10,000 rendered homeless as govt. demolishes Suleja’s old military barracks
- You’ve ruined our lives – Ex-soldiers
- You’re illegal occupants – Niger govt.
From JOHN ADAMS, MINNA
After much bickering, and controversies, the Niger State government, has rolled out bulldozers to demolish the over 50-year-old military settlement, Rafinsayin, in Suleja Local Government area of the state. In doing so, it rendered over 10,000 inhabitants of the post-civil war barracks homeless.
Majority of them, retired soldiers and their families, widows and widowers and their children, watched helplessly as bulldozers rolled over their houses while others wailed over the loss of their property.
Unlike a month ago when such an attempt was strongly resisted by the people, leading to the death of three persons, during the move Tuesday last week, there was no form of resistance, as they were taken unawares.
As early as 4:00 am, over five luxury buses owned by the state transport authority and other security vehicles, loaded with soldiers, anti-riot police, civil defence and men of the state security service stormed the settlement and condoned off the area.
At 7am before embarking on the demolition, the residents were asked to choose between quietly removing their belongings or losing everything, as there was no going back on the demolition. Saturday Sun reliably learnt that about 20 houses whose occupants refused to move their property had everything destroyed. Among them is 56-year-old widow, Mrs. Esther Iliya, who lost her husband three years ago. She reportedly slumped on seeing her late husband’s house being brought down by a bulldozer.
Tales of woe
She was to later tell Saturday Sun that her husband retired from the army 15 years ago, leaving her with eight children to take care, and that his retirement benefits were used to build the house which she and her children had been living in before the demolition.
“Where do I go from here with my children?” she asked as she threw her hands helplessly in the air. “I am managing to even eat and pay my children’s school fees. Now that the government has demolished my husband’s house without any form of compensation, what do I do?”
Another resident, retired Sergeant Amala Mark, an indigene of Osun State, who left the Army 27 years ago, had his house, which, he also built with his retirement benefits reduced to rubbles. Amala who said he had lived in the barracks for 44 years, observed that they were moved from Enugu after the civil war.
“With this demolition, where do I go from here now with my eight children?”, he asked with tears welling up in his eyes. “I am managing to survive with my family with the little pension the Army is paying me. They decided to carry out this act without any form of compensation. This is inhuman treatment which I think people who have sacrificed their lives fighting for the unity of this country shouldn’t be subjected to in the first place.”
Another victim of the demolition is 45-year-old Mrs. Omolara Afelabowo. A widow, she lost her husband, retired staff sergeant Festus Afelabowo, 16 years ago. But the four-room apartment and a shop built with her husband’s pension was destroyed. The woman who had been managing to keep body and soul together with proceeds from sales of drinks, pure water and recharge cards, was seen together with her four children and her aged and sick mother, who, she brought from the village for treatment, taking shelter under a mango tree when Saturday Sun visited the scene on Tuesday.
Another widow, plunged into suffering as a result of the demolition is Ruth Musa from Edo State. The woman, who lost her husband in an auto accident in 1983, said she managed to salvage few of her belongings before their three room apartment was demolished.
According to her, she has nowhere to go with her children as she does not know the direction to her late husband’s house. She had lived with her husband in Rafinsayin all her life and after his retirement from the Nigerian army in 1979, she has never visited his birthplace until his death, she said. Three of her children are married, she further informed. Two of them are in Rafinsayin with their husbands, while one is in Kwamba area, also in Suleja.
End of resistance
Recall that attempt by the state government to eject the residents in July, this year, was strongly resisted with the occupants insisting that demolishing the settlement would render them homeless. The crisis led to the death of three people while a bulldozer stationed for the demolition was burnt by the angry youths of the area.
Rafinsayin Barracks was established in the early 70s before the creation of Niger State in 1976. History has it that part of the military battalion moved from the Eastern part of the country after the civil war were settled in Suleja and later divided into two with some moved to the Bida Barracks while the remaining ones were allocated Rafinsayin Barracks, a thick forest then, as their temporary settlement.
Ever since then, the place has served not as military barracks but also as a kind of resettlement centre for army retirees and their families.
No home to return to
According to the Mai Angwar (head of the area), Mallam Ali Musa, 90 percent of the retired soldiers residing there have lost contact with their places of origin since they were brought there after the civil war and have nowhere to call their homes.
Apart from this, many of the widows who do not know their husband’s village or place of origin have remained there with their children for over two decades after the death of their husbands. A visit to Rafinsayin tells a story of people completely forgotten and abandoned to their fate, with little or no government presence in the area.
The people have accused the state government and Suleja Local Government of trying to eject them from the place in order to allocate the land to themselves, since according to them, nobody was told them why the government ejecting them.
More worrisome to the people is the fact that few years ago, parts of the Rafinsayin settlement was demolished by the government with many people rendered homeless. But up till today nothing has been done there.
The Mai Angwar, however told Saturday Sun that recently officials of the local government informed them that they would relocate people from the barracks but only ex-solders, adding that he did not know the reason behind the relocation.
He added that though the government had the power to do whatever it wanted certain decisions should not be taken without considering the plight of the people that would be affected by it “because there could be no government without the people”.
The Mai Angwar, who is also an ex-soldier, lamented that after fighting to keep the country together, the government wants to make them go through another suffering in retirement. “This demolition will spell doom for us,” he cried!
Govt defends action
But justifying the demolition, the Niger State government said the occupants of the barracks and land are illegal tenants. It added that though the disputed barracks was donated to the military authorities in the 70s for temporary use for soldiers, the military authorities formally handed back the affected facility to the state government through an agreement signed by both parties in 2014.
Shedding more light on the demolition, the Commissioner for Information, Mr. Jonathan Vatsa, disclosed that the state government, out of magnanimity, paid certain amount as compensation through the military authorities for those who may be affected by the exercise shortly after the official handover of the facility in 2014.
He said enough time was given to those he referred to as “illegal” occupants to quit, adding that some hoodlums destroyed the bulldozers meant for the demolition when the state government attempted to clear the site after the transfer formalities.
“As far as we are concerned, those you see there are illegal tenants because the issue of who owns the land was settled a long time ago between the state government and the military and that is why the military is involved in this exercise,” he explained. “Who are the so-called tenants paying rent to?”, he asked nobody in particular.