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Port Harcourt: Why Amaechi Cannot Demolish The Waterfronts

Mr. C. W. Enwefah is the Secretary-General of the National Union of  Tenants of Nigeria, a leading NGO responsible for housing right advocacy in the country. In an interview held on 1st June 2009 with the Weekly Star , a Nigerian-based newspaper publication, the Secretary-General explains the mindset of his organization on the demolitions carried out in Port Harcourt by the Rivers State Government. Excerpts of the interview are as follow:

Question:   Sir, what exactly is the National Union of Tenants of Nigeria all about and how  did it come into existence?  

Answer:   Thank You! As the name implies, the National Union of Tenants of Nigeria is the apex NGO for Nigeria tenants and was established fourteen years ago under the Law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The principal objective of the organization is to promote everyone’s right to adequate housing through advocacy for full and progressive realization of the Habitat Agenda, which includes, but not limited to, protecting all people from forced evictions that are contrary to the law.

Question:   Going by the Habitat Agenda, as you rightly mentioned there seems to exist, certain laws that protect people from forced evictions. Can you tell us about these laws?

Answer:   Yes, there are several laws that guaranteed everyone’s protection against forced eviction. The most significant among these laws is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) , which has a binding effect on all the countries that ratified it, including Nigeria. Article 11(1) of the law, as interpreted in the General Comment No.7 thereof, prohibits government from undertaking, sponsoring or condoning any act, policy or legal measure that promotes forced eviction unless those carried out under exceptional circumstances. These circumstances include evictions carried out in execution of court order or for safety of lives in the context of arm conflict, communal crisis or outbreak of epidemics. In this case, all the affected persons, except those evicted in execution of court order, are entitled to rehabilitation and an opportunity to return back to the evicted place when the required normalcy is perfectly restored to the area.

Question:  From your explanation, forced evictions could be understood as evictions carried out under abnormal circumstances or against the wish of the affected persons. Are there any normal circumstances under which evictions could be carried out and what are the conditions for such evictions?

Answer:   in the evictions law, all evictions, other than those carried out under exceptional circumstances, are deemed normal if the due process is followed. The due process, in this regard, demands that all the tenants affected by evictions shall, prior to such evictions and without any discrimination or condition, be given an opportunity for genuine consultation, proper notice and relocation to alternative accommodation consistent with their wishes and needs. This process of law has been upgraded by the 2007 Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement , which provides that the affected tenants shall be entitled to adequate compensation for loss of property, opportunity or benefit, including payment for any eventual expenses arising from such evictions. It is equally contained in this law that no eviction of tenants shall be carried out in a particular bad weather such as raining season or cold atmosphere or during festivals, general elections or school examinations.

Question:   Do these laws not have any provisions that protect landlords as well?

Answer:  If you listened to me carefully, I did mention that the laws relating to evictions are numerous and protect all people without any discrimination. Although, the laws protecting tenants equally apply to landlords, especially those under the owner-occupier bases, but the provision that protects landlords, in general, is more specific in article 14 of the African Charter  otherwise referred to as Cap 10 of the Law of Federation of Nigeria .

In this law, it is prescribed that land may only be encroached upon by government in the interest of public need or in the interest of the community. This protection is fine-tuned by the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements (976), which demands that the ideology of government, as reflected in its development policies, must not be used to dispossess people from their homes or land or to entrench privileges or opportunities.

Question:   Do you mean that the law protects landlords against exploitation  by government? How does the law do this?

Answer:   Yes, there is such protection and is more comprehensive in the 2007 Basic Principles  and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement , which states in its paragraphs 60 and 61 that compensation for land acquired by government must not be by cash payment, but by relocation to alternative land commensurate with (or better than) the original one in terms of size, value, quality and location; and that owners of land so acquired, including those in the slum area, need not to hold title documents for compensation to be effected. This provision clears the ambiguous meaning of the term “compensation”  used in the Land Use Act, which is misinterpreted and narrowed down to cash payment. The aim of this legal clarification is to ensure that landlords retain their status as land owners in the event of any evictions.

Question:   You have just reminded me of an important question. How is the evictions law compatible with the Land Use Act?

Answer:   Did I hear you mention compatible?  Oh, No! The both laws seemed to be misunderstood. The evictions law and the Land Use Act are talking of two different things, but using the same term. The Land Use Act talks of the right to “forceful” ownership of land conferred upon government while the evictions law highlights the protection of owners, including the occupants, of such land against “forceful” removal from the land. By this, the evictions law, therefore, exists in part to check the abuse of the Land Use Act as an instrument of forceful removal of people from their land.

