Apr 14, 2005

Ogoni: Nigerian Bulldozers Smash Shanty Town in Oil City

Government bulldozers rolled in to smash hundreds of homes and a church in a Nigerian shanty town backing onto a site run by the Italian oil giant Agip on Wednesday
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Government bulldozers rolled in to smash hundreds of homes and a church in a Nigerian shanty town backing onto a site run by the Italian oil giant Agip on Wednesday, in a brutal operation that has left thousands homeless.
The Rivers State government has ordered that "Agip Waterside" -- a riverfront community in the sprawling oil city of Port Harcourt -- be demolished to make way for development, but no effort has been made to find homes for its thousands of residents, local rights activists said.
Bulldozers fitted with mechanical claws, and protected by police and troops armed with assault rifles, tore through hundreds of hundreds of wood and concrete block homes and destroyed a church which had been used as a shelter for the area's pregnant and nursing mothers.
"We have complained to the government but there seems to be nothing we can do, nothing we can do," said Reverend Lekia Gbosi of the Ascension Apostolic Church, where until Wednesday he had been sheltering 28 children, their mothers and ten pregnant women in his church.
His fellow pastor Saro Meelubari John said children had still been in the long, yellow-painted clay-brick structure when the demolition began, and witnesses said that police had beaten back bystanders with whips.
Demolition began at Agip Waterside in February this year, but was halted after local rights activists protested.
Residents began to return and to rebuild their lives on a long strip of land between the mangrove swamp and Agip's boundary fence in a community which has been growing since 1988 without any complaint from the authorities.
On Tuesday, the demolition crews were back with a vengeance, tearing down the buildings even as residents glumly struggled to salvage what they could of the possessions lying broken among the rubble.
"This is what we suffer in Nigeria," sighed 48-year-old Michael Kamza, a civil servant and a member of the minority Ogoni community, as he told a reporter how his meagre household goods -- a bed and a television -- had been destroyed in the rubble of his home. "I'm going back to Ogoni," he said.
Nearby, 73-year-old N.K. Akari sat under a table on a straw sleeping mat, all that was left of his ruined life. "I will stay here until it rains, and then I will find my way," he said. Where will he go? "Nowhere," he admitted.
Residents angrily denied that they had been compensated or even warned of the impending demolition.
Port Harcourt is the largest city in the Niger Delta and the centre for Nigeria's multimillion dollar oil industry. Poor job-seekers from across the region have crowded into the city hoping to make their fortunes, but the vast majority live in poverty and with uncertain property rights.
Some activists and residents in Agip Waterside suspect that the demolition has been ordered to allow Italian oil giant to expand its base in the city, but the firm insisted that it had nothing to do with the demolition.
"We are not aware of any demolition of homes near our headquarters in Port Harcourt. If any demolition is taking place, it is not to our knowledge and we have no hand in it," said Agip's spokesman in Nigeria, Tajudeen Adigun.
Rivers State officials did not respond to calls for comment and a spokeswoman for the state police command denied any knowledge of the operation.
On Saturday, a gang of thugs invaded the community and killed a local man. His body was still lying by the roadside on Wednesday. Local people believe the corpse was left as a warning from the state government that they should go.
Two members of a television documentary crew from the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) were arrested after they asked police if they could film the demolition. They were later released with apologies, one of the crew said.
"The demolition is being carried out without any alternative provision being made for the accommodation of the people," said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, a local pressure group.
"These people are just walking around with their luggage, without any hope. We're talking about thousands of people."