ABUJA — Nigeria's Human Rights Commission is now investigating government plans to demolish the impoverished slum area of Mpape inside the capital. The destruction was postponed until October after a court order, but locals say unless an alternative plan is devised, hundreds of thousands of people will become homeless on the same day.
Courts have ordered a stay of execution to the area and local leaders have rallied. But developers say they can, and will, destroy what they say is an illegal and unsafe makeshift settlement - basically, a shantytown.
The rights commission, a government-established watchdog group, launched an investigation Wednesday, saying they will act as a liaison between the community and the government.
"There are children in this city, in this settlement and people have got to care about them," said Chidi Odinkalu, who is chairman of the commission. "There are women in this settlement and people have got to care about them. Those are the people I care about and those are the people the Human Rights Commission has got to care about, and that’s why we’re here. What I’d like to do is to go around the community and take a look at exactly what has happened.”
Mpape residents say they learned their area was slated for destruction only a month before the original "D-Day," August 31. A court has since ordered the demolition be stopped until after October 11, when judges will re-consider the case.
Activists say the demolition would displace more than one million people, but some analysts and the government dispute the number.
In Mpape, it is widely believed that their homes are being destroyed because the land is coveted by the Nigerian elite.
Reuben Okoya, the coordinator for the Abuja Metropolitan Management Council, said this absolutely is not the case. He said Mpape as it is currently is unfit for anybody to live in.
“We are doing this for health reasons. If you go into the slums of Mpape there are open sewers," said Okoya. "There are houses that are subject to fire, power problems, sanitation problems. And we want to make sure that houses that are built [to] meet standards where people can live with their families in those houses and be safe.”
Looking around Mpape it’s clear that many of the houses slated for demolition with a big red “X” are cramped and shoddy. There are no city services.
Many residents say they wouldn’t even mind leaving if they had some place to go.
Peter Magoh, a community leader, said that he would vacate without complaint if he was compensated for the property he purchased 10 years ago.
“I have lived abroad and I chose to come back because this is the only place I felt in the whole world where I am a free man. So for them to say, ‘Eh, that place is a shanty. It’s a slum. Let’s go and demolish it' - I think it’s cruel. It’s barbaric,” said Magoh.
City planners say the government is building low-income housing, but it is not obliged to compensate people for land they either settled on because it wasn’t being used or purchased illegally.
Residents say crime rates in Mpape rose dramatically after the announcement that it would be destroyed. But they reject the idea that their neighborhood, however poor, is a hotbed for criminality, and they say it’s just “calling a dog a bad name” before putting it down.