Question:   Now, coming to the aspect of implementation, to what extent is the evictions law recognized in Nigeria?

Answer:   To start with, the fundamental right to privacy and family life conferred upon Nigeria citizens in section 37 of the Constitution of Nigeria received its background from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights  and is a component of the right to housing provided in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights . This is because the enjoyment of privacy and family life will be interfered with and suddenly cut off if a family is forcefully evicted from accommodation. This concept invariably makes this right indivisible from the right to freedom from forced evictions enshrined in article 17(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights , which stipulates that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family or home”.

Question:   How is this law enforced in Nigeria?

Answer:   As I had earlier told you, the right to enjoyment of home, privacy and family life under the Constitution of Nigeria is complimentary to the right to adequate housing and is an essential constituent of the right to freedom from forced eviction. This right, when interpreted in this direction, makes it explicit that any person, whose place of residence is threatened or invaded in an effort to remove him therefrom, may invoke section 46 of the Constitution for redress. In a similar vein, section 5 of the National Human Rights Commission Act provides for the investigation and prosecution of any person, public officer or agency that violates or threatens to violate any of the rights contained in the international human rights law ratified by Nigeria Government, which includes the right to freedom from forced evictions.

Question: This being the legal position of things, how does your organization assess the ongoing  evictions and demolitions in Port Harcourt? Are they in consonant with the law?

Answer:   To be frank, my organization, as a Habitat Agenda partner, supports all development-based initiatives, but does not encourage such initiatives if they promote unlawful forced evictions or are carried out in a way that mimics the promotion of personal gain or mass population expulsion. All these phenomena, which are vivid in the development programme of the state government, made the consequent demolitions to be illegal and unacceptable to my organization and the global community as a whole.

The conduct of the demolitions, which is characterized by lawlessness and has rendered more than one-fourth of Port Harcourt population homeless and destitute, makes it look as if the  exercise is either a vengeance mission or the only agenda the present government came on board to achieve for the people of Rivers State. Never in history has demolitions of this magnitude occurred in any part of the world – I mean demolitions that lasted for a year and swept away one-fourth of the population of a city. In fact, the entire approach to the demolitions, being unfriendly with the due process, depicts a flagrant violation of the rule of law and a conduct contrary to the norms of a state-party behavior under the international human rights treaties signed by the Government of Nigeria.

Question:   By your explanation, the conduct of the demolitions carried out in Port Harcourt by the state government was contrary to the due process and the rule of law. What step did your organization take to remedy the situation?

Answer:   At the initial stage of the demolitions, we met with the state government to address the issue of due process, but when the meeting failed to produce results, we took the case to the Federal High Court on 11th August 2008 and obtained an order against the state government. At the point when the state government disobeyed the court order, we reported the issue to the Federal Government and, thereafter, invited the United Nations to the matter. It was at the instance of this invitation that a joint mission of the UN-HABITAT and the Federal Government was constituted to come to Port Harcourt for fact-finding. The mission, which arrived Port Harcourt on 12th March 2009, was to identify the factors behind the demolitions, examine the level of relief plan for the affected persons and prescribe the proper procedure to be followed by government if any further demolitions must take place.

Question:  Now that the United Nations and the Federal Government have stepped into the matter, what has happened to the court case? Has your organization dropped it?

Answer:   Dropped what? Why must we do that? The case is still on and has, even, taken a serious dimension. What we are pursuing, now, is no longer a case of due process, but the committal to prison of any government agent that played a role in disobeying the court order. We have, to this end, commenced contempt proceedings, and the case will be coming up on 15th June 2009. Unless the issue of disobedience to the Order of the Court is determined, we cannot continue with the main case, as there is no guarantee that the state government will obey the final Judgment of the Court if those agents of government that were involved in the current disobedience to the Court Order are not punished. At the first place, what is the essence of going to Court if Court Orders are not obeyed?

Question:  So, what is the current position of the UN and the Federal Government on the demolitions issue?

Answer:  For now, everything concerning demolitions is kept pending till when the Report of the fact-finding mission is concluded. It is in the Report that government’s obligation to landlords and tenants will be defined for the purpose of any further demolitions, as may be carried out. The Report will be available for everyone to see when it is released.

Question:  Now, if everything about demolitions is kept pending , how come that demolitions are still going on in some parts of Port Harcourt?

Answer:   This, I am not aware of and nobody has brought it to my notice; but one thing you must understand is that we are not challenging the demolition of illegal structures. What I meant by illegal structures are those constructions that encroached on public space or planned areas or that were attached to normal buildings, either in the form of projections or fences, without approval by government. It could be that the demolitions you referred to were those targeted at the illegal structures, which do not come under the ambit of our protection.

