By Paola Totaro and Matthew Ponsford
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 300,000 people face eviction and could be left homeless as prime waterfront land in Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos, is cleared of shanty towns to make way for luxury redevelopment, campaigners said on Friday.
State-ordered demolitions and fighting between rival communities this week forced thousands of residents of Otodo Gbame slum to take to boats on the Lagos Lagoon and left an estimated 30,000 residents without shelter, residents and a rights group said.
According to the Nigerian Slum and Informal Settlement Federation (NSISF), a network of activists working in Nigerian slum communities, some 300,000 people face eviction, many of whom have lived on the shores of the lake for more than a century.
Hundreds of residents spent last night sleeping in wooden canoes on the water with nowhere else to go, Andrew Maki, co-director of Lagos-based legal campaign group Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI) said by phone.
"With over 30,000 residents of Otodo Gbame already homeless there is presently a humanitarian disaster in Lagos," he said. "It is almost unthinkable to calculate the implications of that number growing tenfold to 300,000. Where would they sleep? Who will feed them?"
Speaking by mobile phone, people on boats told Thomson Reuters Foundation they were surviving on food and clean water brought to them by other waterfront communities.
The Governor of Lagos state, Akinwunmi Ambode, announced the "demolition of all the shanties" around the creeks and waterways of Lagos State on Oct 9, citing public health and safety concerns.
Despite a High Court order to stop evictions issued on Nov. 7, more than 40 slum communities who live on Lagos Lagoon now face eviction, said Maki.
"This forced eviction makes abundantly clear that Governor Ambode's threat to demolish all waterfront communities across Lagos State is very real," he said.
A spokeswoman for Lagos police told Reuters on Thursday officers had arrested several people for setting fires but denied claims by JEI that the police had destroyed buildings.
'POOREST OF THE POOR'
Residents of the Otodo Gbame community, primarily fishermen who belong to the linguistic minority, the Egun, used mobile phones to film fires and said police had also used tear gas to drive them toward the water.
"They are the poorest of the poor... their land is in one of the richest areas of the city. It is wanted for redevelopment and will be walled off," Maki said.
JEI said it had interviewed more than two dozen eyewitness who said police set fire to houses to force residents out early on Thursday morning. Bulldozers were filmed pulling down makeshift homes.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation was unable to reach the governor's office or Lagos police by phone or email.
Maki said bulldozers had arrived at a much smaller community neighbouring Otodo Gbame, known as "Ikate back gate" on Friday morning and residents had been told by police that they had three hours to vacate their homes before demolition began.
He said this indicated that the demolition of Otodo Gbame may be part of a broader "slum clearing" effort.
In recent years, the area around Otodo Gbame, known as Lekki, has attracted investors who have built waterside apartments and commercial districts, pushing out fishing communities, according to a statement by JEI.
The high court order restrained demolition of "any of the applicants' homes, business premises, properties of community facilities in waterfront communities across Lagos State ..."
It followed Governor Ambode's statement that the evictions were necessary for "security" reasons - citing a kidnapping from a nearby private school.
Ambode identified the shanty-towns as "hideouts" for the suspected kidnappers and the demolitions as necessary for "the safety of our children and all Lagosians".
The state's Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Steve Ayorinde, said the demolition formed part of the government's policy of "removal of environmental infractions and nuisances across the state".
"LAW-ABIDING, HARD-WORKING URBAN POOR"
In a statement last month, NSISF rejected the government's characterization of the waterfront communities as "the abode of miscreants/street-urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers".
NSISF said residents are law-abiding, hard-working urban poor, most of whom are fishermen and women engaged in fish smoking and fish selling.
"We contribute meaningfully to the economy of Lagos; indeed, the urban poor are the engine of the economy. We pay taxes, levies, rates and charges to the local and state governments," it added.
The clearing of waterfront slums in Lagos comes just weeks after 193 countries agreed the New Urban Agenda at a U.N. summit in Quito, Ecuador, a policy document that aims to guide the growth of cities in the 21st century as well as enshrine humanitarian rights for the urban poor.
(Editing by Jo Griffin and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)