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Saturday, 12 November 2016

Too Sad: Inside the Lagos Slum Where Bread is More Expensive Than Shelter


Decked in a blue tank top, a pair of black denim trousers and flat leather sandals to match, Ibukun Babajide walked elegantly as she approached the small wooden bridge. Tall, dark complexioned and well endowed, the 24-year-old cuts the picture of a budding model. With a radiant smile and captivating voice to complement, the odds favour the young lady in more than a few ways.

But beyond her arresting physical appearance, Babajide’s life is one filled with pains and plenty of misery. Since making the long journey from her native Owo, a sprawling town in Ondo State, after the death of her parents two years ago, to Lagos – Nigeria’s most vibrant city – in January 2016 in search of a new life, things had not completely turned out the way she expected.  Spending the night across different churches in the Alapere area of the city on her first two weeks in Lagos, Babajide soon moved to the Mile 12 area of the metropolis where she has since settled into a different kind of life. Like the dozens of women who live in Alaba, a slum settlement in the heart of Mile 12 market, one of the largest grocery shops in the country, the 24-year-old shares a single room with seven other tenants in the place she calls home today.

“I have nowhere else to live for now apart from this place,” she says, her face suddenly growing pale as the reporter engaged her in a friendly chat in front of a shop she had stopped to buy call card. “I had to move to this place after somebody from one of the churches I was sleeping in Alapere told me about the cheap accommodation here. Though it is not so convenient for me, I just have to manage it for now until things improve for me,” she added, her voice reeking of hope and raw determination this time.

A conglomeration of sinking and elevated structures constructed with wood and rusty roofing sheets, Alaba – with a bulging population of over 3000 residents – is where deprivation meets chequered opportunities. Floored by a mixture of refuse and marshy mud, the area is home to dozens of low income earning families especially women – old and young – seeking financial liberation. The neighbourhood also houses an army of youths and little children whose future grows in uncertainty by the minute as a result of the high wave of crime in the vicinity. Day or night, sun or rain – the area never sleeps.

But more than anything else, it is the insanely cheap cost of accommodation and the ease with which to secure one that has seen the community exploding in size and reputation in recent times. For example, unlike in other parts of Lagos where new tenants are expected to part with certain amounts of money as agreement and commission fees for agents or owners of the houses on top of the rent proper, persons willing to live in any of the apartments dotting the Alaba landscape do not have to worry about this. In fact, new tenants are allowed to live in a room for one week free before they are charged N1000 for a month’s rent if they like the place. New entrants can either come in through the landlord, who determines the number of persons that live in a room, or through existing tenants. While there were up to four tenants in some rooms when our correspondent visited the area earlier in the week, other rooms had as many as eight occupants, stifling each individual to only a tiny space – enough to lay their heads at night and stash their few belongings during the day – within the apartment. Persons who visit relatives or friends living in the place automatically become tenants themselves after the first one week. They must pay the statutory N1000 rent for an entire month after the expiration of the free window or vacate the place immediately. When divided by 30, the cost of paying for accommodation in this densely populated neighbourhood then comes to around N33 per day – N17 less than the cheapest loaf of bread in most parts of Nigeria.

That is not all. Apart from many of the rooms lacking luxuries such as fans, mattresses or even carpets, doors and windows also are not protected, leaving the few belongings of residents at the mercy of criminals who constantly prowl the area. To compound the situation for residents of this obscure settlement, answering nature’s call or having a cold, refreshing bath is not free. A visit to any of the many bathrooms or toilets dotting the area attracts a fee of N50 each. As a result, some residents have been forced to take their bath only once in two days while scores more have to trek several minutes to the Maidan River seperating Mile 12 and Owode, the next town, to defecate at periods they cannot afford N50. For Babajide and the tens of residents who live in Alaba, it is indeed a tough life.

“Many times when I am not going out, I just use one or two sachets of drinking water to wash my face and clean my private areas,” Funke Kolade, another tenant in one of the shack houses, told our correspondent. “It is a way of saving and managing the little money I make from doing menial jobs in and around the market. It is not as if many of us staying here enjoy this type of life, we live here because we cannot afford the high cost of renting a normal house in this locality. Personally, as soon as God blesses me and I am able to save up some good money, I will move out of this environment, it is making me sick already,” she said, spitting into a stagnant gutter in front of her as if to show her disgust with the situation.

Besides contending with a host of diseases as a result of the filthy nature of the environment, the foul smell oozing out of the mosquito-infested swamp in the area further compounds the pains of many dwellers. While the sound of rainfall could mean good news for residents of other communities, it is a bad omen for those living in Alaba. The lack of a functional drainage system in the community many times confines occupants to their apartments for hours or even an entire day when rain falls. The frustration for residents is endless.

“You will pity us here whenever it rains,” Kazeem Lawal, a nightguard said. “The entire place would be filled with water, making it very difficult for us to go out of our apartments. All we do at such periods is to sit and wait for the water to recede, otherwise we have to enter into it to go out,” he added.

But alarming as it sounds, the situation in this fast-expanding settlement is only a minute bit of the trouble many individuals and families in Lagos contend with these days in the quest for a decent roof over their heads. Confronted with outrageous rents and dubious housing agents, hundreds of accommodation seekers have been pushed into accepting alternatives that leave them facing bigger problems in the end. Ikorodu to Ijora, Obalende to Mushin – the situation is the same everywhere especially with scores of strange looking structures springing up daily in almost every nook and cranny.

