ABUJA — Nineteen villages inside the Nigerian capital are suing the government, demanding a halt to plans to demolish most of their homes and businesses. The government says the “villages” are actually shantytowns-settlements of illegal squatters.
Almost every tin or wooden shack and concrete building in this vast slum is marked with a large red painted “X” and the word “demo” for demolition or the letters “D.C.” which stands for “Development Control,” a governmental department.
At the end of this month, the government plans to take down every doomed building in Mpape, and 18 other communities in the Nigerian capital, which locals call “villages.”
Residents say they will be homeless. At a wooden yam stand on the side of the road, Patrick Osuji says he would not mind leaving if the government offered compensation or a new house. Under the current plan, he says, he and his three children have no where to go.
“They have marked everywhere," he said. "We are not happy. We are angry. They do not want to give us another place. They just want us to stay outside like that? Stay in the cold weather? The rain will fall upon us. They do not care. They care only for their families. They do not care about us.”
Activists say about 1.8 million people could be displaced, but authorities dispute the figure.
The government says the area is almost entirely populated by illegal squatters, and residents do not deny it. Many say they purchased their land from previous owners, but the deals were informal, without government approval.
Development Control Department spokesperson Josie Mudasiru says many Mpape residents settled on empty land years ago to save money on rent, while other parts of the city were being developed.
"What people are doing is that they want to own land by all means," Mudasiru said. "I mean own houses by all means and that is why they just go into the bush. They feel that ‘Okay, before government gets here it will take some time.’ And we can not continue like that.”
Abuja is Nigeria’s purpose-built capital in the center of the country, chosen in the 1970s to be a symbol of unity after a devastating civil war. The city is flush with mansions, grandiose government buildings and carefully manicured parks.
As the city develops, ordinary Nigerians, most of whom live in absolute poverty, lacking adequate shelter, food or healthcare, move farther and father away or cram into slums like Mpape that have no city water, electricity or roads. Mudasiru says the government wants to change that.
“Mpape has no infrastructure, for now," said Mudasiru. "And in the master plan they would have earmarked some places for schools, for hospitals, for residential areas, you know, and all this. But it cannot be done because we have illegal people squatting on the land.”
But residents of Mpape say ordinary Nigerians can not afford to live in rich Abuja neighborhoods, populated by the Nigerian elite and foreigners and they have taken their case to court.
A lawyer representing the communities, Wahab Olatoye, accuses government officials of using city planning as an excuse for taking land from the poor and giving it to the rich.
Mpape resident Johnchuks Onuanyim, a journalist who advocates for the community, says if the court does not grant an injunction, the sudden homelessness of masses of people will cause crime rates to soar.
“I do not know how the government is going to manage it," he said. "It is going to cost our security because this is an injustice. Even someone who is not known to crime. Over night you just demolish his property? Probably what he has gathered in his life.”
Officials say the residents are exaggerating and that they will find rental properties after the demolition. Onuanyim says businesses are already failing in the marked villages, and rents are soaring in Abuja and surrounding towns in anticipation of a housing rush.