Thousands of people fled Nigeria’s largest informal fishing settlement on Friday as security forces used gunfire and tear gas to make way for demolitions in defiance of a recent court order, rights groups said, describing it as a “violation of human rights”.
The homes of nearly 4,700 people in the Otodo-Gbame community in Lagos were destroyed on Friday, despite a previous court order that halted such evictions, according to Amnesty International and Lagos-based group, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI).
Speaking to Al Jazeera by phone, Otodo-Gbame residents said they had no warning their homes were going to be demolished.
“We were so surprised. We didn’t know where they came from,” Paul Kunnu said. “They pulled down everything.”
Another resident, Ahisu Celestine, said he and other community members woke up to the presence of Nigerian authorities and bulldozers on Friday.
“We tried to block the way,” Celestine said.
“They started shooting tear gas,” he added, saying there were dozens of police present.
Megan Chapman, co-director of JEI, who arrived at the community shortly after the demolitions began, told Al Jazeera that police used live bullets to disperse the crowds.
Authorities were not available for comment on the incident.
The Otodo-Gbame community is one of many informal settlements along the Nigerian commercial hub’s waterfront.
In November of last year, an estimated 30,000 residents from the community were evicted to make way for development projects, rights groups said.
But after a court injunction issued in January halted evictions, many of the residents, including Celestine and Kunnu, decided to rebuild.
“We don’t have any other place to go,” Celestine told Al Jazeera. “We are a fisherman community and have been here for hundreds of years.”
Chapman, who has been working with the community in mediation efforts with the government, echoed Celestine’s sentiment.
“Residents don’t really have any options. It’s an ancestral community. Many of the people in the settlements are fishermen and fisherwomen. They are among Lagos’ urban poor and there isn’t an alternative for them to move someplace else.”
‘We have to rebuild’
Following the November 2016 eviction, rights groups warned that more than 300,000 people faced eviction from waterfront communities across Lagos state.
Makeshift housing is common in the poorest parts of Lagos, a city of more than 21 million people. Thousands from across Nigeria and neighbouring countries arrive daily in search of work.
Both Kunnu and Celestine told Al Jazeera they will remain in Otodo-Gbame.
“We have to rebuild. We don’t have anywhere else to go. This is our home,” Kunnu said.
Celestine also called on the international community for help.
“We want international communities to help us, the poor,” he said. “It is a not a crime for poor people to live where rich men are.”