Question:   This reminds me of the issue of waterfronts. People said that waterfront houses in Port Harcourt are illegal structures. How true is it?

Answer:   Who told you this? Those who said so are getting it wrong. One thing people must understand is that Port Harcourt waterfronts belong to the category of slums. They are areas recognized, in law, as “informal settlements”  and characterized, by definition, as an informal part of a city, which is distinguished by substandard housing among other things. This recognition is explicit in several international human rights legislation, including especially, the General Comment No. 4 on ICESCR  and paragraph 61 of the 2007 B asic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement , which provides for the legal protection of slum housing. Besides this, the whole scheme of Target 11 of the Millennium Development Goals  adopted by 192 countries, including Nigeria, focuses on improving the lives of slum dwellers. If slum dwellers are illegal occupiers, as claimed, how then could Nigeria Government undertake to improve their lives under the Millennium Development Goals ?

Question:   This has further reminded me of the issue of waterfronts demolition. What is your  organization doing about it, now that you have made it clear that waterfront houses are not illegal structures?

Answer:   At the first place, the issue of stopping the waterfronts demolition is not a difficult thing to go about as people think. It is all about going to court to set aside the “White Paper” that brought the whole issue into existence. This is because the White Paper was derived from an illegal foundation that bordered on a breach of the constitutional right to fair hearing. When I talk of “illegal foundation” I meant the Report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which gave birth to the White Paper. In it, the TRC recommended that, “based on the evidence before it, the waterfronts were a security risk to the state and should  be destroyed immediately” . The fact in this issue is that . So, what I am saying, in this effect, is that the particular violation of this constitutional requirement renders the TRC Report with the accompanying White Paper null and void.

Question:  Hmmm! This is interesting. So, when is your organization going to court to challenge the White Paper?

Answer:   Challenging the White Paper is secondary and not in our agenda for now; but mind you that we are not against the demolitions plan by government. What we are against is the approach to the demolitions, which flagrantly derogates from the due process and the rule of law. The overall negative effect of the approach are the depressed living conditions it brings to the affected people, which apparently hinders Nigeria’s progress towards the Millennium Development Goals commitment, especially the goals on poverty eradication and improving the lives of slum dwellers, both of which the waterfront communities are target beneficiaries.

Question:   Now, what happens if the state government proceeds  to demolish the waterfronts without following the due process?

Answer:   No! The state government cannot do that now. It only did so in the past when there was a little or no awareness of the due process. Now that the awareness has been created and drawn the attention of both the Federal Government and the United Nations, there are no other ways to go about the demolitions than to follow the due process. This process, I believe, will be spelt out in the Report of the United Nations/Federal Government fact-finding mission to Port Harcourt. Beside this, the whole world is interested in the issue of demolitions in Port Harcourt and is monitoring the extent of compliant with the due process in the event of any further demolitions by the state government.

For in stance, the International Alliance of Inhabitants, a coalition of human rights organizations in various parts of the world has, on 18th March 2009, launched a global campaign against the demolitions in Port Harcourt and advocated for an international sanction against the state government if the demolitions persist.

The campaign, which was accompanied by a communiqué signed by 366 international human rights organizations and translated into several world’s languages, was test-run by a demonstration held in Israel on 26th April 2009. During the demonstration Israelis and Palestinians matched to the Nigerian Embassy at #34 Gordon Street, Tel Aviv, with fliers, posters, placards and banners etcetera in protest against the Port Harcourt demolition. What you are hearing from me is the exact thing that happened. The whole information is there on web and could be viewed at http://eng.habitants.org/content/view/full/10556/(offset)  or http://www.radicalendar.org/calendar/all/all/display/84872/index .

Question:  Now that the matter has reached this stage, what will your organization like to suggest to the state government?

Answer:   Although, the idea of the demolitions were said to be targeted at addressing the rapid urbanization problem of Port Harcourt, as reflected in the population growth, but solution to this problem does not require demolition approach. Government should, to this end, realize that the influx of people into Port Harcourt and the consequent manifestation of slums is a policy outcome of the previous administrations, which accorded the state a “one-city”  status. The best way to go about this problem is not by population expulsion through demolitions, but by a decentralized development approach that provides for spread of development to all the local government centers in terms of social infrastructures that make life more inviting, welcoming and accommodating to the people. By this approach, I believe, the status of Rivers State as a “one-city”  state will be broken, and you will begin to see the population of Port Harcourt shifting to the local centers such as Abonnema, Buguma, Degema, Ahoada and Bori etcetera, being places that would, by then, have become centers for both social and economic attraction and life transforming opportunities.