By Maduka Nweke and Simeon Mpamugoh
The lamentation of religious leaders, whose church buildings and mosques were demolished by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) South West Zone, FESTAC town, Lagos, has not abetted. In justifying its decision to reduce the 13 affected churches, mosques and other buildings to rubble, the agency argued that the structures were erected illegally on the buffer zone of FESTAC town. All the buildings and structures and property therein were demolished by bulldozers after the expiry of the seven days notice given to the affected religious organisations.
Still agonising over their losses, the affected religious leaders who spoke with Sunday Sun, while condemning the manner the FHA handled their eviction, demanded for compensation for the property damaged, stressing that the government broke the law in the quest to enforce another one.
“What we want is justice and adequate compensation from the government otherwise they should give us genuine allocation,” insisted Pastor Oluwole Okwuchukwu Micheal of Godly Generation Covenant Church FESTAC, whose church was affected. “This is not much because it is the court’s responsibility they usurped with the barrel of the gun.”
Lamenting over the incident, he said: “It was tragic. We could not believe what happened to us, that in a supposedly democratic system , a Federal Government agency like the Federal Housing Authority deployed its might in FESTAC and demolished churches in the zone over alleged illegal occupation without an order of a court of competent jurisdiction.
“They served seven days notice, but before the expiration of the notice, they had begun demolishing the churches without any explanation. This is a place some of us had stayed for more than 20 years. The least tenants had spent 15 years.
“We have landlords we paid rent to. If there was any issue, they were expected to inform our landlords who are the allottees of the land, but we never heard anything from them except the news that they were demolishing churches. Some have their documents on the land while others are current on the payment of their rents, yet they pulled down their structures.
“As early as 5:00 a.m, they were already on ground with their bulldozer, a taskforce from Alausa, military and police – all armed.
“There was a prior notice that they were not going to touch the churches. That turned out to be deceptive; and I think there was an ulterior motive judging by the way they carried out the exercise.
“It is only God that can expose the intent of their heart, otherwise why would anyone do such a thing when people were not at work, people were sleeping in their houses, and churches were about to hold services.
“They pulled down the churches on Sunday, June 13, 2021 which was not a working day and Monday was a public holiday to mark Democracy Day. Who were they trying to please? Are we not fellow Nigerians? Are we not entitled to equal rights and justice? Why are churches being victimised in Nigeria?”
Asked what their landlords said, he replied: “When we called our landlords, they said they were sorry. Until now, we have not seen any evidence suggesting that they connived with FHA in carrying out the exercise, but whether the affected landlords are the real owners of the said plots of land or not, it is only the FHA that will verify that. We will unearth this in the days ahead.”
Also recounting the effect of the psychological ordeal on him, Bishop Wilson Wokocha of His Grace Anointed Believers Church said: “This shows that churches are not respected. But we are human beings with dignity, and bona fide citizens of this great country. We ought not to be treated like animals. We ought to be compensated; otherwise the government has put us into severe trouble. I have to withdraw my children from school because right now, I can’t cope with paying their fees any longer.
“They claimed we were staying on illegal plots. Even if we were on the plot illegally for 19 to 20 years, I know that before a landlord can evict a tenant from a property where he has stayed for that long, he cannot be given just seven days notice. When I came into the place, I sunk in more than 150 truckloads of sand here to salvage it from the swamp and the management of Federal Housing Authority was watching me. In the same FESTAC town where we all are staying, they watched as we sandfilled the place that was a swamp and they never challenged us. But now we have added value to the plots, instead of giving us at least six months before they could recover their lands from those who didn’t have their papers, they gave us seven days.”
Quantifying what he lost in the demolition,Wokocha said: “I lost over N50 million. For many of us, our children are in school. Where are we going from here? What do they want us to do? No compensation, no resettlement, it is really disheartening at this time of the country’s challenges in terms of insecurity. I believe the government has heaped more problems on us. You will see that they will sell the place to vehicles dealers or truck owners for packing of containers.”
Pastor Emma Maduabuchi David heads a branch of the Foursquare Gospel Church which was also demolished. Explaining that the land on which the church was sited belongs to Foursquare Gospel Church in Nigeria, he said: “We have documentary evidence. As a matter of fact, the senior pastor that left before me, Rev. Francis Igwekoyi, perfected everything about the land: transfer of ownership from the person who got the allocation before handing over all the papers to me.
“But when they came and marked it for demolition, I was dumbfounded; I went to FHA office and asked why our church was marked for demolition when we have all the papers which I showed to them. The officials I met told me that we don’t have a problem since we have our papers. They said they were not after the churches; they advised that what we needed to do was that on the day of the exercise, we should just come out and that they would demolish what they want, and not touch our church. I went home happy. I was surprised a week and a day after the marking, they came and began demolishing every structure without adequate notice. They just came and marked “remove” on the wall. The next thing, they moved in their bulldozers. Many members of the churches demolished came to church on that ill-fated day to see the demolition going on.”
