Sunday, June 28, 2015

Many Nigerians Living Under Bridges in Lagos
Thursday, 25 June 2015 15:22
Written by Nurudeen Oyewole, Lagos
Nigerian Daily Trust

Boldly written on Setan Oladunjoye’s fez cap is: “I’m rich”. Apart from being comforting inscriptions, nothing in the appearance of Dunjoye as he is fondly called attest to the claim on its fez cap. If anything, it is a direct opposite of richness—Dunjoye is poor.

Sitting on a wooden bench, the middle-aged Dunjoye, a native of Omu-Aran in Kwara state lacks any specific job he can ascribe to himself.  Whatever he comes across is what he does. Interestingly, that does not seem to bother him. All that matters is that he lives in Lagos, he has some challenges, which according to him, are normal, and he is contented with life.

Dunjoye like many other squatters living under notorious bridges at Ijora Badia end of Lagos live in squalor. Apart from the not-comforting environment they co-habit, smoking of all manners of hard drugs, gambling in lottery (popularly known as Baba Ijebu) thievery, among other criminal activities is a common phenomena among these squatters.

“For now, I can’t really guarantee you a space because there are so many like you that come here on daily basis,” he said. He had been approached by this reporter who has presented himself as someone looking for a space to also squat under the popular Ijora Bridge at the Forte Oil section of the blighted community. “But I may help you look for ‘Base’ if we get him he can help you find a space,” Dunjoye added.

“Base” is a nickname of a popular tout within the vicinity that often allocates spaces for would-be squatters under some of the bridges.

Although he was nowhere near to be found throughout the time he was searched for, the reporter used the time to engage Dunjoye who seemed to be quite familiar with the terrain, to extract information.

When the reporter expressed weariness of likely attack by some of the stern looking boys that were seen gambling and smoking marijuana, Dunjoye simply laughed it off. He said the boys are simply living their lives, catching fun. He said they hardly maltreat anyone whom they know is of the same “level” with them. Except for those who show-off, Dunjoye said the young men simply go around and do their things.

“I can tell you that life is fun-filled in this area. This is no man’s land. Though we may not be living in duplexes, or the highbrow sections of Lagos, but we are still thanking God. We are not begging for food. No payment of NEPA bill, no security or water bill to pay for. There is also no threat from the landlord that he wants to eject you.

“As you come like this, you can leave anytime you want. Apart from the fact that people say we live in an open space, I can tell you that life here is more peaceful. The freedom we are enjoying, the rich men are not enjoying it. Even though they live in duplexes, we are far better than them. I’m sure some of them will be envious of us,”

Dunjoye boasts as he code-switch between Yoruba language and  pidgin English. Dunjoye and his ilk are numerous in different parts of Lagos metropolis. From Ojuelegba to Oshodi, Obalende to Apapa, Ijora to Adeniji Adele, squatters are currently living large under Lagos bridges, albeit in terrible condition.

Lagos, one of United Nations designated mega-cities with an approximate population of 20 million people bubbles with thousands not having decent accommodation.

Being a former capital city of Nigeria, Lagos appears to be the only city, after Abuja, with so many Federal Government constructed flyover bridges. Though, many said the idea behind the construction of  flyovers in the city was for aesthetics and most importantly, sanitized traffic situations expected to come with population explosion. Pathetically, that objective has since been defeated.

The traffic situation in the city has not only worsened the ambience of such bridges, but  their underneath have not been spared.

“The bridge serves us as good abode to rest. As you aware that many of us, Petroleum tanker drivers have to sleep for days to be able to load the product from the port and ferry it to other parts of the country while getting descent accommodation within the city will amount to wastages since we are not living permanently, that is why many of our people are usually found under these bridges,” Mukaila Adisa, a petroleum tanker driver met under the Ijora bridge narrated.

What Adisa perhaps will not add was the fact that from having the bridges as temporary abode of rest, he and many of his colleagues have now established colonies where jungle rules apply. Today, many of these tanker drivers and other squatters alike are raising families with unhygienic conditions under these bridges. Ironically, they appear to be ignorant and of health and environmental hazards involved.

The few, who do, appear to have resigned to faith. Below the flyover bridges at Barrack Bus Stop and Marine Beach, Apapa, squatters, many of whom are from northern parts of the country are also having swelled time. Mostly engaged in different types of menial jobs like casual laundering, commercial motorcycling (popularly known as okada), load carrying, among others, these squatters have their mattresses, buckets, blankets and other necessary house utensils often displayed in the open. They reek in dirt.

The environment of many of the food vendors who provide the squatters with their daily meals were not in anyway better off. Flies and mosquitoes of various sizes operate with funfair with unhindered access. Yet, the squatters do not appear bothered.

