By Job Osazuwa
Church owners, artisans, traders and other business owners on 2nd Avenue, Festac Town, Lagos State, are lamenting and counting their losses following the Federal Housing Authority’s demolition of structures in the axis, classified as buffer zone.
The clerics said the congregations they had gathered and nurtured over the years have been scattered in a few hours after the roar of bulldozers on June 13, while the businessmen said that their means of livelihood have been abruptly cut off.
The founders of no fewer than 13 Pentecostal churches in the area accused the Federal Government of committing an abomination in the sight of God. Their argument is that the bulldozers were deployed to reduce their places of worship to rumble on a Sunday morning.
According to them, some of the worshippers were already in church on that fateful day when the demolishing task force ordered them out and descended on the buildings. It was learnt that the demolition started around 5am and continued until around 3pm.
At the end of the exercise, more than 100 shanties were also destroyed in the zone. Containers where different businesses were operated, kiosks for food vendors, mechanic workshops and car marts were also affected. A major part of the popular Agboju Market was not spared.
The sacked occupants, particularly the church owners, who told the reporter that some of them had spent 19 years on the land, demanded adequate compensation and urgent reallocation.
Some of the aggrieved occupants said that they did not default for once in paying their yearly rents to the landowners as well as other levies to government.
Describing the FHA’s action as an act of inhumanity against the church, the clerics are already threatening legal action, saying they could not fold their arms and allow years of labour to go down the drain.
When Daily Sun visited the scene on June 16, although the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Lagos Province XI, close to 21 Road, was still standing, it was already marked and seven days’ demolition notice was boldly written on the front wall.
People were seen picking whatever could be useful from the wreckage even as scavengers were moving from one spot to another sorting the debris from the spots where mechanics, battery chargers, vulcanisers, panel beaters and painters were previously stationed.
One of the victims, Pastor Darlington Kalu, founder of the Pillars of the Cloud Believers Ministry, said government dealt him a devastating blow. According to him, he had occupied the land for about 20 years, paying his rent without any problem. But, to his greatest surprise, government officials stormed the area and gave a seven-day notice to quit to some occupants.
Said he: “We, the pastors, hurriedly gathered and met the zonal manager of FHA, Lagos, who told us that there was no cause for alarm. He assured us that the churches would be exempted from the demolition, that they would regularise our stay here. They even advised us to go to Abuja and sort it out. We had already made arrangements to go to Abuja but they did not wait for us.
“Surprisingly, the FHA officials came and started demolishing the structures here. But they spared the first church in the axis because of its connection with powers above.
“I have been here for almost 20 years. I came here having met with the landowner and agreed on terms of payment.”
When asked if he was ever given eviction notice before now, he said officials had on two occasions, years ago, visited the area, warning people not to erect any structure on the vast land. He explained that they used the warning to ward off people that were already encroaching on the area.
“Our anger is that we were not given adequate time to pack our property and plan the next step to take. We are corporate organisations and have the right to go to court, whether the notice was justified or not, but were never given time for all this.”
Pointing to the premises he had occupied for almost two decades, he added: “This place was a swamp when I came in. I sand-filled this place. I can’t quantify the money, energy and other resources that I have put here over the years. And they all went down the drain in just one day.”
Kalu claimed that government took advantage of the strike by judiciary workers, adding that nobody could approach the court for injunctions to stop the demolition.
Another pastor at the Christ Life Embassy, Rev. Voke Uchemu, said that he could not fathom why his church was brought down in such a ruthless manner by government.
“Someone called me around 1.45am that Sunday, saying that the demolishing team was already in Festac for action. Despite all our pleas, they demolished 13 churches, including mine.
“Many of us have allocation from the FHA. Others who may not have document of ownership were given the land by FHA and other government officials who were collecting rents from them.
“We expected the government to have a human face in handling all this. No matter the government’s claim, they should compensate us and reallocate us so that the gospel can continue. Our activities have been saving souls. The demolition destabilised not only the pastors, but the members, who see the church as a place of succour.
“No matter what they thought that they have done to us, I believe that God will turn this bitterness to joy,” Uchemu said.
The pastor in charge of Christ Gospel Church International, William Ehiorenren, said it was unfortunate that despite the intervention of the lawyer representing Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) in Lagos, on behalf of the affected churches, pleading with FHA to extend the duration of the demolition notice, the authorities went ahead to pull down the churches.
He said he did due diligence at the FHA office, Lagos, when he was about to make use of the land 13 years ago. He recalled how he insisted to see the original owner of the land. He said he later paid a reasonable amount of money to some officials of FHA who assured him that they would make the owner available the moment they sorted it out from Abuja. And he went ahead to erect his church. But he said nobody showed up till the day of the destruction.
His colleagues and himself spent millions of naira in clearing the bush, filling the swamp and building their churches.
“We heard that government wants to sell the land to moneybags politicians and make millions of naira from it. We also heard that they want to hand the land over to the original people the government allotted them to.
“Seven days’ notice of demolition is wrong. We need compensation from the government. They should respect God. The task force and their masters have insulted God enough by coming to demolish His house,” he said.
On his part, Pastor Oluwole Okuchukwu Michael of Godly Generation Covenant Church, said that this was the third time that the government was bringing down his church in the last 13 years that he occupied the space.
He said he might have lost up to N30 million to the demolition. Apart from the financial implications, he claimed that his flock and himself have suffered psychological trauma.
Another church founder, Evangelist Grace Ifeyinwa of Christ Mercy Solution Revival Ministry, who said she had been there for 15 years, stated that the humiliation she suffered was beyond what words could describe. She said they were chased out of the church like common criminals before commencing the demolition.
The woman, who was living on the premises with her family, said that she was not given enough time to pack her property from the building. She claimed that most of her belongings were destroyed by the task force.
“We were treated like foreigners in our country. It is unfair. I might not have anybody to fight for me, but I have a big God,” she said.
When Daily Sun visited the office of the FHA in Festac, the reporter was told that he would not be able to see the zonal manager except by an appointment.
When he explained to the two men about the urgency of his mission, they directed him to an official, who was coming out from the building. The official, who said that it was not in his position to grant any interview on the development, explained that the occupants had used the zone without approval from the FHA.
He added that the fact that someone illegally lived in a place for decades does not qualify the person to become a legal occupant. He said some of the church owners were only seeking public sympathy.