I used to visit Manager and his family from time to time when I, too, needed a break. I remember when he built the pond at the back because he believed there was a market for catfish in the local pepper soup joints. Next he erected a kiosk facing the dirt road so that they could do a little petty trading and all the while he was cultivating plantain, ugwu, bitter leaf among the fruit trees he had planted over the ten years that they lived there. They had tried chickens but the snakes were not deterred by the dog they acquired, a friendly mutt who only wanted to play.
The first warning came late last year when Segun phoned that officials from Alausa had come to say that the land they had built on was owned by government and that government was coming to claim it. I had a small interest in the matter because I had bought a couple of plots myself from one of the local farmers we believed were the rightful owners but I was yet to start building. A lawyer we engaged filed a motion, which still subsists, but, as a friend remarked in another context, ‘Look at where you are.’
The second warning came 48 hours before the Task Force descended with the army in tow. Segun was just preparing breakfast. They gave her half-an-hour to pack her things out. Half-an-hour later again her house was rubble. By then the whole community – about 250 households, she reckoned, although the next day’s papers put it somewhat lower – were trying to take in what was happening. She said that one woman fainted; a man whose wife had given birth the previous week ‘was running up and down like a madman’; and a high-up Customs officer, paralysed by what he was witnessing, refused to remove so much as a pin so they flattened his house anyway. She remembered, especially, the glee with which the fellow operating the bulldozer ran over the plasma TV screens.
At one point the elderly Mrs Otedola, wife of the former governor who lived nearby, came to plead with them. She showed them the relevant court papers and explained that most of the owners had even acquired certificates of occupancy from the same Alausa which had sent them. They listened to her and then the head of the Task Force politely told her to go and complain to Fashola; and added: ‘Those who are building on government’s land, thinking that nothing will happen, should have a rethink. Government will rise up and take action one day. This is a message for land grabbers and unsuspecting buyers.’ By evening it was all over. The newly homeless, refugees in their own country, slept outside -‘we did night vigil,’ was how Segun put it - because they couldn’t leave their goods unattended. Sometime in the early hours they even caught some local boys trying to steal but at least it didn’t rain, as it had done the previous night.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever know who truly owns the land and it will be irrelevant in any case. By coincidence (if that is what it was) the latest issue of TheNews magazine carried a story about a family in Badagry who complained to the police that Obasanjo had taken over seven acres of their land for his technological university, Baba himself being hostile to the arts, as he repeatedly told us during his disastrous Second Coming. All the members of the family were promptly arrested and charged to court for trespassing after spending a couple of nights in a police cell because they couldn’t raise the bail that the police will tell you is free.
So going to court is not uppermost in the minds of those who must find shelter as they contemplate the calamity visited on them by the very government that should have protected them. Such things used to happen under the military – we still remember Maroko – but, well, that was the military. In fact there is no difference between then and now that we go to the polls to cast votes which nobody counts. It is still the same old cabal but what is chilling is the depth of its contempt for those it lords it over. As others have remarked, not even the white man behaved with such impunity when he was in charge. And in the bad old days of apartheid in South Africa the white minority government at least had the courtesy to pass the Group Areas Act to give such barbarism an air of legitimacy. Not so here.
Segun has since re-located back to Lagos, which she never properly left anyway; Manager, with a family to support, must attempt to rebuild his life there in that same Epe, but how? How does a 65-year-old retiree start over in a country where the government which destroyed your house offers no incentives to help you build one – or even make provision after rendering you homeless? It may indeed be true, as the head of the Task Force also insisted, that many of the occupants failed to get building approval and that their certificates of occupancy – given by the same Alausa - were fake, but why the triumphalism, the gloating, the portrayal of government as punitive? We have become a nation of brutes, which is why Thomas Hobbes’s famous passage is part of the Nigerian lexicon in any number of opinion columns.
© Adewale Maja-Pearce