LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) —
The Makoko slum floats on the murky lagoon that separates mainland Nigeria from the island that gave birth to its largest city, a permanent haze of smoke rising from homes built on timber stilts.
For some, Makoko provides an escape from the overcrowded neighborhoods of Lagos, a city of millions where families crowd into one-room apartments or sleep soundly in unfinished buildings. Others view the slum as an eyesore where the 100,000 residents dump trash, excrement and everything else into the brackish waters.
A government-led eviction last week that saw men in speedboats destroy homes with machetes there left about 3,000 people homeless and raised new fears among activists that authorities may try to wipe the community out entirely. While the government has pulled back from its demolishing effort, its own notice suggests it wants the entire community gone.
"We are just trying to survive," said Mirabelle Agbete as she drifted away in her canoe with her son. "This is unfair, we are human beings. How do you just throw out people without warning?"
Makoko is a sprawling community of bamboo homes and shacks built out of driftwood, close to the University of Lagos campus and visible to daily traffic that plies the Third Mainland Bridge, the link from the mainland to the city's islands. Those living in Makoko subsist largely as fishermen and workers in nearby saw mills, cutting up water-logged timber that's floated into the city daily. Some work jobs outside of the slum as gate guards and in other industries, though most live almost entirely within its watery boundaries.
The people of Makoko have created their own life independent from the state, with its own schools and clinics, however ill-equipped. Commerce goes on in its creek alleyways as women sell sizzling dishes and goods from canoes. Others sell videos and telephone airtime cards from the shacks just above the waterline, where a maze of wooden planks connects the homes.
Children who attend classes in schools on the water learn in English and French and speak various languages from Nigeria and neighboring Benin. Many residents in Makoko come from the French-speaking West African nation but have lived in the community for decades.
Waterfront villages remain common through Nigeria and Lagos itself grew out of one. However, Makoko's uniqueness and visibility has turned it into a poster child for urban poverty. It has featured in photo exhibits and documentaries around the world, something politicians and others have criticized for giving what they describe as a warped view of Lagos.
Authorities have gone in and evicted homeowners before from the area. However, this time, Lagos state government gave Makoko residents only three days to demolish their own homes and evacuate before they came in. Activists said one official told them the state wanted to remove homes near a power line because it was not safe for people to live there. But the government notice made no mention of the power line and ordered the evacuation of the entire waterway.
"The Lagos state government is desirous of restoring the amenity and value of the waterfront ... (and) improve the waterfront/coastline to underline the megacity status of the state," the government notice read.
If totally removed, the demolition of Makoko could leave at least 100,000 people homeless, said Felix Morka, the executive director of Social and Economics Rights Action Center, which works with Makoko residents. After a march by Makoko residents Monday, Lagos state Gov. Babatunde Raji Fashola asked them to return home, though some have nowhere to go. Since the demolitions started last week, many have slept in their canoes tucked in between their belongings. Some took shelter under the Third Mainland Bridge, while others moved out or found a place to squat.
"Many people are sleeping in my school," said Noah Shemede, the head teacher at Whanyinna Primary School. "We'll manage. In my house, I can take a few more people, the most important thing is that we stay together."
The authorities' reluctance to clarify what they intend for Makoko has sparked apprehension for the slum's remaining residents. Akin Ogunlana, the head operations of Kick Against Indiscipline, who was supervising the demolitions in Makoko, told The Associated Press he simply followed orders given to him by the state government. Adesegun Oniru, Lagos state's waterfront infrastructure and development commissioner, declined to comment.
The continued unease has already sparked violence. On Saturday, trouble started when authorities tried to demolish a building after officials reached an informal agreement about how they would target homes for destruction. A police officer shot dead community chief Timothy Hunpoyanwha, residents have said. The traditional ruler had only been trying to mediate between the authorities and angry youths, said Ewajane Osowo, the secretary of Ilaje CrayFish Fishermen Association.
Lagos state spokeswoman Ngozi Braide said a police corporal had been arrested over the fatal shooting, which remains under investigation.
The killing prompted Fashola to order a stop to the demolition exercise. He also said he was willing to speak with the communities to reach a compromise, but said Makoko would not be allowed to grow any further.
The lagoon "is the natural drainage that God has given us and we have to preserve it," the governor said at the time. "The only issue was the expansion of the community and the time to define the boundary is now."
Forced evictions recently have happened in unplanned neighborhoods around Abuja, Nigeria's capital, as well as in Port Harcourt, the largest city in the country's oil-rich Niger Delta. In Port Harcourt, authorities destroyed the Abonnema Wharf community which, by some estimates, was home to about 25,000 families. Amnesty International criticized that demolition, saying evictions should "be carried out only as a last resort."
But many in Nigeria, a country beset by government corruption and mismanagement, take a fatalistic view of their chances. Lawsuits over real estate languish for years in the country's overworked courts system. And those evicted often don't have the money to launch a legal challenge, instead focusing on the day-to-day struggle most face in feeding their families in a nation where most earn less than $2 a day.
"What can I do? It has happened, it has happened," said Abraham Mesou, a traditional ruler in the area who had to destroy a home he had lived in for more than 22 years. "We are fishermen but I don't pray for my children to be fishermen so they don't suffer the way we have suffered."