Nigeria's urban renewal is trying to bulldoze human rights
The Guardian, Celestine Akpobari
Having to stand by and watch helplessly as bulldozers destroy home and possessions is probably one of the hardest things any person could endure. Yet that threat looms for more than 200,000 people who live on the waterfront of Port Harcourt, in Rivers State, Nigeria. And for some – like Love Bassett Okpadio – it has already become a reality.
Okpadio used to live in Njemanze, an informal settlement on Port Harcourt's waterfronts, with her husband and five children. In August 2009, Okpadio and her family were forcibly evicted from their home which was demolished under state authorities' orders.
She received no eviction notice, no compensation and no alternative accommodation. Today she and some of her family are living with her sister in another home in another part of the waterfront. Most of the 13,000 residents have found other accommodation but some of them remain homeless or are living in makeshift inadequate structures in other parts of the waterfront.
As a member of the community, I have seen women being beaten by security forces as they tried to save their possessions from the bulldozers, people's businesses destroyed, their lives wrecked and their human rights violated. In October last year for example, I witnessed security forces fire into a crowd of peaceful protesters at the Bundu waterfront. At least 12 people were seriously injured and one person killed. One year on and there has been no investigation into the use of force by security forces, and no justice for the victims.
Rather than the authorities seeking to protect the local residents' basic right to housing, they are actually planning to demolish even more homes. This is all part a major urban redevelopment programme known as the Greater Port Harcourt Master Plan.
Close to the land where Okpadio's house used to be is a large, glitzy eight-screen cinema complex which is part of the Silverbird Showtime project. As well as the cinema, Silverbird's plans include a hotel, a theatre and a shopping mall complex. This commercial entity has signed a memorandum of understanding with the local authorities to keep a 2km radius around their plans unencumbered by homes. As a result, people's houses are being demolished to make the place look tidy for Showtime's commercial ventures.
At the moment 13,000 people have been evicted in connection with Silverbird's plans and another community is at risk. But according to one developer, this is just the start. The local government already has other urban renewal plans under way as part of the Master Plan, but the residents have been given no information about what will happen to the land. All that is clear is that shortly, bulldozers will be tearing down their homes.
I have seen the impact of these demolitions and it galls me that the authorities can pay such little attention to the basic human rights of all these people. In addition to making them homeless, the excessive force used to stop peaceful protests is a massive violation of rights.
The Rivers State government has claimed it has compensated the landowners with a buyout scheme. However most of those who own the land are not tenants. Nothing has been provided for the tenants who are living there – a clear infringement on the basic right to adequate housing. As such, I – along with other local activists and Amnesty International – will continue to appeal to the authorities to put a stop to this practice. Urban renewal cannot come at the expense of human rights.
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