Saturday 29 November 2014

The scourge of homelessness in Nigeria


According to the Encyclopedia Britannica on the subject of housing, ‘‘few social problems have increased so suddenly or been dramatized so effectively as the plight of the homeless in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Once an invisible people who could easily be ignored, the homeless are now recognized everywhere on the streets and in the public facilities of major cities.’’   

This quote describes the situation of homeless people everywhere and Nigeria is not an exemption. In major cities of the country such as Lagos, Porthacourt and Abuja homeless people are easily noticeable on the streets. It is not unusual to see someone sleeping under the bridge or by the roadside. The United Nations Statistical Division sets homeless persons into two broad categories:  Primary homelessness (persons without roof on their heads). This category includes persons living in streets or without a shelter or living quarters; Secondary homelessness. This category may include persons with no place of usual residence who move frequently between various types of accommodation (including dwellings, shelters or other living quarters); and persons usually resident in long-term ‘transitional’ shelters or similar arrangements for the homeless. This category also includes persons living in private dwellings but reporting ‘no usual addresses on their census form.’’

Homelessness is in fact a global tragedy according to Mr. Kayode Akorede a sociologist and educationist; he opined that it is a problem that is not limited to Nigeria alone. ‘‘It is a global problem. Homeless people are everywhere. It is a problem that is often neglected by governments particularly in Africa simply because they live it in the hands of the individuals. Government should rise up to the occasion because homelessness is a problem that can be solved if they put the proper policies in place. Private developers only build expensive homes that can only be afforded by the rich alone. This is because their only aim is to make huge profits at the expense of the populace.’’

Investigations by Sunday Mirror confirmed that homelessness is common in major cities of the country.  In Lagos touts popularly known as ‘Agberos’ often live in motor parks, garages, some live under the bridges. Sexual workers with no roof on their heads live in slums and beaches with houses built with bamboo leaves. There are also hundreds of people who live in slums built on top of lagoons who are not sexual workers on touts, people who live in uncompleted buildings and badly built houses made of planks and polythene bags. In a chat with a young lady, a Ghanaian living in Nigeria, who gave her name simply as ‘Surprise’ she said, my mother and I ran away from home in Accra, Ghana because of my father. He was a very violent man. In fact he can be described as terrifying. He was having issues with my mother. If we stayed in Ghana, he would still have looked for us, so we escape to Lagos, Nigeria. When we came to Lagos, it was difficult to find a decent accommodation because accommodation is expensive in here; the only accommodation we could find was built with planks. During raining season we often suffer a lot because the roof leaks. It is usually a nightmare and we still have to pay rents because we rented the place. We have no choice, we have to manage what we have until God provides another option,’’ she said.

In another chat with a Nigerian mother of four who lives in an uncompleted building in Ajah, Lagos and refers to herself as Mama Tunde, she said ‘‘my husband works in Lagos Island, he is a polygamist, we were living in a room with my children, his other wives do not live with us though. When we could not pay house rents the landlord got angry and he kicked us out. We went through great pains looking for alternative accommodation because it is way beyond our reach because of the costs, all the agents we talked to were quoting high sums of money. We had to pay agreements fee and commission fee. The owners of the house also want two years house rents in advance despite the law made by the Lagos state government that they should only collect one year rents. My husband then arranged an uncompleted building for us to live.  We have been living there since we were kicked out by the landlord. We still pay but it is not as high as paying for normal accommodation.’’ On how she has been coping with the situation he said, ‘I have been coping, I have no choice.’’

According to James Xavier, who described himself as an IT professional and a Lagosian, ‘‘there are many people who live under the bridges many people live on the streets. They have no place to stay. It is crazy; mad men roam the streets naked at times and in the night they lay anywhere they see and sleep. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain whether these people are really mad because the case of Clifford Orji is still very fresh in mind. Clifford was reported to be a ritualistic serial killer who lived on the streets of Lagos, by day he pretended to be mad and at nights he carried out his atrocities until the hands of law caught up with him. Evil men often pretend to be mad or homeless while they lay in the dark to kill innocent people at nights. Homelessness in Nigeria in the urbanized cities particularly in Nigeria can go from the genuine to the pathetic and to the criminal. It can fall into different groups. What about streets kids, known as Almajiris in the North, many of them have nowhere to stay? Homelessness is real even some people who you think have proper accommodation are living under terrible conditions. Many are living in slums’’ he said.

