Homelessness in Nigeria, the Growing Scourge

Just about a year ago when this reporter spoke with him under the Marina Bridge, Lagos, Suraju Jimoh, 44, had not known any kind of comfort or employment within the last decade. He made the Marina flyover home because he did not want to live in a crowded room with his wife and children. That day that he spoke with this reporter made it exactly eight years that he had lived under that bridge. All his worldly possessions which included a faded umbrella draped over several threadbare sheets and polyethylene sheets were scattered around the space that he clamed as his. Near him, a tripod that resembled that one which the three witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth used to brew their concoction still smoldered. Jimoh said he had used it to heat his food the previous night, and warmed himself from the cold winds that blew furiously from the sea. Three days before, Jimoh complained to his fellow homeless compatriots that he had a fever. They scampered around to get him agbo, a locally prepared brew that was supposed to cure malaria. The agbo did not stop his free flow of stool, and the day before he died, Jimoh shaved, brushed up, put on his best rags, took a slight breakfast and lay down on the carton he used as a bed. A couple of hours later, he was dead.

Samuel Adesi, 35 year old father of two children said he felt drained when his former employers in the private school he worked and lived found out that his wife was pregnant with their second child. They sent him packing at once. Left without a choice, he hit the streets with his wife and two-year old daughter. ‘It was a hell of an experience’’, Adesi reminisced. So too was Akpan Umoh who said that his home was demolished in April 1995 at Maroko. Seeing him at the ogogoro joint, seated with his head on his chin, one would ordinarily assume that he had reached the end of the road of his life. The shine on his premature bald head, together with the wrinkles on his brow make him cut out as a man of 60. His two children, Umoh and Blessing are the only comforts he returns to in a lair just by Maryland, Lagos. ‘I have no one to turn to, not even my church and family members’, he said. Babatunde Ola, 62, and father of three who lives close to Umoh in an edifice of polyethylene bags, cartons and a weak wall of cardboard told this reporter he considered himself very lucky to have his own shed. ‘Just come here at night, and if your heart is not strong, you will be moved to tears at the sheer number of people who sleep here’, he said.

Women and children usually suffer more when they do not have a roof over their heads. Take the case of a 20-year old mother Christiana Caleb, from Jos, who lives under a bridge with Matthew, her two and half year old son. When Matthew came along two years ago, she said her brother who initially took her in with her family, was no longer able to cope with her growing family. The streets, next the bridge, was her next alternative. According to her, her husband has sold off nearly every property they once had, and they had to move under the bridge. Everyday, Matthew’s father goes out to look for money, and the little boy, with her mother are left under the bridge, exposed the filth and the harsh marijuana smoke that billows all around.

At a popular eatery in the heart of Lagos mainland, women and children swoop on the premises every evening. The women are young, mostly in their 30s. They carry huge bundles of all their worldly possessions which they spread on the floor as pillows. From these bags, they bring out bags and cartons which they spread on the floor. Every one of the women with their children sleep in the open, while those closer the walls of the eatery are homeless married couples. Lucky Obuseh, a security guard confirmed to us that every night, the place is filled to capacity. ‘There are always incidences where they fight for space, particularly when it rains at night’, Obuseh said. At the premises of City Hall, Lagos, scores of women and children sneaked in one after the other to pass the night. Women and children along the Lagos-Benin highway also suffer homelessness as a result of the former leprous condition of their husbands and fathers who have been ostracized because of their former condition as lepers. These women and children are hale and hearty but live with their cured husbands and fathers in the bush without access to any basic amenity like potable water, electricity, and the children do not have opportunities to go to school. Their life is constantly on the highway, begging for alms from passing vehicles.

In Lagos, the homeless population grows by the hour. Experts say they believe that on a scale of one to 100 among the cities of the world that are considered fastest in growth, Lagos, Nigeria is seventh. Lagos compares only to China’s Beihai, which grows by 10.58 percent of an annual growth in 2006. A press release published by Amnesty International, in January 2006 suggests that homelessness in Lagos may be the rippling effect of the forced evictions that took place from April 25-27 1995. According to the report, ‘it is estimated that in the last five years, over 1.2million people have been forcibly evicted from their homes in different parts of the country. Such evictions generally target marginalized people, many of whom have lived for years without access to clean water, sanitation, adequate health care or education. Poverty is rife in Nigeria, despite the fact that it is Africa’s largest oil exporter’. Lagos’ current population of approximately 18 million is one of the fastest growing in the world, and by United Nations’ estimates, this will hit the 24 million inhabitants mark by 2010.

