Makoko demolitions prompt accusations of institutionalised elitism in urban planning

Home to over 80,000 people, Makoko’s stilt-supported timber dwellings have long been an urban motif along the city’s inland shoreline – illustrative of the tough but vibrant life of Lagos. Yet, with a decision that simultaneously flouted international human rights conventions, encroached on federal jurisdiction and opened the floodgates of public scrutiny, the partial demolition of this 100-year-old shanty settlement began on July 16, leaving thousands of residents homeless and resulting in the death of a community leader.

Much speculation surrounds the preservation of the community due to stark inconsistencies in statements from the public office. Even while eviction notices were being issued, it appears the community will be allowed to continue living on water – so long as no further expansion occurs. There are also whispers of plans to “integrate them into the overall physical planning…of the Lagos megacity” through what some are calling Africa’s Venice. Indeed, ongoing talks with community leaders and the approval of an UNDP-sponsored floating school suggest this may be the case. However, the official 72-hour eviction notice dated July 12 gave no indication of any such integration initiatives. Instead, it explicitly stated the imperative to “beautify the Lagos waterfront” and rid the landscape of “unwholesome structures” and the accompanying “environmental nuisance (and) security risks”. Neither was any provision for resettlement made for those who lost their homes. Ironically, the governor warned the community to be wary of humanitarians who personally profited from foreign grants “under the guise of helping them”. Given the open derision, it is difficult to assess how far talks happening behind closed doors can be regarded as a consultative process towards cooperative community development.

This is not the first time demolition exercises have been carried out in Makoko and other waterborne communities. It exemplifies the zero-tolerance policy adopted by a government keen to reconstitute order into the space and culture of Lagos – in so doing, giving the city the face-lift needed to secure its world city status. Risks to flooding have been used to support forced evictions, but this seems amiss as no other areas are being targeted as aggressively. This seeming discrimination has prompted accusations of institutionalised elitism in urban planning. With wealthier communes just across the lagoon in Victoria Island, the community also faces risks of displacement by gentrification. Yet Kunle Adeyemi, the Netherlands-based architect behind the floating school, casts doubt on such judgments, arguing that “the elitist calls are not unfounded but they are unfair. Yes, the city can always do more for the poor. Not everyone will be able to afford what is proposed. This is a question of slum upgrading. It is not about the individuals being able to support all aspects of the upgrades.”

Despite having clear challenges, Makoko is far from a drain on the city’s resources and could afford a site for innovative low-cost housing coproduction. Isi Etomi, an architect who has worked on upgrading projects with the community since 2009 speaks of its considerable contributions: “Makoko is very peculiar in the sense that even though it is spatially disconnected, it is very much connected to the city in terms of its industry. They supply Lagos with timber, fish, sand and even salt. You expect it to be a disjointed village on the city margins, but you see people with mobile phones in canoes.”

Makoko’s fate will hang in the balance until city administrators recognise its potential to engender prosperity. For now it perches precariously on prime waterfront development, with only its potential to be converted to a Venetian replica and recreational centre excusing its existence.

Ore Disu is an urban researcher and analyst based in London


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project


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