Speaking further, James said, ‘‘Demolition of structures, which is most common in Lagos and Abuja, is another cause of homelessness in the country.  The Governments have a history of demolition of homes without providing alternatives for the people who are being displaced. In actual fact, it is enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria that government shall be responsible for providing basic accommodation for the people of Nigeria. They say that people are building illegal structures. Why would they build illegal structures in the first place if they have the resources to build legal ones? It is lack of resources that make people build houses wherever they find, ’’ he said.

Investigations revealed that, Twenty-two plaintiffs had recently commenced a suit against the Lagos state Government under the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules, on behalf of other residents. They are claiming N100 billion as damages from the police. The people claimed that the Lagos state Government had wrongfully demolished their homes in the Atinporomeh Community in Badagry. The plaintiffs are claiming damages against the respondents, for alleged wrongful demolition of their houses.
According to reports, nearly 10,000 residents of the community have now been displaced following the demolition of their homes despite a subsisting legal suit over the land.  The community’s problems began on December 14, last year, when the police authority brought a notice of eviction which claimed that the Nigeria Police Force had become the “rightful owner” of the community’s land, the law enforcement agencies, accompanied by bulldozers, stormed Atinporomeh demolishing schools, churches, hotels, shopping complexes, as well as residential homes.
A report by Amnesty International says, ‘‘over 1.5 million people have been ejected from their homes and driven into street life following the wave of ejections and demolition that began all over the country in 1995, similarly, the Social and Economic Rights Action (SERAC) estimates that in just one location alone—Ogunbiyi village of Ikeja, Lagos, about 12 thousand people were forcibly ejected from their homes in December 2005 by the action of the Nigerian Police, Army, and Federal Task Force on Environment; and that often, victims of forced evictions have been government workers living in publicly owned apartment buildings.’’ 
Investigations by Sunday Mirror reveals the condition of the homeless in the country, people live like rats and cockroaches in makeshift facilities under bridges, slums, beaches and at abandoned buildings; some engage in petty trading for their survival, earning meager amount of money. Others are regular employees in government or in the commercial sectors, but are homeless because they were forced out of their homes and cannot afford rent for homes due to high demand by landlords and Real Estate agents. Reports reveals that the problem of educated and employed homeless persons is common in the Niger Delta areas such as Port Harcourt, Warri, Sapele, Agbor, and Ughelli—in these places landlords are inclined to solicit or court employees of oil companies who can afford to pay inflated rents from their high salaries. Many are forced into nefarious activities such as prostitution, pimping, drug peddling, and robbery. In Lagos state the homeless include young boys and girls scattered over the fifty-two development areas of the state among which are the marked dangerous zones under the bridge sections such as Ojeulegba, Orikpako at Ijora, Alaba, Ajegunle, Badagry, Ojota, and Ikorodu.
Another common feature in many large cities in the Northern Nigeria is the presence of homeless kids and youth, also known as “Almajiris.  In Lagos, these children work and live on the streets, mostly with their mothers. They work as beggars puling people’s clothes are they walk by, though, the federal government have made attempted to remove these children from the streets in the Northern part if the country. They have not done so in the southern parts of the nation.  Investigations reveal that, the problem of homeless kids, begging on streets is not limited to the North alone.
Hawking and street trading is usually common with some of these older children, particularly teenagers or young adults.  Many of these children run away from home, struggling to support themselves through various means. They are often sleeping beaches at nights after their day’s activities.
In another chat with Mr. Femi Gbolahan, an educationist, he defined homelessness as the “condition of people who lack regular legal access to adequate housing”. According to him, many factors could lead to homelessness. Some of them are local or regional unemployment, war, racial discrimination, mental or physical disability, terrorism as it is presently experienced in the North Eastern part of the country.’’
According to the United Nations, the number of homeless people globally is estimated to be in excess of 1 billion; it says it is impossible to get the actual number.  This is because of the transitory nature of the homeless. Whereas the homeless population in the West is largely made up of men, (though the proportions of women and children are steadily increasing), the homeless in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, appear to be mainly children, women and youth.  Reports show that homelessness is mainly an urban problem. This is partly because of the commercialization of land and housing markets in the world. Homelessness among families with children is increasing not only in low income countries but also in high income countries despite their high level development.
According to report by UNICEF, It has been suggested that possible reasons for leaving home may include abuse, a desire for excitement or relief from oppressive home conditions, conflicts within the family; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; single parenthood, poor parenting, poverty, termination of education, child labour and peer influence. 
Young people may become vulnerable to all forms of abuse and hazards on the streets. They are especially harmed by harsh physical conditions, violence and harassment, labour exploitation, absorption into criminal activities and denial of their right to receive an education that will equip them for a better life. Many of these homeless children are usually seen dodging traffic as they sell goods to passing motorists. While many are engaged in legitimate work, others are involved in illegal activities including engaging in crime and theft, pick pocketing, commercial sex or drug trade.
Investigations reveal that, homeless children and youth in Nigeria are mainly from large families. In this regard, the pursuance of aggressive family planning programmes to reduce the present high level of fertility is important. The high degree of extortion and exploitation and abuse of homeless children testify to the violation of their human rights. This calls for an urgent need to protect the right of the homeless child. Besides, poverty, polygamy, marital disruption in family life and large family sizes, are major background characteristics of the homeless children and youth. The low status and polygamous family background coupled with the high fertility and marital disruptions may have created a condition in which homeless youth must have received inadequate parental care. The street life is such that the children and youth are exposed to various hazards.  They face a number of problems ranging from financial problems to harassment and extortions from police and miscreants known as area boys, or Agberos.  Insecurity, severe beatings and fighting, sexual abuse (especially of the females) are common experience of Nigerian youth facing the problem of homelessness.  
