Sometime last week, the Norwegian Ambassador to Nigeria visited the rarely remarked Otodo Gbame, a fishing settlement at the Lagos waterfronts. This foreign leader had gone there to assess what has become an emerging refugee crisis in the Otodo Gbame community and to offer them his encouragement. When we wonder why the West seems to be one step ahead of us, this is one of the reasons. They visit our people to assess and study our problems and they formulate their policies to suit the facts they have learned. While they do these, we exert our energy on directionless dramas about uniforms and certificates, proudly hosted by our dysfunctional National Assembly.
It is not surprising that our own leaders are missing from the scene when one of theirs, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, is responsible for the crisis. The hitherto peaceful community of Otodo Gbame has been under siege by the Lagos State government since October 2016 as the people battled with the government in court to save their homes. In March 2017, the government finally invaded with the full force of bulldozers and weapons: wreaking havoc, destroying homes and property, threatening people with live weapons, and injuring some. Those who protested were arrested and detained: including the elderly. These events would have passed with little mention – another daily exercise of government power in Nigeria – but for the continuous publicity of the issues by the good people at Justice & Empowerment Initiatives. After all, this is the country where the military ‘accidentally’ bombed a displaced persons camp and business proceeded as usual in the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
And now, let us ignore the law that Mr Ambode’s adventures in Otodo Gbame were executed in contravention of constitutional fundamental human rights. Let us ignore the fact that the demolitions were carried out in violation of an existing court order against the Lagos State government. The mere possibility that a humanitarian crisis has been triggered should be cause for general concern. We have sufficient problems in the North East, Southern Kaduna, the Middle Belt, and in the Delta region without creating more in Lagos.
Lagosians applauded Mr Ambode for fixing streetlights and building pedestrian bridges, while remaining silent as he displaced thousands. We, the middle class, accept this executive recklessness in the name of ‘development.’ Yet, we wonder why Nigeria seems cursed: why our development is unsustainable. We wonder why our bridges and streetlights keep getting vandalised, why we keep paying foreigners millions of dollars to rebuild every year. We wonder because we forget the people and communities we destroyed in order to build these things.
There is a connection between our nonchalance for the fate of the poor and underprivileged and the continuing stagnation of Nigeria. Development at a cost of humanity is not just evil but also unsustainable. You cannot maintain a society through the suppression of a part of the population and have peace. As long as we continue this type of ‘development’, then we should expect those whose homes and businesses we destroyed to come back and destroy our cities. The people have to come first. We cannot build a city at the expense of the people and expect it to work. Build the people, and the city will rise. True development is humane.
When we ignore the oppressed, we become fearful of our own environment. We start trying to manage crime and conflict by surrendering more authority to office holders and the police. Houses are walled. Estates are gated. ‘Public’ parks are under lock. We demarcate society. In the end, those who are prosperous and happy do not feel safe and cannot walk freely on the streets; those who walk the streets freely are not prosperous and happy. This is the future that Ambode is continuing to build in Lagos.
The opposition political parties – if we really have any – have wasted an opportunity to articulate their policy divergence. Ambode’s actions in Otodo Gbame go against principles of good governance, rule of law, and humanity. This is the chance for an opposition party to caution the ruling party: for defying a court order and for creating an internal refugee crisis. But our opposition parties focus more on capturing government power at some future date than in forcing the ruling government to adjust policies for the benefit of the people in the present. Worse, the opposition often has the same governance mentality as the ruling party, departing only on power sharing arrangements. We are caught between six of one and half a dozen of the other. It is then no surprise that we focus on and attack personalities, not their policy ideas.
And so, Mr Ambode continues to inaugurate infrastructure and build for the rich—not because only the rich will use the infrastructure, but because poorest Nigerians pay the costs of this development. The rest of us, middle class, applaud this approach. We ignore the fact that the poor are the majority in Nigeria—up to 70 per cent of the population. The Nigerian poor are mostly hardworking and enterprising, but we keep them poor through systemic bad governance: like building for the rich.
Or as Funmi Iyanda says: to be poor is the only real crime in Nigeria.
Mr Ambode still has a lot of learning to do if he truly wants to leave a legacy. As things stand, his administration is a kaleidoscope of egoistic infrastructure commissions, lacking rhyme or reason and unsustainable for human development in the long term. He seems to be locked into an imaginary competition with his predecessor, one where governance points are awarded for roads, bridges and streetlights. Life would be easier if the governor sets aside his political insecurities and, as Oby Ezekwesili advised on this issue: ‘study the well-documented case of Morocco and urban slums regeneration. Lessons abound. Pick some.’
Nigeria is where we pay governors and their special advisers in huge resources and still end up having to provide them advice.
But I doubt if the governor of Lagos understands or cares about human development and regenerative policies. As for the fate of the urban poor, Ambode’s social welfare policy is: Why are they living in the slums when they can rent one of those nice flats in Lekki?
Originally published in slightly modified form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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