A report by Social and Economic Rights Action Centre, SERAC, on the activities of the Federal Ministry of Housing and Developments presents another chapter in the story of homelessness in Nigeria. The report said that more than 12,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their homes in Lagos since 2005 when the task force on Environment demolished over 300 homes at Ogunbiyi village in Ikeja, Lagos, leaving 3,000 people homeless. Continuing, the report said that more than 1,000 people were evicted during the night of December 6 2005 from publicly-owned apartment buildings in Lagos by police and military officers. If the findings by another NGO, Compassionate Outreach in Lagos are anything to go by, it makes the case of Lagos particularly worrisome. From field activities that the NGO conducted under the bridges, its findings showed that homeless adult males who mostly indulge in prostitution and touting in Ojeulegba alone were 35,000, while the number for adult female and juvenile male and female came to 30,000. At Railway, Oripkako at Ijora were 40,000 homeless men, 15, 000 homeless women and 35,000 children. The NGO figures also said that there were 2,500 adult male, 650 adult female, and 2,500 young boys and girls at Maryland who were involved in prostitution, touting and transporters as okada riders. For Oshodi and Mushin, Compassionate Outreach said that there were 22,000 adult male, 8,000 women and 30,000 young boys and girls also deeply involved in prostitution, petty thievery and touting, popularly known as agbero or ‘area boy’. These numbers will pale into insignificance when compared to the figures that the NGO gave for other areas like Alaba/Mile 12, Ajegunle, Badagry, Ikorodu, and the entire 52 development areas of Lagos. Without accommodation, these people make do with under the bridges and open spaces in popular restaurants and fast food joints. To survive, they engage in petty trading, touting, pimping, prostitution and just about anything, to get by. Some of them, who spoke with this reporter said that sometimes they earn close to N5,000 monthly, the equivalent of $40, which in most cases cannot guarantee proper feeding, talk less to afford a one-room apartment in Lagos.

Most homeless Nigerians live like rats and cockroaches in the six geopolitical zones of the country. Most of them are under the bridges because they claim that they cannot afford the cost of accommodation in most of the big cities where they came to look for work. Patrick Chiazor, 49, who works in Surulere as executive secretary with Eagle Eye, a non governmental Organisation, NGO, lives under a section of the Ojota bridge, sarcastically christened, Olorunfunmi, which translates in Yoruba thus, I got this even by the grace of God. This country has no low-cost housing schemes for people like me. I fought very hard with greedy landlords and agents before I could get this face-me-I-slap you apartment’, Chiazor told the magazine. Many like Chiazor could not afford to pay something close to N500, 000.00 to a cool million naira, for a two bedroom apartment in any decent location.

Apart from cases like Chiazor’s, incidences that make Nigerians homeless in cities like Warri, Sapele, Ughelli and Agbor in Delta State result from inability of government to guarantee housing security for her people. Residents told the magazine that they are unable to secure accommodation because of the oil-rich disposition of the state. Amonu Udemude, a self-employed motor-repairer who lives in a shed with his family said that ‘because of the oil companies that work here, landlords ask us to pay rents that resemble that of people who earn fantastic salaries in the oil companies. Others who once had comfortable beds do not have them any more. The case of Pius Eze, a former staff of Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, proved that. In 2005, he said he paid as much as a million naira for one of the housing units at the Delta Steel Company, Ovwian, when the Bureau for Public Enterprises, BPE, sold off the ailing Delta Steel Company, DSC. In the ensuing fracas between the Federal Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, FMHUD, which claimed that the BPE did not consult with it before sale of the units was effected) Eze lost out. In Port Harcourt, SERAC said that government the Rivers State government began demolishing homes of the Agip Waterside Community in February 2005, leaving 5,000 – 10,000 homeless. Some 1.2million were also forcibly evicted by the Rivers State government in July 2000 from Rainbow Town, Port Harcourt – a settlement for poor people dating back to the 1960s. The state government used land conflicts and purported illegal occupation as justification for the evictions and demolitions. In Abuja, forced evictions in Lugbe, Chika and allied villages such as Alieta and Galadimawo led to the displacement of more than 800,000 persons. Most of them relocated their families to their native states, ‘while a great number of them opted to move in with friends and relatives’, a report by SERAC said.

