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Rights groups assail forced evictions in Nigeria

LAGOS, Nigeria—Here in one of the most crowded cities on the planet, millions of people lack decent places to live. But as a government employee for the past 18 years, Ugo Udochu never thought she'd be one of them.

In December, Nigerian authorities defied a court injunction, stormed seven public housing complexes for government employees in central Lagos and forced out nearly 1,400 families, including Udochu's. Since then, the 40-year-old chemist and five family members have been squatting in an unused room in her office building.

After 18 years of government service, Udochu earns about $370 a month; a one-bedroom apartment in her old neighborhood rents for one-and-a-half times that.

"This is not the way a democratic government should treat its employees," Udochu said, seated on a stool in her family's cramped quarters. "This is not the way anyone should be treated."

The predawn raids by heavily armed security forces were the latest incidents in what rights groups say is a long and worsening saga of forced evictions in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, with 130 million residents.

Activists say the Nigerian government has removed at least 2 million people from their homes illegally since 1990, often in the middle of the night with little or no warning. Authorities ignore court orders, use excessive force, destroy property and fail to resettle people or provide adequate compensation, activists say.

Nigerian officials say the evictions are legal and necessary to build roads, sanitation systems and other development projects. Under a 1978 law that gives the government broad powers to seize land, authorities have razed dozens of communities, most of them slums, to make way for new roads and commercial projects.

But many of those evicted haven't found new homes even years later, and there are allegations that real estate speculators with government connections are cashing in on the evictions. At least one of the housing complexes seized in December is being converted to luxury apartments.

The evictions aggravate the misery in Nigeria's cities, especially Lagos, the world's sixth-largest city, whose population of 13 million is expected to reach 23 million by 2015. Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest oil exporter, yet 70 percent of the country's population lives on less than $1 per day.

"Nigeria has earned its reputation as one of the world's worst violators of the right to adequate housing," said Jean du Plessis, the deputy director of the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, a Geneva-based policy group.

Nigeria isn't alone. Across Africa, as millions of rural residents migrate to cities in search of jobs, the cost of urban land is going up, infrastructure is inadequate and authoritarian regimes are using forced evictions to manage the problem.

Last year in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe's government removed more than 700,000 poor people from their homes forcibly in an operation termed "Murambatsvina," which means "drive out trash."

Officials in Ghana, Ethiopia and Angola also have cleared out slums or grabbed land in recent years, often citing the need for urban redevelopment.

In Nigeria, critics say President Olusegun Obasanjo's evictions policy isn't any better than that of the repressive military dictatorship that Obasanjo replaced in 1999.

"It's indicative of a growing culture within Obasanjo's administration of extreme lawlessness," said Felix Morka, the executive director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center in Lagos.

In Nigeria's biggest eviction case in recent years, officials in Port Harcourt, the capital of the oil-rich Niger Delta region, bulldozed the homes of 1 million people in a settlement known as Rainbow Town in 2000. Police fired shots into crowds of residents, killing four people.

The Rainbow Town evictions, which authorities said were aimed at "urban renewal," took place despite pending court cases to block them, according to a recent report by the human rights group Amnesty International.

December's evictions were unusual only in that the targets were middle-class Nigerians, not the urban poor. Otherwise, they followed a familiar pattern.

In a brief phone interview, Nigeria's housing minister, Olusegun Mimiko, rejected claims that the residents' rights had been violated. He said the government gave residents enough notice and that the evictions were carried out lawfully.

"Due process was followed," Mimiko said. "These people are only appealing to emotion. The government has been absolutely fair in this matter."

The apartments had been set aside years ago as subsidized housing for civil servants, in part to allow government employees to live close to work. Three years ago, the federal government decided that maintaining the residences had become too expensive and announced that it would sell them.

Initially, residents were to have first crack at buying the properties. But officials decided they'd fetch more if they were sold to private developers to be renovated or replaced.

A handful of residents sued last year challenging the government's decision, and hundreds staged street demonstrations in September.

Six of the properties were sold, at prices ranging from $4 million to $52 million; the seventh eventually became military housing. The government ordered the residents to leave. A residents' committee rejected a government-relocation plan and an alternate offer of $1,800 per family in compensation, calling them inadequate, and got a judge to issue an injunction against the evictions.

Despite the injunction, dozens of military and police officers arrived at Bar Beach Towers—a set of hulking, beige-colored blocks a stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean—at about 4 a.m. Dec. 6.

"It was like a swarm of bees," recalled Udochu, who watched from her fourth-floor apartment as officers armed with batons broke down the gate to the complex.

"They came at us with their sticks," she said. "We were unarmed. but they hit some people."

Udochu said officers forced their way into her apartment and ordered her husband, their two teenage children, her younger sister and a housekeeper to pack up immediately. One of them threw her mattress out the window. Some residents reported injuries.

Similar raids occurred over the following days at the other complexes. More than two months later, many families are crashing on floors with friends and relatives, unable to afford new homes.

The court cases are still pending. But with the properties already sold, Prince Edenojie, a plaintiff and the chairman of the residents' committee, acknowledged that they have little hope of regaining their homes.

"We have been turned into refugees in our own country," Edenojie said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): NIGERIA-RIGHTS

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