Update on Port Harcourt demolitions
As demolitions in Port Harcourt escalated to an uncontrollable extent in 2008, the National Union of Tenants of Nigeria sought and obtained an order of the Federal High Court of Nigeria to enforce its members’ right to adequate housing against the Government of Rivers State, being the violating party. The said order was empowered by a constitution provision staying all maters or action relating to or connected with the subject matter of the suit until the final determination of the case.
As the matter came up for hearing on Monday, 2nd February 2009 for hearing, both the state government and the union were in court and represented by their respective counsels. At the court session, the counsel to the state government served the union a motion for Preliminary Objection to the suit while the counsel to the union also served on the state government a motion to join the federal government as a Defendant in the suit. The Presiding Judge, after going through the two motions, adjourned the case to 23rd February 2009 and ordered that the motion to join the federal government be served on the Attorney-General of the Federation.
To our greatest surprise, barely an hour after we had left the court, the Commissioner of Urban Development, Mr. Osima Ginah, led a convoy of armed military/policemen to the union’s office premise and ordered that the office building should be marked for demolition within seven days expiring Monday, 9th February 2009. he did not end there, but started going house-to-house and room-to-room along Abonnema Wharf Road and Njemanze Street to threaten the tenants to quit their premises within seven days of face the risk of the bulldozers pushing their buildings against them and their families at the expiration of the seven-day deadline. A copy of demolition notice served on the tenants, consequent to the threat is hereto attached as annexure A.
Further to this development, the union hurriedly reported the threat to the Federal High Court, which immediately issued against the Commissioner a warning against the consequences of disobedience to the order of the court. A copy of the said warning, which was issued by the Deputy Chief Registrar of the Federal High Court and served by a bailiff of the court, is hereto attached as annexure B.
Regardless of the court warning, the Commissioner went further to the tenants’ houses on Friday. 6th February 2009 to warn them to quit their apartments or have all their personal belongings forfeited to the government, claiming that the state government had bough the entire buildings at the area for onward donation to Silverbird Group of Companies Limited and that the area was needed to expand the company’s business.
At this very point of the threat, I sought the urgent intervention of Prof. J. B. Falade of the Nigeria Office of the UN-HABITAT, who advised me to report the commissioner with police. Being dissatisfied with this advice, I further sought the intervention of the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) in Lagos, which immediately constituted an urgent mission to come to Port Harcourt on Monday, 9th February 2009, being the planned date for the demolition.
DAY 1 (Monday 9th February 2009)
Before the arrival of SERAC mission at about 10AM on Monday, 9th February 2009, thousands of members of the union and all those affected by the demolitions as well as all the media houses in Port Harcourt had converged at the union’s office premises to receive and meet with members of SERAC delegation.
As the meeting with members of SERAC delegation proceeded, the urban development commissioner led a convoy of armed military/policemen to Abonnema Wharf Road to verify if the tenants had vacated the area. Next on the scheme of arrival was the Commissioner of Works who equally came with a convoy of armed policemen. Next to this was a bus-load of government’s thugs hired to trail the movement of members of the union and of the SERAC’s delegation while the last to arrival were three bulldozers sent by the state government to destroy the area.
Amid our meeting with members of SERAC delegation, the bulldozers were positioned to push down the union’s office building unconcerned that members of the union and the press and the SERAC delegation were all inside. At this very sight, a combined effort of SERAC officials, the press and the crowd of members of the union and the passersby prevented the demolition and saved the situation, although, a Government House policeman sent to monitor the demolition threatened to fire his riffle at me in an attempt to ensure that the demolition was carried out.
DAY 2 (Tuesday 10th February 2009)
As members of SERAC delegation and the union’s officials could get to the union office on Tuesday 10th February 2009 to proceed with the day’s business, more than five bulldozers were already set at work to destroy the buildings along Abonnema Wharf Road, where the union office was sited, during which more than 50,000persons were rendered either homeless or jobless within a twinkle of an eye. The buildings destroyed include residential houses, business premises, churches, companies, nursery/primary schools and secondary schools etcetera.