For instance, at Boola, a cluster of shack houses sitting on vast swathes of refuse in the Ketu area of the city separated from the highbrow Magodo Estate by a two-metre-wide canal and tall fence, the situation is not too far from what obtains at Alaba. Though the monthly fee for accommodation is a bit higher here – between N1, 500 and N2, 000 a month – the condition of most of the structures are not any better. While residents here do not have to pay to bathe or defecate, they are forced to undertake any of these tasks behind their houses as a result of the unavailability of requisite facilities. Ironically, the good life they see a few metres away from the marshy grounds of their verandas remains so far from their reach despite appearing so close.

“Whenever we look up from our house and see Magodo, we sometimes feel like we have offended God. It is a completely different place from where we live. We are hopeful that God who gave those in Magodo the opportunity to live there, would also put smiles on our faces one day,” 14-year-old Gafaru Ahmed, who wishes to be a medical doctor in the future, told our correspondent.

Like many children who live in this community, Gafaru comes up against harsh weather conditions at night as a result of the terrible state of the house he lives with his parents and four siblings.

Faced with myriad problems, among them the constant migration of dozens of persons into its town and once serene neighbourhoods, Lagos today contends with one of its most severe housing challenges. Sitting on about 3,345 square kilometres, representing almost 0.4 per cent of the total land area of Nigeria, the city, projected to becoming the third largest in the world by the year 2020 with a population of around 25 million people, according to a United Nations report, accounts for about five million of the national housing deficit of 18 million – a significant number according to experts in the sector.

Apart from budgeting N62.7bn for housing and community amenities in 2016, Lagos has spent more than three times that amount over the last five years tackling the issue, with the gap between demand and supply widening by the day, sadly.

President Muhammadu Buhari earlier this year said that Nigeria requires one million houses annually to reduce its current national housing deficit and avert a major crisis by the year 2020.

He said the Federal Government had earmarked N40bn in the 2016 capital budget to implement a comprehensive housing programme in the country.

According to him, his administration is considering vibrant reforms in land administration, urban planning/renewal and mortgage housing finance under its new comprehensive housing programme to improve housing delivery in Nigeria.

But experts say all of this will amount to nothing if many of the fundamental problems affecting the sector are not addressed.

Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, in a bid to opening up the sector to investors and individual builders, signed the Lagos State Properties Protection Law in August 2016.

The law, which seeks to stifle out exploitative land grabber and encourage more building, spells out a 10-year jail term for defaulters.

But apart from the menace of land grabbers, the activities of fraudulent agents serving as middlemen between property owners and prospective tenants have also contributed significantly to the housing crisis in Lagos and most Nigerian cities.

In October 2013 for example, the police in Lagos arrested a 34-year old woman, Taibat Aruna, for allegedly defrauding over 200 prospective tenants.

The victims, who were jostling for 11 self-contained apartments in two bungalows in the Ojo area of the metropolis, paid between N120, 000 and N400, 000 respectively to the agent.

Seven months later in May 2014, another agent, Lateef Balogun, swindled 60 unsuspecting home seekers to the tune of N10m.

Many of the victims, who lost almost all their life’s savings, have continued to live with the pains. The list is endless.

The rise in the cost of building materials is perhaps the latest dimension to the crisis bedevilling the housing sector in Nigeria today. Earlier in September 2016, block moulders embarked on strike for several days following the increase in the prices of cement, granite and other construction materials. By the time they ended their action, blocks went up by between 11 and 30 per cent. The price of a bag of cement, which stood at N1450 previously, today sells for around N2300, depending on the brand and location – a situation Abdulsamad Rabiu, chairman, Cement Company of Northern Nigeria Plc, attributes to the high cost of doing business in the country.

According to professor of Building and Vice-Chairman, Council of Registered Builders of Nigeria, Martin Dada, the new development will create serious challenges for the housing industry if not quickly addressed.

For the immediate past President, Nigerian Institute of Building, Tunde Lasabi, the situation could further compound the series of problems in the sector, taking decent and affordable accommodation farther from the reach of many ordinary citizens.

“Cement and blocks are basics in construction, so when their prices rise, definitely the prices of houses will increase. So, the affordability aspect of housing now has a question mark attached to it,” he said.

Sociologist, Frank Ebitimi, fears that the rise of slum settlements like Alaba and Boola as a result of the housing challenges in the country, could result in other bigger social problems if not properly dealt with.

“Accommodation could pretend to be cheap in some of these slums we see springing here and there but when you look at the danger they pose for the inhabitants and even the society at large, you would realise that they in fact represent a bigger problem.

“For instance, diseases and other life-threatening sicknesses are likely to thrive in this type of environment. Also, children could be exposed to drug use while the girls are exposed to sex at a very early age. By the time this is allowed to go on unchecked, it becomes a full-blown problem for the society to deal with.

“But if there were decent and affordable houses available to citizens, people can live a healthy and responsible lives as there would be a considerable amount of order in such places. Government at every level must look into this issue before it leads to a major crisis,” he said.

-Via The Punch

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