. Otodo-Gbame is not a unique case, it is just the main front in the war against tyranny and class oppression.
The case against the Lagos State government remains pending in court. Since the final demolition of their homes in March, residents have attended the court on all dates to present their case.
It is a simple one; a loss of their homes and livelihoods, against whatever reasons the government can muster to explain its actions.
The Just Empower Initiative estimates that 30,000 people have been displaced by the demolition. About 300,000 face the same fate if the state government gets its way with the remaining waterfront communities.
With help from JEI, The Federation, as well as well-meaning Nigerians, the displaced residents of Otodo-Gbame have been relocated into 16 water-front communities across Lagos.
While they have temporary roofs over their heads, some of them have had difficulty integrating into these communities.
Their hosts have been wholly welcoming but it will take some time before the Otodo-Gbame can make a place for themselves and return to their regular way of living.
All these while these communities face the threat of destruction themselves.
When asked what he would like to tell the Lagos State governor if he got the opportunity, Celestine Ahisu said all they wanted was to go home to a place where they once had roofs over their heads.
Considering that the right to own immovable property is guaranteed by our nation’s laws, it is certainly not too much to ask.