By Cosmas Omegoh
From Oyingbo, Lagos, the railway line runs straight down. Trains at that point coast home to the Iddo Terminus in one full breath, passing through the Otto community. To the right, a roll of shops stands out, overlooking the railway line. Both the roll of shops and the railway line run parallel to each other. Occupants of the shops sell various items. Churches, brothels and other businesses flourish alongside the shops.
Right in front of one of the restaurants, a huge, Lagos State Water Corporation’s underground water pipe had just ruptured, belching out scores of gallons of water each minute. Between the water from the pipe and the one in the drainage channel, no difference could be spotted, even as the one from the burst pipe soon blended with the water in the channel. It the flowed in large volumes towards the Lagos Lagoon a shouting distance away.
Then, a teenage girl from one of the thriving restaurants lumbered out. With a plastic bowl in hand, she scooped fully from the pool and returned quickly to the inner part of the shop. A little later, two barely clad kids emerged from an alley that appeared to lead into a private residence. Stooping down, both scooped a bowlful each and disappeared in the direction they came.
A little away from there, just about four to five houses down the line, a bigger alley was seen. It could admit two people walking hand-in-hand. As this reporter dared to walk through it, he beheld some youths standing in the way. Some sat on an improvised, wooden bench with cigarettes and other wrapped items tucked between their fingers. Their mien suggested that they might be up for a game.
Having made a successful detour, the reporter sought for other ways into Otto, the sprawling slum that lay behind. So much has been said and heard about the area. Whereas some people say it is one place that ranks below Ajegunle by every social parameter, some say it is the centre of filth and squalor, whose residents live far below the poverty line.
In no time, the search was rewarded when what looked like a way into Otto was found. Although it was the dry season, the track was still waterlogged, strewn with various pieces of broken building bricks, planks and other objects. Some benevolent residents had contributed them to help passers-by avoid waddling in the repugnant water.
Then came the real shock. On both sides of the track stood shanties, which no one would imagine exist anywhere in Lagos. They were – unbelievably – people’s homes. They were wooden contraptions held in place by tens of planks driven into the ground to hold the buildings above. They were wooden contraptions – living rooms for the very urban poor. Their walls were made of planks nailed in a hurry, leaving gaping holes, which their occupants constantly fight to cover with rags. Richer occupants fortify their own shanties’ walls with sheets of polythene or plastic carpets to ward off marauding vectors.
The shanties’ windows were no different from their doors. Their roofs were barely covered with corrugated sheets, which kept squeaking as some mild wind swept through the area. Their floors were all seen rising between two to three rulers above the ground. But a resident later told Daily Sun that some of those planks were driven 18 feet into the swampy soil.
All the shanties stood a few inches apart. That morning, most of their occupants had gone to their respective areas of business. Below their raised floors, giant rats, insects, lizards and other reptiles were having a field day. The rats in particular were visibly seen sitting and enjoying some moments of ecstasy. The animals had apparently just finished relishing some sumptuous meal – faeces – some of which were intermittently seen flowing in the many drainage channels that crisis-cross the entire area. That was the common feature in most tracks that served as narrow streets in the sprawling Otto-Ilogbo slum in Ebute Meta area of Lagos.
Thrusting deeper down, this reporter beheld a large swath of land being used as refuse dump. The peak is about a storey building high. Most parts of it were covered by grasses. “This is the area’s refuse dump,” Adam, a lad, who claimed to be aspiring to study banking and finance, said. “This area is Otto, while the other part is Ilogbo. But now, residents no longer dump much of their refuse here. Rather, some people come here to pass their waste. Most houses here hardly have toilets. Only a few can boast of modern toilet system.”
The dump separates Otto-Ilogbo from its sister slum, Ilaje-Otumara, overlooking the Eko Bridge and the National Theatre. From the bridge, motorists and commuters gain vivid, aerial view of the Ilaje-Otumara. Both slums, which share so much in common clearly drive home the telling fact that Lagos is a city of contrasts. For instance, whereas some live on Banana Island, unarguably Lagos’ Eldorado of our time, some unbelievably live in Otto-Ilogbo slum where some few rich would hardly tolerate having the pigs that supply them pork reared. According to Comrade Agbodemu Ishola Musbau, the Community Development Association (CDA) chairman, this is where over 11,000 Nigerians – of course, the hoi polloi – make their homes.
One of such persons is Mr. Abiodu Ajimuda. His home is one of the many shanties that feature in the area, although there are a handful of living houses at the outskirts. On this occasion, Ajimuda was chilling outside his home with his wife and grandchildren. “I have been living here for the past 30 years,” he told the reporter. “Before we began living here, this place was a very deep swamp. It stretched from here up to the National Theatre.
“Actually, it was poverty that drove me to this place. In 1986, I was desperately looking for accommodation but could not succeed. People who were here then said it was Federal Government land. Then I asked them how they were coping here and they said all I needed to do was to buy some planks and wood and make my own shanty.
“These things you are looking at,” pointing to the planks supporting his shanty “can go down into the swamp. If the shanty goes down, I bring it up again. Some of those sticks you are looking at were driven as deep as 18 feet into the ground. Since I have been living here, I have raised it over a dozen times.
“I have been hanging out here because I have no place to go. I had all my seven children here. But some of them have long left. I just have one or two left alongside my grandchildren.”
For Mr. Ajimuda and indeed every other resident, living at the Otto slum has been a tall order. First, they have had to fight off the concerted effort of the Lagos State government to evict them. It was a human rights outfit that intervened to save the situation. They have had to contend with some people, who ceaselessly lay claim to the land. And they have had to be under the invasion of reptiles and other vectors.
