The Endless Cycle of Slum Clearances

A young girl tries to salvage some food from the ruins of her family's home in the wake of government bulldozers © Justice and Empowerment Initiatives

A young girl tries to salvage some food from the ruins of her family's home in the wake of government bulldozers © Justice and Empowerment Initiatives

Twelve years ago, Amnesty International reported that over a million people had been cleared out of slums in the Nigerian mega-city of Lagos. The clearances follow a set pattern. Authorities move in with bulldozers and demolish people's homes. The residents return to find only rubble. No effort is made to resettle them. In the years following, the pattern has continued, causing unbelievable suffering, yet somehow never succeeding in making Lagos the forward-looking metropolis it aspires to be.

Lagos is the largest city in Africa. World Population Review estimated its population at 21 million souls in 2016. Heavy migration flows from rural areas contribute to an extremely diverse population. Lagos is famous for its many millionaires, but these are far outnumbered by people living on the barest margins of subsistence. 66% of people in Lagos live in slums. The official response is to move them on, which not only fails to address the root causes of their poverty, but actually pushes them further down the ladder of immiseration. Journalist OluTimehin Adegbeye's The Flawed Logic of Forced Slum Evictions reports on the latest brutal slum clearance in the Otodo-Gbame neighborhood of Lagos. According to Adegbeye, land tenure systems that nakedly privilege the rich and leave the urban poor at constant risk of eviction practically guarantee that Lagos will remain a city of slums and informal settlements.

Without security of tenure, the urban poor are stuck in a vicious cycle. Their neighbourhoods are defined by an absence of basic services that can then be used to justify forceful removal. And yet, the provision of basic services might simply be the first step in the direction of eventually being priced out of their own neighbourhoods.

Children of the communities so casually and brutally displaced suffer. Their educations are interrupted - their families prey to constant insecurity. It is hard to imagine a more effective way of perpetuating a permanent underclass. Reform of the land tenure system would be an important first step. A change of culture however, is also needed, a questioning of capitalism on steroids. Implicit in the promise of capitalism is contempt for those who fail to take advantage. This mentality lets societies off the hook; they need not address inequality of opportunity, if the poor are at fault for their own poverty.  

Development aid (a recent $200 million loan by the World Bank for the Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project comes to mind) may actually make matters worse for the poor, depending on how projects are implemented. Improvements in infrastructure mean more bulldozers, and in the absence of a resettlement plan, formally required by the World Bank but not forthcoming so far, people are simply displaced.

If our goal is to improve the city we actually have, then it is crucial to engage with the needs and realities of the 60 percent of our population that is poor.

Throwing money at the problem without addressing the underlying cultural and legal factors keeping people in poverty rarely helps. Indeed, in a country as plagued by political corruption as Nigeria currently is, the money can actually be a curse. The hard work of community-building is what is required. 

See also Adegbeye's eloquent and moving TED talk Who Belongs in the City

The NGO Justice and Empowerment Initiatives is working on pro-poor urban governance and policy, if you would like to help.