How armed security men came with truckloads of coffins during Maroko demolition – Eviction survivor recounts ordeal
Maroko was for a long time a popular suburb in Eti Osa Local Government Area of Lagos, where people across ethnic groups, religions and beliefs lived. It was between Victoria Island and Ikoyi, sharing the trappings of these unique commercial, residential and administrative centres that surrounded it, whilst enjoying all the natural endowments of the beaches around it.
It was a growing, peaceful community with about 10,000 houses, 150 streets, 30 districts and 300,000 residents, out of which about 50,000 were children.
Life was good and Maroko was like a major service town to Victoria Island, Ikoyi and Lagos Island, because it was largely occupied by the low and medium income earners who had occupied it for about 20 to 50 years.
But Saturday, July 14, 1990 was a dark day for the residents of this community. It was the day the government of the then military governor of the state, Brig.-Gen. Raji Rasaki, brought in soldiers and bulldozers to evict the residents and reduce all the buildings in the growing community to rubbles.
Even though the residents were given a seven-day notice to vacate the premises, they never took it seriously, perhaps they never expected that government, whose sole responsibility was to protect lives and property, would carry out such harsh treatment on its citizens.
But true to its notice, Maroko community ‘died’ on that very day and suffice it to say its name entered the lexicon as it remains one of the largest forced evictions in the history of the country. Lives were lost, properties were destroyed, families were scattered while dreams were shattered in that incident. Friday, July 14, 2017 made it 27 years that the incident took place, but the memory had yet to disappear in the minds of those who witnessed it.
One of the many residents who witnessed the entire episode, Rev. Stephen Aiyeyemi, now 52 years old, tells us in this interview how he and his family survived and what has been their fate since then
Since the forced eviction at Maroko, what comes to your mind on July 14 of every year?
What comes to our mind every year is the forced eviction of Maroko people from Maroko land, and that is why we the victims of that action meet on the 14th of every month. It was a terrible experience. It was like a military takeover, when the then military governor of Lagos State, Brig.-Gen. Raji Rasaki, came with armed security personnel to demolish our houses. They crushed sick and old people with bulldozers and chased people with guns. It was a sad episode.
Was there any quit notice served on the residents by the government?
The only notice served on us was a seven-day notice given on the radio. The notice was announced on radio. Obviously, people didn’t take it seriously. Of course, not everybody had a radio and nobody was expecting it, so, many people didn’t hear about it on time. But in spite of that, people didn’t take it seriously. For example, I didn’t hear the notice and remember that nobody saw it coming. But the day after the seventh day, armed security men came with several bulldozers to demolish our houses, they came with truckloads of coffins, for those who would resist and ambulances. And they started the demolition.
Within those seven days, were there people who left the premises in adherence to the quit notice?
I don’t think people left, because the notice was not taken seriously. Nobody believed the government would give just seven days, and in a manner it was given. According to our records, there were about 300,000 residents in that place and we had about 10,000 landlords, so we had about 10,000 houses. There had been several attempts by the government to take over that place, but we didn’t believe it would get to that. A year before that time, the then Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida came to Maroko to inaugurate some projects, like People’s Bank, some roads, a library and other projects. So, seeing him inaugurating projects, we were relaxed, thinking that since he came, then our occupation could not be threatened, if the Head of State could visit us. But we didn’t know he came to spy the land.
You think he came to spy?
In retrospect now, we believe he came to see the land for himself. He moved round the entire place when he came. We believed Raji Rasaki did it with the understanding and permission of Babangida. My father was the leader of the people then, so he even read the welcome address to receive him. We were confident nothing would happen. But a year after, the story changed.
When the armed security men came, how did the people react?
They came in the morning, say around 9am to 10am. Many people had gone to work and only came back to meet the ruins. At that time, there was no mobile phone to call people, so when it started, those who were around scampered to save some of their belongings. The news was all over the place. I also had to rush back to see what was happening. What I met that day was terrible. It was this time of the year; rainy season, so it was raining as they were demolishing the houses and that was part of the problems people encountered. People were left in the cold, without anywhere to go, no clothes to change to and seeing their properties in ruins made many to collapse. Many people died in the process, many became sick and families were scattered. It’s better imagined.
Within the seven days, did the residents take any step to seek clarification from the government or get court injunction to restrain the government?