The irony of the whole demolitions was that before the bulldozers arrived to wake up the tenants from their early morning sleep, a crowd of government officials led by the Director of Urban Control, Mr. Ngozi Nwogu, had arrived with heavily armed policemen and thugs to invade the occupants and cart away their personal belongings, claiming that the items carted away by them were part all part of the price paid by government when purchasing the buildings from the landlords. Some of the items carted away by the state government include tenants’ wears, household materials and even their pots of soup as well as bathing buckets.
Some of these items, especially those belonging to one Mr. Isaac of No. 16 Abonnema Wharf Road, were recovered through the help of SERAC officials. During the incident, a Reverend Pastor with the Bible faith Church, pastor Manson West, was beaten-up and arrested for stealing government property when he went to the church to remove his pulpit and bibles. It was also through the help of SERAC official that the Reverend Pastor was released from a bus where he was detained and locked up by the police.
DAY 3 (Wednesday 11th February 2009)
As SERAC officials and the union’s executives proceeded with the third day business, being meetings with stakeholders/communities affected by the demolitions, little did we know that paid thugs had been busy trailing us twenty-four hours. At a particular point in time, an unknown caller telephoned the leader of SERAC delegation threatening her to leave their state governor alone while some of thugs were stationed at the demolished office premises of the union to monitor our movements. It was at this very sight that I advised members of SERAC mission to cut short their visit and return to Lagos.
DAY 4 (Thursday 12th February 2009)
The return of SERAC delegates on Thursday 12th February 2009 coincided with the breakdown of the bulldozers that were to put a finishing touch on the buildings along Abonnema Wharf Road before proceeding to other areas such as Njemanze, Azikiwe, Ojoto and Iloabuchi axis of Port Harcourt.
However, there are strong indications that the state government has ordered for more bulldozers that would continue from where the broken-down ones had stopped and that the demolitions would continue next Monday.
EXPANSION OF THE DEMOLITIONS
As at this week, the state government has announced its decision to demolish all the waterfronts in Port Harcourt without the option of resettling the residents. A task force has, to this end, commenced the marking of the buildings at the waterfront settlements for demolition. The waterfront settlements contain more than 75,000 buildings with a population estimate of over 900,000 persons or two-thirds of the total population of Port Harcourt main-city. The totality of these people, if added to those rendered homeless in 2008, brings the number of homeless people in Port Harcourt to more than 1.2 million people or more than one-third of Port Harcourt population as a whole. Never in any part of the world was upto one-third of the population of a city rendered homeless for any reason whatsoever. Besides this, the purpose for which the Port Harcourt residents were rendered homeless is not for the interest of the public, but for the proprietary interest of the state governor and those of his political/business associates. For the benefit of doubts, a fact-finding mission to Port Harcourt will help in verifying this.
Based on the above we compassionately appeal to the UN-HABITAT and the interested/ concerned organizations and donor agencies to look into the plights of the National Union of Tenants of Nigeria and consider the following:
(1) Granting the union donations to pay for an alternative office accommodation to enable it continue with its housing right advocacy in Nigeria. The union’s office premises were demolished two days ago and donated to Silverbird Group of Companies Limited to run a private funfair business without giving the union proper and adequate notice or providing it an opportunity for relocation.
The union had committed all its finances against the ongoing demolitions and is left without any resources to pay for an alternative office accommodation. The union is not funded by any organization or donor agency, but derives its funding from its members, an absolute majority of who is now homeless/jobless sequel to the ongoing demolitions in Port Harcourt.
Currently, it take upto N900,000 (6,000 US Dollar) to secure a double-apartment office accommodation in Port Harcourt at the rate of N300,000 (2,000 US Dollar) per annum for three years excluding agency and other fees.
(2) Granting that the earlier approved AGFE mission to Port Harcourt be revisited with a view to supporting SERAC to address the issue non-compliant to due process in carrying out the demolitions and to meet with the stakeholders with a view to opening a channel for negotiation on resettling all those forcefully evicted and to follow due process and the rule of law in carrying out further demolitions.
We shall be grateful if the above appeals are urgently considered.
C. W. ENWEFAH
NATIONAL UNION OF TENANTS OF NIGERIA