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Makoko: 'Venice of Lagos'

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By Olamide Udoma

Makoko is situated on Lagos mainland, Nigeria. It is a large low-income community with half the population on water and half on land.

Sea of houses Image: Ben Chislett

Sea of houses. Image: Ben Chislett

18th Century 

The date of conception for Makoko is debateable, but the majority of literature and articles assert that it was established in the 18th Century as a fishing village. Over the many years, thousands of people have made this place their home. Like many other 'slum' areas, the full population of Makoko is unknown because it is formally unrecognised.

The houses on water are built from hardwood, supported by wood stilts driven deep into the waterbed. Each house usually houses between six to ten people and a high percentage are rental properties. The waters are five feet deep. Water meanders through the water settlement like streets in between houses. These 'streets' act as a road system, where you can find canoes carrying children to school and people to their places of work. As well as a form of transportation, canoes are used for fishing and act as points of sale; where women sell food, water and household goods.  The main economic activities are salt making, sand dredging, sawmills, firewood, and fishing.

The baale (chief of the village) on land estimates that there are approximately 400,000 people living in Makoko (water and land) and the World Bank estimates that the population on land is just over 85,000. There has never been an official population count on  water because the settlement is considered non-existent and illegal. The majority of the residents come from the Egun tribe of Benin Republic and Badagry, a coastal town in Lagos State that borders the neighbouring country, Benin.

The settlement lacks basic social amenities such as electricity, schools, and healthcare clinics. The residents lack sufficient sanitation – 'Communal latrines are shared by about 15 households and wastewater, excreta, kitchen waste and polythene bags go straight into the water'. There are two ways to get potable water; the first is to buy it from vendors and the second is to fill up plastic jerry cans from large plastic tanks that are situated at different point in the settlement. Residents interviewed, reported that the Local Government provide some plastic tanks, while others are owned for the sale of water. These tanks are connected to boreholes or underground pipes.

The area is self-policed; it is rare to see policemen in the settlement, and when during a visit, the community confirmed a low crime rate. The fertility rate is high and a high percentage of residents are illiterate; 'Five in every 20 persons below the age of 30 are stark illiterate, while 14 are educated to between primary and secondary level'.

Going through Makoko Image: Authors own

Going through Makoko. Image: Authors own

July 2012

In July 2012, more than 200 people were made homeless due to the government issuing a demolition exercise of the Makoko waterfront communities. A 72-hour Quit Notice was delivered to the residents and it stated that due to the environmental nuisance, security risk, impediment to economic and gainful utilisation of the waterfront, people who own the shanties should vacate the area. Police and state government staff arrived using Machetes to cut down the stilts of the wooden homes on water. At that time, no alternative accommodation was offered to the residents. The demolition was halted on July 21, 2012 after 5 days; in which, a community leader was shot by a police officer.

With only a 72 hour notice, some of the displaced residents were taken in by their neighbours, some lived with their possessions and their children in their canoes and others rebuilt in the allocated boundary of 100metres from the electricity cables.

Being a health and an environmental hazard as well as being out of line with the Lagos State's development plans, encouraged the state to undergo the demolition exercise on the water settlements. Furthermore, the residents were understood to be in danger because of the electricity cables that run along the shanties on the water, rising water levels, thunderstorms, and heavy rainfall. The environment is also seen to be degrading; due to waste being dumped into the lagoon and the haphazardness of the settlement. Lagos State Government also believes that Makoko is an 'impediment to the economic and gainful utilisation of the waterfront and it undermines the "megacity status" that Lagos is trying to achieve' . Another reason for the demolition exercise in 2012, which does not seem to be highlighted in reports, but is sometimes mentioned in articles, is the potential the land has for the growing population of Lagos. However, at the time of the demolition, neither the public nor the media had access to a proposal or detailed development plan for Makoko. This draws similarities to the demolition of Maroko (an area situated in the south of Lagos). Over 20 years ago, Maroko went from being a low-income and under developed area with shanties to become 'mega expensive plots of land' via the demotion and forced eviction undertaken by Lagos State Government .

Initially the state government hinted towards developing the area and relocating those who live on land, but refused to relocate the 'illegal residents' on water.  In August 2012, the state government offered Agbowa, Ikorodu (north-east of Lagos) as a relocation option for those displaced during the clearance exercise. However, the community rejected this because due to their trade, they need to be close to water. They explained during negotiations that, living on the water is natural to them and it allows them to work. They also stated that Makoko is important to the economy of Lagos because the fish they catch is what feeds the whole state. At the Makoko-Asejere market, the most popular market in Makoko, seafood; croakers, barracudas, shiny-nose, red-snapper, prawns, crabs and more in large quantities, are sold at low prices.

The Makoko community have not taken this lying down; they are in constant pleading with the government to move from 'demolition' to 'development'.

Due to the media outcry and the community's protest the Lagos State Governor through the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development have granted the wish of the community; and that is, to submit a regeneration plan developed by the Makoko waterfront communities. The regeneration plan was developed in collaboration with all five communities at the waterfront, Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC), Fabulous Urban, slum-upgrading consultants, environmentalist, academics, NGOs Lagos State ministries and parastatals, and the private sector.

Submitted in 2013, the holistic urban upgrading plan looks at all facet of life and development in Makoko Waterfront including land use, housing, tourism opportunities, economic development, tenure security, funding strategies and institutional framework for implementation and management.

Makoko Floating School Image: Authors own

Makoko Floating School. Image: Authors own


Now we wait to see what happens next; if the plan as a whole or in parts will be considered by the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development for implementation or does the State have any other innovative ideas to develop and upgrade an integral part of Lagos?

This was written as part of the thesis, 'World Bank Public Participation Policies and Processes in relation to the Lives of Beneficiaries in Slum Upgrading Projects: Case Study: Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria' (2013) for the completion of MPhil Urban Infrastructure Design and Management, University of Cape Town.