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Homes reduced to rubble as Nigeria cleans capital

(Reuters) / 16 December 2005

ABUJA - A chair, a radio, a foam mattress, a can of powdered milk - these were the things Ugo Nzeaibe managed to salvage from her house before bulldozers razed it.

The mother-of-four’s home was among thousands flattened this month in Chika, a suburb of Nigeria’s capital Abuja, in the latest round of demolitions ordered by the government of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Chika was razed because it was not part of purpose-built Abuja’s original design and residents did not have building permits.

The FCT administration has said it will relocate those made homeless, but dozens of people standing among the rubble said they were unaware of any plans to move them to new homes.

“I don’t have a place where my children can sleep tonight,” said Nzeaibe, pushing her few possessions in a rickety cart.

Nearby, bulldozers half-hidden in a cloud of dust finished off the last buildings. Most were proper brick houses, not the kind of ad-hoc shacks often found around African cities.

Soon, there was nothing but an expanse of debris where once homes, schools, churches, shops and bars stood. Thousands of people searched for scraps to sell or wondered what to do next.

The authorities say they are just upholding the law: the newly homeless of Chika say they are being unfairly singled out in a country where everybody has long ignored the rules.

“I have never seen this kind of brutality in any society that calls itself a democracy. They have made thousands homeless,” shouted Rifkatu Mari, whose house was also destroyed.

Like many others in what the government called a “squatter community”, Nzeaibe thought she had legitimately bought her plot of land from a local when she paid 30,000 naira ($230) for it. She spent her life savings on building a house, which she also used as a small shop where she sold soft drinks and snacks.

“I finished it five months ago. I painted it and everything. It was a nice house,” she said, beginning to cry.

“That’s the law”

Amnesty International calls forced evictions “one of the most widespread and unrecognised human rights violations” in Africa. It says hundreds of thousands of people are forcibly evicted each year, with more than 1 million people driven from their homes in Nigeria since 2000.

People have also been forcibly relocated in Sudan, Angola, Kenya and Ghana, the rights group said in October.

The practice made rare headlines and drew global criticism this year when Zimbabwe’s government bulldozed urban slums in an operation the United Nations says left 700,000 people homeless or without a livelihood.

The man behind the clearances in Abuja says laws must be respected. Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, minister for the FCT, wants to make Abuja conform to its original design and Chika was the latest in a series of “informal settlements” to be razed.

Appointed by President Olusegun Obasanjo in July 2003, el-Rufai is a controversial figure. His many admirers say he is a true reformer, bringing order to a usually lawless land, but his equally numerous critics say his policies are cruel.

“You cannot develop land in Abuja, you cannot even plant a flower on land in the FCT without a development permit from the federal capital development authority. That’s the law,” el-Rufai told Reuters in an interview.

Demolition victims say that retroactively imposing order and rules without giving people a viable alternative was unfair.

“This place was our collective effort. We didn’t get any help from the government but we built our own community. What have we done to deserve this?” said Ibrahim Haruna, gesturing towards the endless rubble of Chika.

El-Rufai said the rules were for everyone.

“Disorder was creeping into the development of Abuja and it was becoming chaotic. Now what kind of people are we? How can we leave Lagos just to create another Lagos in the middle of the country?” he said.

The opposite of Lagos

Nigeria decided in the 1970s to remove the capital from Lagos because of uncontrolled growth and poor infrastructure in the sprawling southwestern port city.

Lagos is also in a region dominated by the Yoruba, Nigeria’s second-largest ethnic group. With ethnic tensions a constant problem in Africa’s most populous country, leaders wanted to locate the capital in a “neutral” central area.

Authorities commissioned American architects and planners to come up with a design. Building got under way in the 1980s, and Abuja officially became the capital in 1991.

The city looks nothing like Lagos. Gleaming new office blocks line wide avenues with proper sidewalks and there are no piles of burning rubbish in the quiet, neat residential streets.

But Abuja lacks the vibrancy of Lagos and many of the capital’s residents leave at the weekend for more exciting places. El-Rufai says in time young Abuja will develop a soul.

“It’s a brilliant concept,” he said of the original design. ”Even today, when I read it, I am amazed at the vision of the people who wrote it more than 25 years ago.”

El-Rufai wants to go back to that vision and he denies critics’ allegations that the demolition campaigns are designed to drive out the poor.

“Actually it is the rich, the elite, who have suffered most ... The first three buildings we demolished ... were buildings belonging to the former inspector general of police, the former chief of defence staff and a former minister,” he said.

“When people come here, I say ’Look, we have rules here. Where you come from maybe you don’t have rules. Here we have rules. If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.’”


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