As would be expected, church leaders like Evangelist Grace Ifeyinwa-Anyanwu of Christ Mercy Solution Revival Ministry have been groaning over the horrendous losses they incurred. She explained after the markings of buildings to be demolished was finished, they informed the legal counsel of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) Lagos State branch who went to FHA with a letter appealing to them to shelve the plan as seven days was not enough for their planned action.
She said: “They assured us that the demolition exercise would not affect churches. While we hoped that what they told us was true, they asked PFN lawyer to go to Abuja for further talks with the managing director of the authority. But to our chagrin, on Saturday night, at about 10p.m, a policeman called me to find out where I was; I told him I was around. He asked me to start packing up my belongings that members of the taskforce would come to demolish churches within the area. I asked why, echoing that seven days was not enough.
“I know that in Nigerian law of eviction, there are 90 days, one month and seven days notices, which is the last before an eviction is carried out. I think this is borne out of hidden agenda. Some people say they started demolishing at 5:00 a.m; truth is that demolition started at 4:00 a.m because it is the time one of my neighbours who deals in cars alerted me of the demolition. I had to jump out of my bed to salvage the little things I could. I couldn’t remove much because they were all damaged in the process.
“I thank God because my life still remains, even as a woman. The most painful aspect of it is that in 2006 the place in question was still a swamp. I recovered it but in one day, and in a twinkle of an eye, somebody that has no conscience, without pity, woke up one day and levelled everything. One thing I wish to tell those behind this cruel act is this: “There is God and His judgment will find them. This is an unfair decision the government has taken and it is borne out of wickedness.”
Ifeyinwa-Anyanwu appealed to the Federal Government through the FHA to allocate the plot to her as compensation, stressing that it was unfair for government to demolish the place without any resettlement plan.
She said: “I have suffered in the recovery of the swamp by filling it with several tipper loads of sand, all that I invested in putting up the demolished structure. Those involved in construction works know that it is not an easy task to sand fill a swamp.
“The sad thing is that when the construction was ongoing no one challenged it. There was no “Stop Building” mark on it as we find on many structures that breached town planning rules. What we observed is that every year they came up with different landlords and correspondence from the same office. I saw deceit in their actions. In the same area 13 churches were demolished; some churches are still standing. Is it justifiable?”
For Pastor Williams Ehiorenren of Christ Gospel Church International, it was an unjustifiable act to give seven days notice to a church that has stayed at a place for over a decade.
“FHA chose to be unfeeling to our plea for empathy and they downplayed our relevance in the society. They treated us like animals. They came on a Sabbath of the Lord to demolish churches. They pulled down the altar where God dwells. They have no fear of God. We leave them to God. We want the government to step in because they have trodden on our rights to fair hearing. The worst thing is that they left some churches behind, who claim they have people in government. Some say they have gone to court and won the case.
“If they say the place is a buffer zone and people won the case and were allowed to put up permanent structures, we also put up permanent and solid structures worth several millions of naira, yet they overlooked that and pulled down our churches.
“This is a Ponzi scheme. The way to remedy it is to allocate the place to us. If they allowed some churches to stand, which I’m happy about because we are one family, then others should be left to stand. Why pull down some and leave some behind? Our government has pregnancy character. It is good we are praying for them to get better.
“Meanwhile, the government needs to do the right thing because we are citizens of Nigeria. We are not foreigners and we are not from the bush. We are human beings, and must be accorded that respect. If not for any other thing, we have the oil of God upon our head. So, we leave it to God for Him to use the government to do the right thing. No one is above the law. But should government not do anything, we will put heads together on the next line of action.”
In a letter by PFN Lagos State branch to Federal Housing Authority dated June 7, 2021, (apparently to stay action on the demolition) and signed by Dr. Barnabas Otoibhi, Inter-Governmental Relations/Social Security Outreach, PFN appealed to the authority to temper justice with mercy on the churches served with removal notice.
When contacted, FHA South West Zonal Manager, Hakeem Olagbemiro, told our reporters that he didn’t have the authority to speak to the media.
His words: “I’m a man under authority. So, write an official letter to FHA head office in Abuja where your requests would be addressed.”
Recall that Federal Government said it would sustain efforts at restoring the master plan of FESTAC Town by evicting all illegal occupants of land under the management of the authority.The Managing Director represented by Hakeem Olagbemiro made the disclosure recently at a meeting with stakeholders at the instance of the FHA Zonal Office in Lagos.