Few days to the expiration of the notice, my father mobilised some other leaders within Maroko to go to Justice Ligali Ayorinde, the then Chief Judge of the state, to get an injunction to stop the Lagos State government from carrying out its threat to demolish the place. But the judge told them that there was no evidence that the government wanted to do anything like that. So, he didn’t give the order. After the demolition took place as promised, they went back to Justice Ayorinde and he said, well, the place had been demolished already and there was nothing he could do. And we believed it was based on his complicity in that incident that that street at Sandfill in the now Victoria Island (which used to be a part of Maroko) was named after him as compensation.
But you can’t be too sure he was on their side.
Every genuine Maroko person believes that he deliberately assisted government to get that thing done and was adequately compensated.
How long did the demolition take?
The demolition went on for about two weeks. The morning it started, I came from my base at Iyana Ipaja area. What I saw when I got there was shocking. The bulldozers there were more than 10 and they came in from Sandfill where we now have the Mobil headquarters. They started from there and moved into the community gradually. Maroko extended from the now Mobil headquarters at Sandfill, to the Lagoon, the Atlantic Ocean and to the place we call Elf around Ikate. All that expanse of land was occupied by Maroko people. Anybody that resisted them was beaten with horsewhips and harassed with guns. Some people resisted moving out of their buildings and the buildings were demolished on them. One that readily comes to mind is one 11-year-old girl that walls fell on in her father’s house during the demolition and she died. People’s life savings were crushed by bulldozers in their presence. Some fainted and never came back to life. Some aged persons in their houses could not come out, especially those who were sick, and the buildings were demolished on them. A whole family drowned at the Five Cowrie Lagoon, among many others. So, we had many deaths. Some women that were pregnant went into forced labour and over the period of that demolition, we had many cases of the soldiers raping our women and girls, looting properties, because during the exercise, they worked from morning till night. They were everywhere and they didn’t leave until they brought down every house. It was a terrible military action. People who were able to save some of their personal properties lost some of them eventually because they were looted. There was commotion everywhere.
The government said at that time that they chased the residents out because the land was below the sea level and all they wanted was for the people to vacate the place, sandfill it and return you there. Did you ever believe them?
That was what they told us, but actions speak louder than words. It won’t be a matter of what somebody told us, it would be about what happened. What you said was what the government told us but as it turned out, after the place was taken over forcefully, it was sandfilled, but it was never given back to us. What we have now is the rich and mighty occupying the place. We now believe that their reason for taking over Maroko was to give the place to the rich and mighty. It is on Maroko land now that you have the Oniru Estate, the British International School, Shoprite, Lekki Phase 1 Scheme 2 and several other places. All those places were our land, but you can’t find any Maroko person there because we can’t afford it. So, the place was taken from us to be given to the very rich in the society.
How do you know they were involved in the takeover?
The Oniru and Elegushi were our two major landlords; they sold our land to us and now they are back there, occupying the same land. Maroko was a very big place. Some parts like Ilado and Agbado were sold by Elegushi chieftaincy family. The area where you now have the Mobil headquarters was sold by the Oniru family. We bought our land, we had documents with stamp duty on them and we were paying tenement rates. All of us had Deed of Lease, so we were not squatters and we didn’t build shanties. We had storey buildings, duplexes and bungalows and face-to-face (tenement) houses. We had people who were very okay living there. We had standard buildings and flood was not our problem as it is in Jakande where we now rest our heads. But our land was taken forcefully. However, it was the era of oil boom and we discovered later that it was because Victoria Island was built up and there were many emerging millionaires and billionaires who wanted to make a statement that they had arrived by getting a house in the neighbourhood of Victoria Island. So, VI needed to be extended to accommodate the new category of millionaires. Thus, Maroko people had to go. It would seem the place was no longer good for the poor. The place was between Ikoyi and VI, so we had a lot of domestic staff servicing people in VI and Ikoyi staying there. It was like a small Nigeria because we had people from different parts of the country. All the tribes were there. We were very close to the sea, so foreigners used to walk through our community to the beach. Some would come to our market for shopping. So, life was beautiful.
Was there any immediate plan to resettle you?
