Hectares of slums line the creeks of Nigeria’s Port Harcourt, home to tight-knit communities with a population density more than twice that of Manhattan.
The tangle of 50 self-built waterfront settlements made of concrete, wood and corrugated sheets hosts half a million people, many reliant on the polluted creeks for their livelihoods.
Port Harcourt’s communities are caught in a battle over their informal homes after Rivers State Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike ordered all the settlements to be demolished.
Wike and state officials have described them as “dens of criminals” that needed cleaning up, offering no compensation for the homes destroyed and no development plan for the land.
Many residents had lived there for decades. Their parents and grandparents built the land, filling creeks with fibrous black mud cut from the mangroves.
Since the demolitions began in January, half of the Diobu settlement in the southwest of the city has been destroyed.
Up to 22,000 residents were made homeless in six days. Where there was a thriving community now sits 11 hectares of rubble.
“We were peacefully living here,” said Tamunoemi Cottrail, a local landlord and fish seller, recalling the start of the demolitions when officials arrived accompanied by armed men.
“As they came, they did not talk to anybody. They just came down the steps and began to mark X’s on some buildings.”
Local government officials said the project would benefit the entire city, and that demolitions of informal communities were necessary and legal.
The Port Harcourt land struggle illustrates the complex development of cities in Africa’s most populous country, which is estimated by the UN to become the third most populous in the world by 2050.
Most of that is to be urban growth, and much of it in slums as Nigeria’s development plans largely ignore rapid informal urbanization and adequate infrastructure.
Port Harcourt is Nigeria’s oil capital, but its infrastructure is overwhelmed and many live in slum conditions, despite the petroleum revenues.
“People don’t deliberately put themselves in informal settlements,” Isa Sanusi of Amnesty International Nigeria said. “There shouldn’t be informal settlements in those kinds of places because the states are rich and they have the capacity to provide.”
The demolitions began nearly three weeks after the governor announced his decision during a New Year’s speech.
The Rivers State security chief arrived in Diobu on Jan. 19, marking homes for demolition, and telling residents they had seven days to pack up and leave.
As Diobu’s representative in the local governing body, Cottrail approached the officers, attempting to initiate a dialogue, but they refused to engage with him.
“When they came, they started flogging people,” said Omobotare Abona, a local fisherman. “When people were like: ‘You guys should wait — let us pack our things because it’s sudden,’ they were like: ‘Go out.’”
After some public backlash against the governor’s plan, Rivers State Information and Communications Commissioner Paulinus Nsirim took a harsher tone, emphasizing the government’s push to “sanitize the waterfronts.”
He said the communities had become “a den of thieves, flies in the face of rational analysis.”
“That is a lie,” said Abona, who has lived in the community most of his life. “There is nowhere they don’t have bad persons.”
For the state development authorities, the program is about the legitimate use of land.
“The law allows [demolitions] so long as it is in the public’s interest,” a Rivers State Housing and Property Development Authority official said. “What he wants to do is for the ... benefit of the state or for everybody.”
Although the waterfront communities help fuel the informal economy, which accounts for up to 65 percent of real economic activity, they live in extreme poverty, with little to no municipal services and a lack of political representation.
For residents like Abona it is hard to imagine not living in his community, where he survives off the properties he built and fishing.
Although he relocated his wife and infant son to a relative’s house, he often returns, watching over his family’s land.
He is waiting for the right time to rebuild.
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