With no reform on land use laws in the state yet, the survivors of the 2020 Tarkwa Bay evictions live in perpetual fear of a repeat of their violent past.
There are 24.4 million homeless people living in Lagos. The “Centre of Excellence” may not be good at a lot, but it sure is great at increasing those numbers every year. With the most affected parties being children and adolescents, it is hard to imagine a future where this does not return to challenge the same caste of people who ignored their existence until they became adults. This has become the legacy of one of Lagos’ best-kept islands, Tarkwa Bay.
High-profile evictions are not uncommon in this part of the country; the nuisance of state-sanctioned agents substitutes the absence of armed bandits and terrorists. Over two decades, the government and military have displaced 2.3 million people; recent history alone accounts for at least 40,000 displaced people in Lagos state. Events like the Otodo Gbame evictions remain fresh for many, bordering on a massacre; many residents never made it out alive. According to the Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (a legal group seeking justice for these communities), there have been at least two dozen communal cleansings across the waterfronts in the city.
On the 21st of January, 2020, Tarkwa Bay came under siege by the Nigerian Navy. The same officers stationed on the beachfront, many of them familiar to the residents, opened fire and shot live rounds in the air, delivering a callous and unconscionable message from their superiors and puppeteers. “We were given an hour to move out.” Sixty minutes to uproot decades of history and community.
“They’ve always been jealous of us, of how we live and how happy we are,” says Ismaila, a tour guide and Tarkwa Bay native who survived the evictions and continues to live on the island months later. It might be difficult to understand how Nigerians living well below the poverty line can quantify their happiness; most of us equate financial security to emotion and not much else. Perhaps living a couple of hundred meters to the ocean for years does wonders for one’s disposition; perhaps it has more to do with constantly interacting with people who visit seeking a reprieve from their comfortable lives. Whatever the reason may be, the community (even what remains of it) lived mainly in harmony until the interruptions of the military.
The Nigerian government’s lack of respect for the boundaries of citizens plays into a lot of these actions. A majority of Tarkwa Bay’s residents worked outside the island; the minority worked jobs reliant on their specific geographic location: scrapping the steel on wrecked ships, fishing for crabs and manning the resorts meant for tourists. With the islanders being a low-income community, the targeted actions of the Navy were justified by claims of pipeline vandalism carried out by criminals harbored by these populations. With no overwhelming proof, a process like this should never have been approved or at the barest minimum, taken a number of years with alternative housing provided for inhabitants. Instead, they had 60 minutes.
According to Tomiwa, a ship breaker who has spent most of his adult life on the island and survived the evictions, local conflicts between island dwellers were rarely recorded. Most of them were either too busy trying to make a living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lagos. Therefore, that security is cited as one of the reasons behind the eviction of the dwellers seems far-fetched as this is not a community known for such instability, any more than Obalende or Balogun are.
With the Eko Atlantic development bordering the island to the West and North, the veiled reason behind the sudden eviction seems apparent from the landing bay. Less than a kilometre, away the Azuri Towers are visible on the horizon on what used to be Bar Beach a decade ago, an indicator of things to come. Yet, an ideal situation is achievable if the aggressors continue with some of the efforts they have implemented in the past few months as a form of reparations for their still unexplained actions a year ago. According to Ismaila, of the thousands evicted in 2020, settlers are trickling in again. Many of them never found alternative housing, were out of a job and families were forced apart in efforts to cushion/conceal the trauma of homelessness from the children. At the same time, he believes that compensation is the only true form of restitution that could potentially absolve the State of their crimes against its charges.
The community – built on a mix of petty trade, beach hustling (anything from informal tours to talent showcases), and environmental capitalism – have managed to exist in something of a bubble for years, maintaining contact with the outside world through the access commerce provides while remaining in communion with the island itself through ties older than many of the current residents. Returning with a renewed hope of life undisturbed by the State and its agents, many of the residents who have suffered this experience will have to live in fear of eviction for many years to come if reform around land use is not considered.
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