“We are fine.  Nothing do us. If somebody gets sick, he has actually has wanted to be sick, not because of this place,” a water vendor who simply identifies himself as Adamu said in pidgin.

The situation is not different at Obalende. For passersby descending from the Third Mainland bridge towards the rancorous motor parks, it is not always a pleasant sight to spot all manners of people doing all sorts under the bridge. When this reporter visited the area to observe situations, a man was seen taking his bath in the open while others, patronizing a nearby food vendor, eat and drink without worry beside the notorious Obalende canal that oozes bad odour.

It was also noticed that the wire-fence erected by officials of the State Task Force to fend of squatters from encroaching the area had been excised off by unknown persons, thereby giving easy access to encroachers who have a field day in the area.

Like Obalende, like Oshodi.

Despite tremendous efforts previously deployed by the State Task Force to clean the blighted spots of Oshodi, some homeless young men are currently finding spaces under the bridge. What perhaps baffle most about Oshodi is that unlike other places where impunity seem to have been elevated because of absence of security operatives, state and federal security operatives such as the police men and LASTMA officials can be found in every 500 metres distance.

Pre-election violence that broke out within the bubbling axis of Oshodi was said to have been aggravated by “boys” operating under the aegis of “Under-bridge boiz”. They were said to have their allegiance to one of the warring factions in the political crises.

Incidences of robberies under the bridge are also rearing up.

“I really don’t know if Oshodi is now sliding back to the old infamy. I was attacked by a group of young boys smoking Igbo (Indian hemp) under the bridge few days ago while I was returning Island.

It was around 9pm and I was alighted from the bus immediately after the Heritage Park in Oshodi, only to run into the midst of young boys of less than 20 years, threatening except I gave them my bag they will cut me with a knife.

“I was helpless because they were many and none of other passersby was willing to assist me. I have to give them the bag when one of them attempted to stitch my lips with his Igbo. I thank God my phone or something costlier was not even in the bag as at the time they took it except for the N5,000 given to me by a friend to keep,” Adeola Oduntan, a Civil Servant in Lagos said.

But for Superintendent Bayo Sulaimon, the  Chairman of Lagos State Task Force, the agency saddled with the task of enforcing the law against environmental offenders in Lagos, incidences of robberies are nnot peculiar to under-bridge miscreants but a phenomena that cuts across.

“Well, the truth is issue of robbery is not something peculiar to under bridges. Robbery can happen anywhere. Be that as it may, you will agree with me that there is a Lagos State Environmental law guiding our operations. With elections over now, we shall be going back to the drawing board and I can assure you that we will work on the new information you have just provided us,” Sulaimon told this reporter in his office.

According to Sulaimon, his agency is quite of aware of the resurgence in the number of people squatting under various flyover bridges across the state. He said the greatest challenge they seem to be confronted with is the emergence of a new set of people anytime certain squatters are arrested and prosecuted.

“Yes we are aware of people living under the bridges. And that is why we have made efforts in the past when we cleared Obalende, Oshodi, Apapa and a number of other places. But you know Lagos state is an urban area. As actions are being taken, reactions are coming up. What we have found out is that after removing certain squatters, new set of squatters from different places will spring up and return there. And that is why we are not relenting,” Sulaimon said.

The Task Force chairman attributed the resurgence to harsh economic situations of many people and rising cases of broken homes that often lead to children running away from homes but always find their way to under-bridges. He, however, promised that his agency will keep doing what it knows how to do best.

On the allegations that some of the law enforcement officers of the state are often compromised to allow many of the squatters to have unfettered access to these places, Sulaimon denied the allegation, saying, “I don’t believe our men are being compromised. And we have been enforcing the law. We are not going to stop doing that. Like I told you, our operation is guided by law. We don’t just act anyhow.

With new government in place now, I can assure you that we will intensify our efforts. You just look and watch us”.

Asked to respond on suggestion that the state government should provide resettlement camps for some of the squatters since the claims by many is their inability to get decent accommodation but Sulaimon said people should know that government has its programme and it would be impossible for it to “build houses or resettle everybody”.

“What government always does is to contact the families of these people and promptly reconnect these people with them. There are some of these people who have families within the state. There are those who come from outside the state too. There are some who simply have nobody or nowhere to go in Lagos and because they felt this is Lagos where anybody can live, they find spaces for themselves under the bridges. But when we get these set of people, we repatriate and reconnect them with their families.”

Sulaimon was however quick to advocate a better welfare package for Nigerians, saying that was the only way the menace can be reduced.

“I have found out that most of the problems driving these people to under the bridges are societal, then I will say government at all levels should do more to address some of the social challenges that easily force people to take to sleeping under bridges. We hope with new governments in place at different states and federal levels, things will improve for the better,” Sulaimon said.

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