In another chat with Mrs. Shola Abimbola, an educationist she opined that, ‘the judiciary and the law enforcement agencies need to understand the problems of homeless persons so that their sympathy can be engaged. The need to improve the access of children to education is important.  There is the need to intensify education on the risk inappropriate sexual behaviour such as having multiple sexual partners, unprotected sex, and commercial sex.
There is also the need to step up efforts to eliminate substance abuse. The involvement of governmental and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as well as religious bodies would be useful in this regard. Finally, more research should be carried out on homeless people in Nigerian cities especially in Lagos and Port Harcourt. This would provide the basic descriptive information that could assist in putting in place the relevant programmes that would reduce the problem of homelessness among Nigerians particularly the youths. Support could be sought from national governments and international bodies such as UNICEF, World Bank, USAID and many others.’’
In a chat with Barrister M. Shittu, Real Estate Investment Attorney, on the solutions to the problem of homelessness in Nigeria, he said, ‘‘there are many people that are suffering from homelessness in Nigeria. In fact the stories can be pathetic. The worst thing is that there is no relatable statistics on the problem.  We don’t know the actual number of homeless persons in the country.  There are numerous Nigerians living in uncompleted buildings, slums, under the bridge, beaches, badly built homes. My Company is planning a NGO on the issue. This is to tell you the extent of the problem. We know the extent of the problem we are stakeholder in the industry. People come to my office with different tales. This gentleman here, (pointing to a man in office sitting in front of him),’’ is here because of the same problem.  The landlords have just sold his house he still staying there and he could not raise the money to get another apartment for his family. The solution is clear; government must step in through private and public partnership. We need robust policies that can provide comfortable accommodation for our large population. Some of the things they must do are to reduce taxation on those that inventing in real estate or building mass housing. Government must provide an enabling environment for them. They should also provide land for our people to build.  It is very important that government should return land to the people. Anybody that needs land should just go to the government and get it. Look at the number of young people on our streets.  The government cannot claim ignorance of the problem. Many of these young ones have no place to lay their heads. You can go to the beaches at nights. Many sleep there.  The problem of land acquisition by government, demolition of structures without an alternative provision for the people is completely unacceptable. Government should return land to the true owners; they should return land to families and communities.  The people that actually own them should have them from the government instead acquiring them and denying the people. The government will just go to one particular area and declare it as government acquisition. This is wrong.  The opportunity of developing the land is taking away from the people. We need to completely minimize the costs of building or contracting homes. How are our fathers building homes in the olden days? They do it with low cost materials. They do it with mud bricks, our government should look at ways of building using low cost materials like our forefathers did. We can use burnt bricks which are far cheaper for low income earners. Anyone earning N500, 000 in a year should be able to build his own home. Our mortgage banks also need to look at loans for low income earners. The government knows what to do. As we are speaking, they have fantastic polices in place but do not have the political will to implement these policies. There is also the Nigerian factor, the problem of corruption. We cannot continue to play lip service to tackling corruption and expect a better life for the people, add to this, is the problem of collapsed buildings.  There are policies and institutions that are set up to tackle all these problems. Government policies on housing will continue to remain on paper, and we will never be able to solve our housing problems if we continue to pay lip service to issues of corruption.’’
Sunday Mirror investigations on recent government efforts to tackle the problem include,  a major bid to bridge the housing deficit gap in the country, put which the federal government put at 17million deficit, the Federal Government in a report says it has embarked on various policy reforms as well as some intervention programmes. For instance, the idea behind the establishment of the Nigeria Mortgage Refinance Company, NMRC, by the federal government was to expand the frontier of funding for housing finance.  NMRC was conceived to bridge the funding cost of residential mortgages and promote the availability as well as the affordability of good housing to Nigerians by providing increased liquidity in the mortgage market through the mortgage and commercial banks.  The NMRC is a key component of the Nigeria Housing Finance Programme which was initiated by the Federal Ministry of Finance (FMOF), the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Federal Ministry of Lands & Urban Development & Housing and the World Bank/IFC, with the principal objective of addressing the long-term funding constraints hindering the growth of the primary mortgage market, and reducing the costs of residential mortgages and available housing to working Nigerians.  Under this programme, the federal government has rolled out 10,000 mortgages for first time home buyers, especially the young people. In order to achieve a portal was created and prospective house owners have applied and applications are currently being processes by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development. Making clarification on the first phase of the affordable housing scheme in Abuja in January, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala had said “We try to aim this scheme primarily at the first time home buyer who is on the market to purchase a home costing between N2 and N20 million. So we try to keep it low to address the first time buyer and above all, our young people,” the coordinating minister noted as she unveiled the programme in Abuja. “With the 10,000 mortgage scheme, Nigerians can now begin to realise their dream of owning a home and looking forward to improving socio-economic outcomes”, the coordinating minister added. Another laudable programme aimed at addressing homelessness in the country was the recent flag-off of the N2.4trn Centenary City project and lately the constitution of three critical committees to push for the actualisation of housing for all programme.  Other institutional step taking by the government also includes the set up of critical committees to look at the housing programme of government. Some of the committees include the Ministerial Committee on Presidential initiative on the delivery of 10,000 Housing Units under the Nigeria Mortgage Refinance Company, Ministerial Committee on Verification and Auditing of Federal Government Lands and Landed Property in the 36 States of the Federal and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and Ministerial Committee on National Housing Survey.