Homeless Nigerians told the magazine that they feel disenchanted and have carried on like aliens in their motherland. Edward Mouka, 49, a native of Michika local government area of Adamawa State said that he had lived under the Marina Bridge since 1994. ‘How do you expect us to feel when we hear that some big people are spending so much money to renovate their houses, buy bullet-proof cars when we live under these bridges?’, he moaned. ‘In Olorunfunmi we don’t have water. We always live in constant fear of wild animals and attack by armed robbers. We survive by any means necessary. Our families are dejected, and my son faces a lot of insults from his mates because of where we live’, Chiazor told the magazine. John Ozah, social worker, says that people who are forced by whatever circumstances to live without a home become psychological weaklings, who do not have any kind of attachment to their immediate environments. Because they live in dirty surroundings, they become people who easily spread diseases. Unknown to us all, we board the same vehicles and buy from the same markets’, Ozah said. Emeh Akenzua, managing trustee of Heritage Homes holds similar views. According to her, ‘the breakdown of the family unit and economic hardship dislocates women and puts the children in a very difficult situation’. Akenzua believes that to stem the tide of homelessness in Nigeria is no mean feat but that it can be done. She wants more effort to be put in place to improve the earning power of Nigerians, stressing that there must always be institutions on ground to strengthen family values.

Poju Onibokun, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning who was part of a Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research said that nobody really understands why people are homeless in Nigeria. According to Onibokun, ‘the general consensus is that rapid urban growth associated with an accelerated tempo of socio-economic development has seriously aggravated the shortage of dwelling units in Nigeria, resulting in overcrowding, high rent, slum and squatter settlements’. That, Onibokun say is untrue, citing the failure of the Third National Development Plan of 1975-80. He said that there were arguments for and against giving priority to either the urban or the rural areas of Nigeria. Those who favour priority being given to the urban areas argue that rapid urban expansion should be accompanied by rapid expansion of public services in order to avoid environmental decline; that housing in urban areas generates greater external economies. They also maintain that urban areas have more political heavyweights and agitators and therefore investment in urban housing are more likely to yield more political benefits than investment in rural housing. But those who believe that rural projects should take priority have argued that ‘investment in rural housing is more likely to stem rural-urban migration thereby decreasing the problem of the urban areas; and that investment in rural housing will encourage balanced national development.

Deji Eninseyin, 31, a lawyer said he believes that the homeless problem will always be there as long as private estate developers together with the government place emphasis on building houses for the rich. He said that he attended a well-publicized event at the Golden Gate Hotel in Lagos where a signing ceremony took place between three banks and a private developer to build estates in an exclusive area of Lagos. According to Eninseyin the amount involved in the building of the flats was put at N5billion, with completion time estimated at 30 months. ‘Do you know that that amount of money could build low cost housing estates for nearly a million Nigerians?, he queried. Eninseyin said that he is disappointed that nobody is asking why such schemes to build houses for the poor and homeless are not being asked. But there are Nigerians, unknown to Eninseyin, who work tirelessly to champion the problem of the homeless in Nigeria. Under the umbrella of Compassionate Outreach, Olumide Oyediji, a medical doctor, organizes an annual ‘sleep out’ programme under the various bridges in Lagos. Oyediji does that to bring attention to the plight of homeless people in Nigeria. ‘We spend personal funds to rehabilitate pertinent cases, and even though nearly all our appeals to all the corporate bodies and multinational have not yielded any positive dividends’, he said. Undaunted, Oyediji took his crusade to three local council chairmen in the Alimosho local government area, and to two kings in Egbeda local government area of Lagos state, to sensitize them concerning his HIV/AIDS programme, together with his homeless crusade. Oyediji’s effort has yielded numerous dividends in the many homeless he has rehabilitated. Aina Orosun, 63, said he was just 17 when he began to live under the Ojuelegba Bridge. According to him, ‘I brought up all four of my children there and after 30 years of living under the bridge in a spoilt bus, God used the Compassionate Outreach people to rescue me. They have paid for a one-bedroom apartment for me and given me employment in the church’, he said.

