Demolitions? Nothing New in Nigeria.

By Tobi

Image: Ventures Africa

Image: Ventures Africa

Let's be honest, demolitions are not strange occurrences in Nigeria. You would be startled by the amount of demolitions Nigerian governments, both past and present, have in the bag — most of which have been unlawfully executed with no compensation and, consequently, led to an impoverishment of lives and a destruction of futures.

So when it comes to demolitions? They do this.

The difference this time, however, is that it hit closer to home. Little wonder, then, that Nigerians, especially Lagos Island inhabitants, took to social media to express their merited rage over the demolition of Nuli Juices, Cakes and Nuts, and the Drug Store. These were three legal SMEs located on Rumens Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, and they were demolished on Thursday September 1st, 2016. There are conflicting reports on the sequence of events leading to the demolition, with some claims that the occupants had been given prior notice. The owners of the businesses refute those claims and assert that both the Lagos State Government and the landlord - from whom they acquired the lease for their stores - had failed to communicate neither a notice to evacuate nor a warrant of distress. The buildings were demolished on the premise of dues owed to the government by the landlord, not the occupiers — that is, the founders of the demolished businesses. The landlord reportedly received letters from the government on several occasions, and as a result of his/her lack of response and action, the government acted according to their discretion.

Countering initial motives identified above, the government issued a statement on Saturday September 3rd arguing that the demolition was carried out due to a failure to comply with construction regulations, and as part of an ongoing effort to “sanitise” Lagos. This absurd justification is, similarly, nothing new, and has been at the root of the various demolitions in Nigeria since the 1920s.

Whatever the justification, it is inhumane and irresponsible to demolish the buildings and, beyond that, the dreams, businesses, and income streams of hardworking Nigerians, given the current tempestuous economic climate in the country and the struggle for survival many enterprises face. As earlier noted, this is unfortunately a normal situation in Nigeria - a country where the property rights of common people are little more than an ideal, a concept more familiar to the elite who, quite frankly, run the country.

Dismayed by the event, a friend and I discussed the issue, and the following arguments and counterarguments, some of which are based on assumptions, were noted:

The Lagos State Urban and Regional Planning and Development Law 2010 instructs a 2 days Contravention notice and a 7 day Demolition notice ought to be served prior to the removal of any structure.”

Indeed, the landlord had a legal obligation to the government and owed a huge sum of money. On that note, there were grounds for the government to seek means to recover its funds. However, this could have been handled in others ways, including a court filing. Inasmuch as the government had the right to acquire the funds owed, there is a greater responsibility to the people, as citizens of Nigeria. They do say that democracy is for the people and by the people, right? The welfare of Nigerian citizens ought to supersede any financial, economic, or legal incentives of demolition. Not only is this a failure on the part of the government to protect its people, it is a violation of human rights. The tenants also had a right to know about the process.

“Was there an obligation to inform the third party, especially if the building was subcontracted?”

As mentioned earlier, the government had sent several letters of notice to the landlord of the property prior to the demolition. However, the landlord and the tenants are completely different stakeholders. Assuming that the businesses located in the premises were legally registered with the government and diligently paying taxes, it is not unreasonable to question whether the government carried out its due diligence prior to running the buildings down. Or is that expecting too much of the Lagos State Government? You know your people, you know your leaders; but, giving the benefit of doubt, wouldn’t surveyors have at least visited the premises prior to the demolition? Unless, again, this is expecting too much of the Government.

“Perhaps, there are no laws to govern the third party?”

Possibly. However, in a country like Nigeria where laws do exist but are not adhered to, as seen in this case, laws are nothing more than fancy words that serve as a mirage for weak, seemingly democratic institutions. Further precipitated by a broken judiciary and a guise of due diligence, the political elite in Nigeria have the upper hand over the laws that "govern" the country. So, even if these laws do exist, they are as good as non-existent laws.

“So, what happens next? What is the economic sense in the demolition?”

Well, this is as uncertain as the reports from the government claiming a lack of involvement in the demolition and, subsequently identifying a series of incentives. However, I offer my two cents, based on the past demolitions authorised by government administrations in Nigeria, particularly the Lagos State Government. The properties demolished were located in a highbrow area of Lagos Island - Ikoyi. For decades, Ikoyi has served as the most expensive real estate in Lagos. While, at surface level, it makes no economic sense to demolish buildings worth millions of Naira, the potential value of the property, when redeveloped and scaled to the taste of the prospective upper middle class Nigerian, is highly likely to exceed the cost of demolition and reconstruction. In the long run, the government does benefit from the rent gap and the masked process of gentrification. As always, the people and businesses evicted are left to find their feet on their own. Unfortunately, this is nothing new in Nigeria.

Nevertheless, this case is peculiar because, to some extent, the affected parties have a voice, and they have used it. Demolitions in Lagos, though initially in the form of slum clearance, have been in occurrence since the early 1920s, during colonial rule. Admittedly, they were executed fairly with prior notice tendered and replacement property offered. Since the 1970s, with a bunch of power-happy elites and the administration of extractive institutions, demolitions have persisted in Lagos. Even more rampant over the last decade, thousands of businesses have been lost in the urban renewal schemes of the government, especially in districts such as Alade, Oshodi, and Ajegunle - host to lower income households. While the issue of illegal and unfair demolitions has finally gained media attention, it is important to note that it needed not have affected ‘us’ or a friend, or mutual friend, for people to have taken action and raised their voice.

The issue of government-sanctioned demolitions in Nigeria is under-reported, and more light will be shed in a series that will be featured on TBBNQ Society.