By Bose Adelaja
THE Lagos State Task Force on Environment has over the years come to be associated with the demolition of structures regarded as illegal or wrongly sited in line with its mandate of giving a facelift to designated areas and ensuring sanity in the state. Some of the areas affected in recent demolitions included Mosafejo and Owonifari in Oshodi, Ajelogo, Lagos Island and Alimoso.
But the demolition of Olokonla in Etiosa local government area of the state on Friday December 16, 2016, caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised because of the involvement of the military. The demolition squad was backed by soldiers from the Nigerian Army 65 Mechanized Infantry Battalion, Bonny Cantonment, Victoria Island. However, even with the presence of soldiers, residents put up a fight to stop the demolition of their prized structures. In the event, some accompanying police men attached to Area ‘J’ Command, Elemoro, Ajah were reportedly attacked by the angry residents.
The attack, however, did not stop the demolition which started at about 8am and ended at about 7pm. At the end of it all, property worth over N15 billion were destroyed while over 200 families were rendered homeless. The reported break down of law and order led to some residents being brutalized while trying to salvage their belongings.
Days after the demolition of Olokonla, several protests have been staged by the victims who claimed that an influential businessman in the state allegedly used his connection in the state government to influence the demolition.
Olokonla is said to have been in existence for over a century. Before the demolition, it boasted over 2000 inhabitants and 200 structures, aside from worship and recreational centres, housing estates, markets and business centres. It was also generally regarded as one of the most peaceful communities in Lagos State. Hence, its demolition came to many as a surprise, if not a rude shock.
Five families: the Bakares, Orebiyis, Seidu Ogunleyes, Idowu Bakares and Amojo Usenis, were the traditional owners of the land before it was transferred to its current dwellers.
Vanguard gathered that among those brutalised by some gun and Koboko-wielding soldiers for protesting against the demolition was an eight months pregnant woman who ended up in hospital. Some other victims were said to have been beaten black and blue for recording or taking pictures of the exercise with their cell phones and other electronic devices. Just like the pregnant woman, many of those similarly brutalised could not celebrate the Yuletide as they were hospitalised, with some still presently undergoing medical treatment. Vanguard gathered that some of those who escaped the beating but lost virtually all their belongings have since relocated to their respective villages.
Before the demolition squad arrived, the biggest church in the area, In His Presence Christ Terbanacle, IHPCT, was preparing for a Christmas carol on December 18, 2016 and the tarry night on December 31 and had done enough publicity both locally and internationally. But with scant regard for this Christmas programme the church structure was pulled down.
During Vanguard’s visit to the community last week, some of the victims were seen hanging around, while others had relocated to far away places. A representative of IHPCT, Deacon Sebastine Egaji, said the church could no longer organise programmes as its only structure in Nigeria had been demolished. He said: ‘’I was in the church praying when I heard the sound of a bulldozer and I stopped the prayer to find out what was happening. That was when I saw some of my neighbours shouting for help. I immediately put a call across the church founder who was away at that time and he asked me to intensify prayers. Before I knew what was happening, the people pointed at our church. On noticing that, I pleaded with them to allow me pick some vital document before the structure was pulled down.”
Another victim Michael Utomi who owned seven acres of land in the area said the exercise was a big blow to his family. ‘’I bought seven acres for business purposes and was in Alausa on that fateful day for an assignment when I received a phone call to rush to the site. Unfortunately my structures were pulled down in my presence and all my pleas fell on deaf ears. I watched helplessly to see all I have laboured to build with my life earnings being demolished on that day. I ended up being hospitalised for days after the exercise, ‘’ he narrated.
Investigations by Vanguard revealed that the area in question was free from acquisition but a contravention notice was issued by the state government. The exercise was hurriedly carried out following a contravention notice dated December 6, 2016 and said to be issued by the Commissioner Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development with a document marked MPP & RDTSBCM/16/011 copies of which were pasted on all the buildings in the community.
This was followed by a demolition notice dated December 8, 2016 from same office marked with reference number: MPP & UD/ TSD/ 16/ CN/ 0000455 and pasted within 48 hours. But before the residents could do anything about the situation, they were greeted with the arrival of four earth moving equipment accompanied by some soldiers and area boys.
The counsel for the victims, Aremo Oladotun Hassan who described the demolition as unlawful, called on both the state and federal governments to come to the aid of the affected residents.
Three weeks after the incident, Aremo Hassan said he had petitioned the state Governor and the Inspector General of Police on the matter but there was no response. He said: ‘’This heinous act was craftily achieved following a hurriedly and ill-motivated contravention notice by the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development. It is our wish that President Muhammadu Buhari, Governor Akinwumi Ambode, Chief of Army Staff and the GOC, 81 Division must as a matter of priority visit the affected areas: to firstly commiserate with the affected people and give them succour. Also, adequate provisions for compensation be made to give shelter to the affected people.”
An indigene of Imo State, Mr Hyginus Ubama, said he almost lost his mother in-law to the demolition. ‘’I moved to the area in December 2014. My mother in-law was very sick at the time of the exercise and she was unable to move out before the bulldozers arrived our place. The Governor should come to our aid and rescue us from the hand of our oppressors,” he pleaded.
The Public Relations Officer, Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development, Sina Odutola, when contacted on phone declined comment about the development. ‘’I don’t want to talk about Olokonla and nobody should disturb my peace,” he said.
Reacting to the allegation that the demolition was carried out by soldiers, the Public Relations Officer, Nigerian Army, Lagos, Colonel Samuel said his men only provided security for those who carried out the exercise. But a more detailed response from the Army reads thus: “Respectfully be informed that the allegation is false, misleading and an attempt to whip up sentiments.
To put the records straight, Lagos State Task Force officially requested for security back-up to support it carry out the exercise of removal of illegal structures. Accordingly, OPERATION MESA of 65 Battalion was tasked to provide an outer cordon during the exercise. It responded legitimately in aid of civil authority and acted professionally during the exercise. The media would do well to clarify facts from appropriate Army Public Relations just like Vanguard has done before going to press. Best regards. Lieutenant Colonel Kingsley Mfon Samuel. Deputy Director Army Public Relations, 81 Division Nigerian Army.”
A representative of the traditional owners of the land, 70-year-old Pa Firidiu Oyekunle Orebiyi, said the development was a rape of justice.
The octogenarian who spoke in his native dialect said: “We voted for the Governor to make life better for us and not to make it meaningless. We urge the Governor to come to our aid and bail us out of this injustice meted on us by his people.”