There was no prior preparation by government to resettle us. You know it came too suddenly and it seemed their plan was to scatter us and scatter us forever. That we are here now in this flooded Jakande Estate, (some in Ikota Estate and part of Federal Government Estate, Epe), was through agitation by civil society organisations. Prominent among them was Femi Falana, the Civil Liberties Organisation, Prof. Wole Soyinka, the Catholic Church, which gave us relief materials and Felix Morka of Social and Economic Rights Action Centre was working with CLO then. All of these people were involved in shouting to the world, asking the government how it could treat its people like this; waging a war against its people. So, the international community saw our government as filthy. To save face, they gave excuses and said they had prepared a place we could stay at Jakande, Epe and Ikota. But they didn’t have the plan because Jakande Estate had been abandoned for years and the buildings were uncompleted. We learnt Chief Jakande went there during construction and he wasn’t satisfied with the standard. He is a man known for excellence, so he cancelled the contract, and the place had been abandoned for years. So, Raji Rasaki made public announcement that we would be resettled there and so people left where they were hanging and came here. Some of the evicted persons were living on the road in the sun and in the rain while some were wandering until we got to Jakande.
Between the time you were evicted and the time the governor made the announcement, how long was it?
Some people were on the streets for about two weeks in the cold, living there day and night because there was nowhere to go. Some had relatives they ran to, but many were stuck and many died in the process. Pregnant women delivered prematurely in the public, under total harassment by uniformed men and in some cases, both the mother and child died on the spot. There were dead bodies that were left to decompose with us when we were still stranded on Maroko land.
Where did your family go after the eviction?
We stayed at the demolished site. After the demolition, the soldiers went away, so a lot of people, including my family, stayed around the rubbles. We were able to salvage some louvre blades, louvre frames, doors, wood used for roofing, etc. People were still at a loss as to what happened. The place had become a plane ground. There were people who had four to six houses and there were people who had 17 houses. Some had shops and big businesses. There was a particular man named Anitini, but his popular name was California. He had California Hotel, California Bakery, California block industry, California Cinema and other businesses doing well for him in Maroko.
Is he alive?
No, he died few days after, because apart from psychological trauma, soldiers gave him serious beating with gun butts. That incident killed him days after, and no flat was allocated to his survivors. There were other people who slumped and died, seeing what had become of their homes.
Your dad is also late, was it as a result of that incident?
I don’t think that incident killed him directly, because he died just four years ago. But he always said that one of the direct impact of that incident was that during the demolition, he sustained a deep injury on his leg. His leg was eventually amputated before he died.
When you moved to Jakande, what did you meet on ground?
It was an abandoned estate overgrown with grass. There were snakes and different kinds of reptiles. It was rainy season, so the place was flooded, the same way it is now. People fell into gutters because we didn’t know the terrain. A lot of people got injured during the process; some were bitten by dangerous reptiles and died in the process. Many families were scattered; the about 50,000 children had their education terminated and life became very difficult. Some of the landlords in Maroko lived on the rent they were getting from their houses and when all that was gone, life was no longer the same again, even till date. Where you now have Oriental Hotel used to be our canoe jetty, including places like Oniru Estate. It was part of Maroko.
These days when you pass that place and you see what that area has become, what comes to your mind?
I just come to terms with man’s inhumanity to man, and then government power. Government is so powerful that it can do a lot of things. They could apologise when they wrong you and they could make amends, but the government has the machinery and might to actualise monumental damage against anyone unless you can act fast to stop them, but if you can’t, they can cause so much damage because they have so much power. Till date, I would tie that inhuman treatment to the complicity of people like the Oniru and Elegushi royal families.
After the demolition, what did the Maroko people do as a people?
Some of the residents ran to Dodan Barracks to protest, but they were beaten by the soldiers and some were even detained. After that, we had a lot of people fighting for us, like I mentioned. CLO, headed by Olisa Agbakoba then, was the first to take our case to court that government should redress that action.
Specifically, what did you ask for when you approached the court?
We told them to give our buildings and land back to us, afterall that was the promise they made before evicting us forcefully, we asked for compensation for what we lost, because people lost valuables and that those who couldn’t get allocation in any of the three estates – Jakande, Epe and Ikota – should be allocated their own flats.
Were there people who didn’t get allocation?
