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Public evictions for private gain

City beautification, the Silver Bird Group and the State Governor

What’s going on in Nigeria? Why do we hear nothing from the international community about the tragedy of the massive demolitions and evictions occurring in Port Harcourt and other cities?

Probably because these evictions are the result of globalisation in African cities, which first caused massive urbanisation. Now these same cities have become saleable goods for investors for whom oil is no longer enough.

In June 2008, the Governor of Rivers State of Nigeria, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, began what he called “beautification”  of Port Harcourt, the state capital. This exercise, culminating in the demolition of buildings in Port Harcourt, led to the displacement of more than one million people who were forcefully evicted from their homes within a couple of months. The exercise was carried out in flagrant violation of due process and the rule of law regarding proper notice, consultation with those affected and opportunities for adequate alternative accommodation to be provided. Other instances of the arbitrary and lawless manner in which the demolitions are being carried out include illegal use of soldiers, armed policemen and thugs to intimidate victims of the evictions1    

Barely six months into the illegal demolitions, the state governor redirected his attention from “city beautification”  to forced acquisition of buildings to serve some private interests. In the course of the acquisitions, thousands of families were forcefully evicted from their homes without any notice or opportunity to seek alternative accommodation. An absolute majority of the victims have been forced to return to their villages of origin at the expense of their jobs, their children’s education and the physical, mental and moral health of family members, who are now exposed to poverty and hunger and in urgent need of assistance.

Besides, the state governor has threatened to acquire and demolish all the buildings on Azikiwe, Ojoto and Iloabuchi streets in the Diobu area of Port Harcourt as well as the totality of the waterfront settlements, particularly Abonnema Wharf and Njemanze waterfronts, including the whole of Education Bus-Stop and Isaac Boro Park2 , to the benefit of a private entertainment business belonging to the “Silverbird Showtime” enterprise. These areas constitute upto one-third of the built-up area of the main urban area of Port Harcourt and provide shelter for more than 600,000 people who, in the face of the acute shortage of accommodation in the city, would be left with no other option than to return to their villages of origin if their apartments are destroyed without the residents’ being offered alternative accommodation elsewhere in the city.

To implement the Silverbird project, the state governor sent a fleet of bulldozers to Abonnema Wharf Road and destroyed all the buildings in the area between 9th and 16th February 2009, handing over the entire area to the Silverbird Group. This demolition, which caught the residents unawares, resulted in the destruction of churches, schools, business places and residential apartments and culminated in the stealing and confiscation of property worth over 100 million or about 670,000 USD dollars by government officials numbering up to 120 persons including members of staff of the state’s urban development ministry, armed policemen, soldiers and thugs.

As evidence of the arbitrary and ruthless manner in which the demolition was carried out, we can cite the case of Rev. Mason West of the Bible Faith Church, who was beaten up, arrested and detained for attempting to enter his church to remove his pulpit and bibles. Before the demolitions started, the state’s urban development commissioner, Barrister Osima Ginah went in person to all the schools in the area, including the nursery and primary schools. Accompanied by armed policemen/soldiers, he drove out the school children and their teachers from their classes, threatening to arrest and detain them if they dared come back to the schools

Government officials also stole the personal belongings of the poor tenants, claiming that the State Government had acquired them along with the buildings. Property of National Union of Tenants of Nigeria worth over two million of Naira or about 15,000.00 USD dollars was among that seized by government officials, who invaded the union premises with thugs.

To justify his actions, the state governor falsely asserted, through his urban development commissioner, that the issue of demolitions in Port Harcourt had been settled last November at the 4th World Urban Forum held in China and that the exercise enjoyed the support of UN-HABITAT3 .

A “beautification” that brazenly violates the law

Given the circumstances surrounding the demolitions as well as the manner in which they are being carried out, we view the whole exercise as irresponsible and illegal, noting that it is not being carried out in conformity with the principles of procedural protection and due process of law – considering:

  • that Chap. IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria: the right to life (Art. 33), right to a fair hearing (Art. 34), right to the dignity of the human person (Art. 36). The State Government has flagrantly violated these rights. 
  • that Chap. IV Article 37 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees everyone’s right to privacy and family life, which right cannot be attained if housing is destroyed or damaged or if the citizens are rendered homeless. The State Government has flagrantly violated this right. 
  • that Chap. 10 Article 14 of the Law of the Federation of Nigeria – 1990 (African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights) provides that property may only be encroached upon by government in the interest of public need; in which case the forceful acquisition of Abonnema Wharf and Njemanze waterfronts is ruled out, as Silverbird Showtime, in whose favour the acquisition is made, is not in the interest of public need, but in the personal interest of the owners. 
  • that the manner in which the demolitions are being carried out by the Government of Rivers State violates the full and progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing, as defined in the international legal instruments which were undersigned by the Federal Government of Nigeria: 
    • Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In particular, General Comments 4 and 7 prohibit evictions without an adequate and agreed relocation. The UN Committee adopted at its 6th to 9th meetings held from 29 April to 1 May 1998 the Concluding observations: "42. The Committee urges the Government of Nigeria to cease forthwith the massive and arbitrary evictions of people from their homes and take such measures as are necessary in order to alleviate the plight of those who are subject to arbitrary evictions or are too poor to afford a decent accommodation. In view of the acute shortage of housing, the Government of Nigeria should allocate adequate resources and make sustained efforts to combat this serious situation. 43. The Committee recommends that more positive and open dialogue between the Committee and the Nigerian Government can be undertaken, and maintained. This dialogue need not await the passage of the next five years. The Committee calls upon the Government to submit a comprehensive second periodic report, prepared in conformity with the Committee's guidelines, by 1 January 2000." No report was submitted. 
    • Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a right to adequate housing. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted at the 1025th meeting held on 28 January 2005 the Concluding observations: "70. The Committee recommends that the State party: (a) Undertake a comprehensive study on the causes and scope of this phenomenon and establish a comprehensive strategy to address the high and increasing number of street children with the aim of preventing and reducing this phenomenon; (b) Ensure that street children are provided with adequate nutrition, clothing, housing, health care and educational opportunities, including vocational and life-skills training, in order to support their full development;" 
    • The combined effect of Articles 4, 14, 16 and 18 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement Act 1990) reads into the Charter a right to housing including the prohibition on forced evictions. 
    • That the ongoing demolitions undertaken by the State Government jeopardise Nigeria’s full attainment of Goal 7 Target 11 of the Millennium Development Goals, not to mention that it goes against the Habitat Agenda commitment, to which Nigeria is state party. 

1  As in the Order of the Federal High Court of Nigeria dated 29th October 2008 in Suit No: FHC/PH/CS/563/2008.

2   page 3 of the 29th November–3rd December 2008 Edition of the Hard Truth Newspaper

3  Silverbird (93.7 FM) Radio Station in an interview with the commissioner on Saturday 21st February 2009