Over 200,000 people living in shantytowns on the waterfront in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State, southern Nigeria, could be forcibly evicted if local authorities carry out their threat to demolish the settlements, say human rights group Amnesty International and local activists.
"I will demolish [the] waterfronts. All of them," Rivers State Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi told reporters on 27 October. Residents are considered "temporary occupants" and government is only legally required to give seven days' notice to vacate, he said, adding demolitions are needed to reduce crime in the area and make way for new developments.
In a report in October 2011 Amnesty said if people are forcibly evicted without adequate consultation, sufficient notice, compensation or alternative accommodation, many will be left homeless and risk losing their livelihoods.
Despite Amaechi's statements, Rivers State's Commissioner for Urban Development, Tammy Danagogo, said notice will be given and consultations will take place before people are asked to move.
Residents are unconvinced. "There is no proper information - we don't have any idea of when they will demolish," said Fubara Samuel, a waterfront resident and housing rights activist.
Njemanze, a waterfront community of 17,000 near Abonnema Wharf, was demolished in August 2009, but only some residents received few days' notice. "Njemanze showed they can [demolish] without warning. You know it will happen, but you don't know when, and it's the same for people at Abonnema Wharf. How do you prepare for that if you don't know where to go?" said Aster Van Kregten, a researcher at Amnesty International.
Danagogo told IRIN that low-cost housing will be made available to those who need it. But Amnesty International reported that when Njemanze was demolished no alternative accommodation was offered and many children were left homeless, some of whom still live under a flyover.
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Photo: Wendy Bruere/IRIN
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In many cases, families broke up as parents returned to villages while the youths stayed in Port Harcourt, Kregten said. "Young girls who used to live with their families in Njemanze are now earning a living in prostitution."
Activists also doubt promises that the area will be developed - after two years the land where Njemanze used to be is still vacant. "People used to live there, now it is a rubbish dump," Samuel said.
"Nobody is against development, but we need to know what they will use [the land] for," said Marcos Irinmaka, waterfront resident and president of Concerned Citizens, a local NGO formed to fight forced evictions.
Planning for eviction
Danagogo said the Abonnema Wharf settlement will be demolished in early 2012. On 11 November, a Nigerian NGO, Social and Economic Rights Action Centre, obtained an interim injunction against the Rivers State government, halting the proposed demolition. Five days later, Danagogo told IRIN he was "not aware" of any injunction.
Regardless of whether the demolition of Abonnema Wharf goes ahead, waterfront communities live with the uncertainty of not knowing when their turn will come. "Old men and women say they live in fear. They ask me, 'How can we sleep?'" said Samuel.
Mistrust of the government has been exacerbated by security forces shooting at people protesting demolition of the Bundu waterfront on 12 October 2009. Amnesty International reported that 12 people were shot and at least two were killed, but so far no official investigation has taken place. Further demolitions were then halted, but if they go ahead, "people will protest again - it is certain," Samuel said.
Remuneration not the solution
Home owners will be compensated for their houses, Danagogo said, but Samuel said tenants will be left struggling as the waterfronts offer the cheapest housing in Port Harcourt. Kregten noted that some home owners in Njemanze had been paid compensation, but others are yet to receive anything.
Even with the promise of compensation, many owners are still reluctant to leave, partly because they are Ijaws - indigenous people who traditionally rely on the water for their livelihoods, such as fishing, ferrying and collecting mangrove timber. "We all say we are not selling - our houses are not for sale," said Gift Jim-George, who built her house herself on reclaimed land in Abonnema Wharf.
"Moving houses, even if the government provides alternative accommodation, will not solve the problem, because in a new place we will find it hard to sustain our lives - we are not farmers. Residents of this waterfront will still come back, because our livelihoods depend on it," said Jim Tom-George of the Abonnema Wharf Home Owners Association.
"We are like fish in a river," said waterfront resident David Mark. "[But] they want to send us to the forest where we cannot survive."