“Every now and then, some people come here fighting to evict us. They say that if the area gets burnt again, they would not allow us to rebuild it. Since we started living here, this place has been burnt more than 10 times. The last time this place got burnt, they came here to extort money from us before allowing us to rebuild it. They showed us no mercy.
“This place is mosquito-infested too. They don’t give us any breather, coupled with the incursion of snakes. At some point, snakes were our nemesis.
“Also at some point, the Lagos State government went on the rampage, threatening to evict every one of us. It was a human rights group that came to our rescue. Government forgot that this is democracy – government of the people, for the people and by the people.”
But those were not the whole plight of the citizens of Otto-Ilogbo slum that Ajimuda could remember. “We have in the past four years, been under the onslaught of area boys. They hardly let us rest.
“Besides, this place used to be very, very swampy. We try filling it with sand all the time. Before now, you wouldn’t have been able to get here without sinking in the swamp. Here, it is only wooden shanties that can stand. Building with bricks here is simply useless.
“We want the state government to help us build better houses here and give them to us at discounted rate. We pay tenement rates here, yet we are suffering. We are Nigerians too but we have nowhere to go,” he pleaded.
Going round the community, which sits averagely on 10 football fields, all that was commandingly visible was squalor and utter wretchedness. In some of the open spaces, which the residents managed to fill with saw dust, some youths were seen loitering about. Some busied themselves, playing table tennis. There were kids of school age all over the place. Looking unkempt, they looked at the visitor with shock in their eyes. Some adult men and women, who were at home at that time kept peering through the windows of their shanties.
Some open spaces in the slum were used as refuse dump for a couple of households. Some of the sites had heaps of rubbish on then, with some domestic animals foraging for food.
The residents had carefully carved out some channels through which floodwater flows. There, they dispose their waste too. Ajimuda said: “Some of us throw our wastes in the drainage channels and from there, they drift away. Some channel their own into the gutter. Some go as far as the refuse dump over there.”
In an encounter, Mr. Moruf Bello, Vice Chairman, Otto-Ilogbo CDA, said he had been living in the area for the past 28 years. He admitted that the community lacked every amenity that could make life worth living. But the people have been coping because they had no alternative, he submitted.
“We are here because of poverty. The people have no jobs, no money. Life here is tough. But what else can we do?
“I came here about 28 years ago from Jibowu where I was living. Ever since, we have been contending with fires. Criminals deliberately burn this place just to drive us away. On each occasion, we have managed to drive them away and rebuild. Otherwise before you as a stranger could come in here, it would have been difficult. We have also had cause to battle with the administration of former Governor Babatunde Fashola, which wanted us out.”
“We don’t have water either from boreholes or from government. We only buy pure water (sachet water). Even our children go as far Jones Street to fetch water.
“We don’t have toilet facilities too. We manage to throw our waste inside the drainage channels. You can see that everywhere is full of water.” But he said there had never been any reported outbreak of epidemic in the area.
“Here as well, we don’t have any schools. Our children trek up to two kilometres to the nearest school. On the way, they risk being hit by commercial motorcyclists and vehicles.
“We don’t talk about electricity here, as we don’t have it. And the moment it rains here, we are under the threat of floodwater. But through our own community effort, we have managed to create some channels to ensure free flow of water. On our part, we try to clean the environment to minimise health risks and possible flooding.”
Another community leader, Comrade Ishola Musbau, said that the residents were living more like slaves in the community but contended that the challenge was not limited to Otto-Ilogbo. He said it was for that reason that the residents had been making concerted efforts at collaborating with government for possible assistance in giving the slum a facelift.
“In 2008, we discovered that government often did not ask the people what their pressing needs were before embarking on any form of development that would affect the welfare of the people. That was how we got the idea to approach those of them in government. We concluded that if government did not come to us, we should go closer to them. We have been going to them to come see how we are living here, as slaves and get them to find a way to help us of helping us.
“The issues you see here are not limited to this area alone. I happen to be a human rights activist. I have a non-governmental organisation: Rural and Urban Development Initiative, working with 42 communities in the state.
“We are unhappy that whenever government sees a community like this, instead of coming down to see how to help the people, they focus on coming to demolish such community. They forget that whenever they demolish a slum like this, they create another problem. They forget in a hurry that humans are like snails. They cannot be separated from their shelter.
“As an activist, I work with several other agencies. And my experience is that once there is a disaster in an area, government is always coming out to latch onto the opportunity to take the land away from the people. This is sad,” Musbau, who claimed to be born in Ebute Meta, but has lived in the Otto since 1972 said.
“Government is always talking about mega cities without caring a hoot about how it can develop human capacity. When government fails in developing human capacity, the so-called developmental milestone they have achieved come to naught the moment people realise that their needs were not served.”
He was unhappy that the effort of the residents to develop the area by themselves had been frustrated by the state government and land grabbers. He regretted that in April, 2013, the land grabbers, all in an effort to eject the residents, set the area on fire. And since then, they have been frustrating the people’s efforts at rebuilding their burnt houses. He said at some point, the state government moved in to evict the people. “But in 2011, we had to challenge them in court. In March, 2013, we won our case against government. If government cannot provide accommodation for the people, why take away the little they have?”
Musbau contended that it was instructive that the state government, rather than chase the residents away from Otto-Ilogbo, should work with the residents to improve their welfare.
“We have found out that if they don’t come to us, we should go to them. But the government needs to realise that those of us living in Otto Ilogbo are humans. We are not animals, neither are we viruses,” he concluded.