At the eighth Lagos Housing Fair held in Lagos recently, Lateef Jakande, former governor of Lagos State said that federal and state governments must urgently address the homeless problem through provision the provision of land and adequate funding. Jakande said that most workers in Nigeria were ignorant of the fact that they were entitled to loans after six months of contributing 2.5 percent of their salaries under the National Housing Fund. According to the former governor, the activities of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria are not known to majority of Nigerians who may want to take advantage of it to build their own houses. Like Oyediji, Jakande appealed to the Nigerian government to”accelerate the provision of housing and make it a cardinal point to abolish homelessness”. Homelessness, even though an acute problem in Nigeria, also exists in the civilized world. From a report by the United Nations, UN, Fund, State of the World’s Population 2007: Unleashing the Potentials of Urban Growth, there are indications that by year 2030, more than 3.3 billion people will opt to live in urban areas, even though under bridges and in cartons and cardboards. According to that same report, the number of cities of the world having people without homes will grow by 1.7 billion and the number of city dwellers will reach 5 billion. Of that figure, towns and cities of the developing world will make 81 percent of urban humanity. Another report by the United States Conference of Majors, CM, said that more people in American cities were homeless and hungry in 2006 than 2005 because the government could not meet the requests for shelter which rose by nine per cent in 2006. That is not all from the CM. Its official estimates for homelessness in 2006 was quoted thus on its website: On average, single men comprise 51 per cent of the homeless population, families with children 30 per cent, single women 17 per cent and unaccompanied youth 2 per cent. The homeless population is estimated to be 42 per cent African-American, 39 per cent white, 13 per cent Hispanic, 4 per cent Native-American and 2 per cent Asian. An average of 16 per cent of homeless people is considered mentally ill; 26 per cent are substance abusers. Thirteen per cent are employed; nine per cent are veterans. “But if you were to compare the homeless conditions of an American with that of any other homeless anywhere in the world, you would discover that they are worlds apart”, said Jennifer Kerner, an American Volunteer who visited Uromi on a medical mission in September 2007. In the United Kingdom, UK, a great majority of asylum seekers from Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda are known to endure the harsh conditions that the thoroughfares and alleyways present to them when they leave their homes for greener pastures abroad. Mary Namkussa, the 40-year-old Ugandan who fled her home after she was gang-raped by soldiers hunting for rebels told her story in The Independent of UK like this: “It is difficult for me to put into words how I feel about being destitute. I think living the life of a destitute person is like living like an animal, not a human being’’.

Written by
MajiriOghene Bob Etemiku
Join the discussion

  • It is quite heartbreaking when I think about what I have just read-why are governments at all levels in Nigeria acting like it is not bothered?

  • there are millions of nigerian with no roof over their head one cant help but wonder if the government are in their sense when they claim to build low cost housing that it prices run into millions of naira.

  • Poverty is on every corner in Lagos, it is rife across Nigeria, people are struggling and suffering at every level. The few who are rich are thieves and crooks, if the leaders are thieves the people will be thieves. This country is a nightmare, it is hard to find work and people are constantly trying to con you. This is the land of dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. The less than 1% flying around in private jets and driving Bentley’s do not represent the real people of Nigeria. Carrying a Hermes bag is not development. We need jobs, affordable housing, clean water, electricity, we need laws and accountability to safeguard women, children and the vunerable. This country is a nightmare period and we are suffering.

  • I really learned a lot reading this article. It’s amazing how privileged you feel once you read this, when you learn about all these people living homeless. You feel the need to want to help.

  • I say Patrick Chiazu’s story is a little exagerated, I don’t see face – to – face rooms under the Ojota bridge and you can get a 2 bedroom flat in a decent area for N150,000 per annum in Ikorodu, Lagos.

  • Sometimes, it’s unbelievable how bad things are in Nigeria when one thinks of the extravagance a few others live in.