While the committee on the delivery of NMRC 10,000 housing units, headed by the Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Mrs. Akon Eyakenyi, is expected to come up with clear action plan, set targets and timelines for the actualisation of the housing project, propose sound eligibility criteria for the participation of developers and builders, the Verification committee is set up to carry out a comprehensive inventory and auditing of Federal Government Lands and Landed Property across the 36 states of the federation, including FCT, Abuja, and carry out a review of the current use of the assets with a view to effectively putting them to use.  In this same vein, the committee on national housing survey, is saddled with the responsibility of ascertaining the characteristics of the various housing estates developed by the Ministry, Federal Housing Authority (FHA), Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria (FMBN) and Real Estate Developers Association of Nigeria (REDAN) over the last four years and propose a framework for undertaking a national housing survey in collaboration with relevant stakeholders and recommend concrete measures to operationalise it. Efforts are also being made to review land policy in Nigeria especially as it concerns the power of the governor under the Land Use Act, to regulate all issues regarding access to land. Also in order to set standard in the housing sector and prevent sharp practices that often result in building collapse, a committee set up by the government to review the National Housing Code has submitted a revised National Housing Code and ready for the approval of the Federal Executive Council.

In a chat with our correspondent in Abuja, Mr. Ayoola Ayedogbon, an Abuja resident, said that although government had begun to show seriousness in addressing the housing problem in the country, it had not achieved the desired result because some of the programmes and policies merely operate on paper rather than in reality. For instance, he said the pocket of interventions of government, particularly in Abuja has not resulted in housing provision for those who needed houses. According to him, some of the houses purportedly conceived for the low income earners are being bought over by moneybags, politicians and their cronies. "If government is serious about bridging the housing deficit gap in the country, it must make the process of housing acquisition, especially those conceived principally for certain segment of the society, transparent," he said. 

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