Yes, there were and some were allocated flats that never existed. People took the flats as they came into the estates. But after about two weeks, government then sent soldiers into Jakande Estate to chase us out. In fact, my own sister nearly died in that process because she fainted. During that invasion, there were people who were thrown down from two-storey buildings. Some died and some survived. After that, Falana and others ran to the world press again and drew the attention of the world to the incident. I tell you that government never wanted to give us this place. We don’t know what we did to them. In fact, they planned to demolish it and rebuild it, but it had become our shelter. After the efforts of those activists, government then set up a committee to officially allocate the flats in the three locations. In Jakande, none of the houses was completed. The project was given to different contractors, and it was supposed to be a block of six flats, comprising three-bedroomed flats each. Some were built to roofing level, some were roofed, some had only built four flats, some had only built just two flats, some were just at foundation level. They were at different levels of completion when we moved here. When we tendered our documents, the flats were allocated by design, not minding whether it was built or not. So, in a block that had not gone beyond foundation, six flats were allocated. They allocated nonexistent flats to people and all those allocations were published in Lagos Horizon newspaper at that time. By the time the allocation was done, the total number of people in the three estates was about 3,000. Out of that figure, about 1,000 were those given nonexistent flats. Essentially, it means about 8,000 landlords were not given anything. That was one of the things we were asking government. We also asked for compensation for our losses, physical and economic. These are the things we have been asking for since 1990 till date.
Has there been any form of compensation till date?
In some quarters, some people would say there has been some compensation. After several years, I think it was during the (former Lagos governor, Asiwaju Bola) Tinubu’s tenure. They put together 21 Baales (community heads) in the then Maroko, and the government gave them land in different parts of Eti Osa Local Government to share the plots of land to their subjects as part of the compensation from government. But what happened was that most of the Baales, if not all, failed to do that. Till now, we can’t see any Maroko person that got allocation from those Baales. The Baales sold some of them and kept some to themselves.
Were they not also victims from Maroko?
They were. We were all displaced from Maroko, but that was what happened.
Did the people ask questions?
People asked questions and they are still asking. The issue came to a head early this year when some of the people took those Baales to court on the matter. So, the matter is in court.
What is the status of the original case the Maroko people instituted against the government?
About two to three years ago, Justice Olagbegi of Lagos High Court gave a ruling that Maroko people who had been given allocation should be left where they are, and the reason for that ruling was that there had been different kinds of moves to drive us out from here. There was a time they said they wanted to move us to Igando in Alimosho Local Government. Another time, we heard they wanted to move us to Ogombo in Lekki here. We are aware of the ploys. See, when we got here in 1990, there were no estates in the whole of this area as we have now. Then, if you stayed at that Lekki-Epe Expressway, in one hour, you might not see more than two or three cars, whether going or coming. Nobody was here. But when we moved here, it was opening up gradually, till what we have now. That is why different administrations had been trying to move us out because they felt they would gain more if they take us to a bush and sell this place like they did Maroko. So, the ruling then was that we should be left alone and people who weren’t given allocation should be given. But we appealed the ruling because it didn’t say anything about compensation. As of now, the case is in Appeal Court. Besides those demands, we are, more importantly, asking that we should be given Certificate of Ownership of the flats we have at the moment. We don’t have the papers and so our minds are not at rest; they could come back anytime. Even a property that has C of O, government has the power to take occupation, not to talk of people like us who do not have it. We have taken letters to all the administrators and governors that have served this state since then, but nothing has happened. This estate is deteriorating and we are afraid. Before this flood that has taken over our houses for the past one week, some buildings here had collapsed. We are afraid that if the place is left as it is, many more would collapse. If the collapse becomes a regular occurrence, the same government would want to move in to ‘save’ us and then we wouldn’t have any choice but to leave. We took an initiative and our landlords’ association approached the Lagos Building Investment Company so they could help us redevelop the estate. We are having that discussion right now. To us, we feel that may be a way to retain the estate.
After the demolition, did Raji Rasaki or Babangida apologise for that treatment?
They didn’t. Several years after the demolition, there was an Oputa Commission raised to address a lot of human rights abuses and injustices, so the Maroko community sent their report and we were heard. The recommendation was that Lagos State Government should apologise to us, but till now, they have not done that. It was during Otedola’s regime that he said the demolition of Maroko was a mistake and that government was misled by civil servants. But there has been no public apology from any successive government, whether from Lagos State or the Federal Government. Anytime we made our request, we joined the Federal Government because it was a military regime.
Have you forgiven the government for what it did to you?
Maroko people are many, comprising of people with different beliefs. But for me, I’m a Christian and my belief is that I should forgive those who have wronged me so that I could also get God’s forgiveness because I’m not perfect. As a person, I have forgiven them, thanking God I’m still alive, and I ask him to give me the grace to get better than it is now. But, that incident was the height of man’s inhuman treatment to fellow men. Punch