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Ilaje Otumara … shanty town in search of modernity

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Nigerians are known to easily adapt to whatever situations that they find themselves. This was acknowledged decades ago by the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, when he sang the very popular track, “suffering and smiling.” This phrase, perhaps, best describes the people of Otumara Ilaje Community, in Ebute Metta, Lagos Mainland Local Council of Lagos State.

The riverine community established in 1930, apart from sitting in the heart of Lagos, is a five-minute walk from the popular Costain Junction. The bridge that leads from Lagos Mainland to the island passes through the community, and it is a 15-minute drive to Ikoyi, one of the very reserved areas of the state.

But despite serving as a nexus to some parts of the state, and also being strategically located, development has continually eluded the community. While poverty is written all over Ilaje Otumara, some of its surrounding communities and towns have continued to flourish.

Of course, what presently obtains in the community is in sharp contrast with the literary meaning of its name- Ilaje O tu mi lara, which loosely means, “Ilaje is comfortable for me.” Put differently, the community’s name is an antonym of what it truly represents given the very poor living conditions there, and the neglect that the residents have suffered from successive governments.

The community is so filthy that a first time visitor cringes, while many safety and health experts that have visited it conclude that no decent human being should be staying there. But alas, for more than 89 years, hundreds of thousands have been born and raised in the community, which is home to more than 500, 000 inhabitants.

Ranging from the stench oozing from the stagnant, dark, and thick content of the drainage, to the vast swathes of filth evenly spread across the community, the entire area hits a first timer in the face as a community that is just not fit for habitation. But not only are thousands of residents dwelling in this community, they are also raising their children there.

The poor sanitary condition of the community is worsened by the fact that most houses in the area are without toilets. Even though there is a community toilet, which is unkempt, those who cannot use the toilet wrap the faeces in cellophane bags and haul them into the lagoon, which borders the community.

Flood is another big worry that causes residents of the community nightmare. This is because each time there is a heavy downpour, the community is easily submerged. This is worse when the lagoon overflows as the whole community could be flooded for days.

However, the amazing paradox about the community is that even in the face of dire living conditions, and the stark absence of amenities which makes it unfit for habitation, the residents still go about their businesses normally as if all is well.

Their sex life also appears to be great, as one of the local chiefs recently told Journalists Against Poverty (JAP), which visited the area that babies are produced everyday in the community.

In this community, where one of its major water reservoirs- a borehole water tank is located near a drainage filled with black, muddy, stagnant water; where security is provided by a vigilante group, and where electricity supply lasts for between two and three hours daily, talks about development is taken with a pinch of salt, as some residents worry whether any form of development would not render them homeless.

This notwithstanding, some of them no doubt expect not only the Lagos State government, but their elected officials including, the chairperson of Lagos Mainland Local Council, Omolola R. Essien; the member representing the community in the state House of Assembly, Ibrahim Owolabi; their constituent’s representative, Jide Jimoh and senator representing their senatorial district, Oluremi Tinubu, to come up with a workable action plan to transform the community.

This urgent step is needed in order to rid the state of criminals, who could turn such communities into their hideouts while they perpetrate heinous crimes.

But the Baale of the community, High Chief Festus Arowojolu was quick to respond, “we are peace-loving people, but people often label us criminals for some strange reasons. But as you can see, it’s not true, we are very accommodating and educated; we long for development, but unfortunately governments have over the years paid deaf ears to our cries.”

Arowojolu, who explained that the community, which was initially a waterlogged area, was sand-filled by early settlers, added that residents have since struggled on their own to make it habitable with little, or no support from the government.

The high rate of procreation in the community has given rise to an equally high prevalence of traditional birth attendants, but Arowoloju said that with the establishment of a new maternity clinic, they now encourage their women to register at the clinic and stop giving birth at home.

Another member of the community, Ojo Jude, lamented the lack of access road to the place, saying even the present situation has deprived them of living a good life.

According to him, even if members of the community decide to improve their lot starting with things as basic as indoor toilets that employs water to flush waste down the drainage to a separate septic tank for later disposal, “we won’t be able to evacuate the human waste when the septic tanks are full because vehicles will not be able to come into the village to do the evacuation. So it’s better to defecate in the lagoon, since it’s a good source of protein to the fishes in the lagoon.”

He said even though the community is easily mistaken for a den of criminals simply because of the weather-beaten nature of the residents, who have endured years of hardship and extreme living conditions, it actually remains “one of the safest communities in the state.”

Highlighting the needs of the community, he said: “It is important that we have good access roads; we need pipe borne water (even though that may not go down well with water vendors like me). We also need constant electricity.

“The electricity that we enjoy here today is as a result of the efforts of community members. When we noticed that we had been abandoned for too long by the government, we contributed money to buy electric poles, aluminum cables, and that was how electricity was brought here, and we have appropriate staff on our payroll to make sure that the community has power supply.”

Jude, who also called on the government to consider its youth population in its employment schemes, especially given their high number, also stressed the need for the establishment of a senior secondary school in the area, which land had been allocated, but construction work yet to commence.

According to him, in the entire area, there is only one junior secondary school, children from the community have to travel far to further their education in senior secondary schools.

Another resident, Pastor Olu Ayana, also stressed the need for the government to work towards changing the face of the community.

He said: “It is important to provide the community with a good road network. Being a multi-ethnic community comprising of Igbo people, especially Ebonyi State indigenes among other tribes, it is important for the Lagos State government to help eradicate poverty in the community by first providing us with good roads.”

Indeed, the community has been clamoring for good roads since during the administration of Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, but all their entreaties have not yielded fruits.

According to a septuagenarian, Alhaji Ogundele Agbede, he joined politics 50 years ago to ensure that roads are constructed in the area, and other life’s necessities put in place, but all to no avail.

He said: “I have been in politics for the past 50 years clamouring to get our roads fixed; I have written so many letters detailing our requests, but nothing came out of all of them.”

While commending the government for providing them with a clinic, he said before the clinic was established, the sick among them and their relatives travelled long distances to get treatment.

Agbede, who once took the Lagos State Water Cooperation to court over the lack of pipe borne water in the area, lamented that nothing came out of the case. He, therefore, appealed to the government to come to their aid, adding that being a swampy area “we cannot dig the ground for water because we will only get salty, contaminated water around here.”

The former counsellorship aspirant said politicians usually come to the area to campaign for votes ahead of every election, during which they always promise them that they would construct roads, but nothing has come out of it over the years.

“During the 2019 general election for instance, you saw posters of different political parties, including that of the All Progressive Congress (APC), by which their chieftains promised to do our roads if we delivered their party. We did by voting for the APC, but unfortunately nothing has come out of it. We are still waiting for the party to fulfill its promises,” Agbede said.

Despite the poor living conditions and the awful environmental sanitation situation, the community has never recorded any major disease outbreak, apart from the pockets of cholera outbreak that were witnessed in the 1990s. Residents, however, constantly battle with malaria fever.

Commenting on the poor waste management in the community, another resident, Comrade Mary Adeshina, said that some non-Yoruba residents were uncooperative during environmental sanitation exercises. “And when they are approached to come and be part of the exercise, they resort to insulting the village chiefs.”

She disclosed that as “Commander of Community Surveillance Patrol of Nigeria (CSPN), I have written a lot of letters on the need to clear the blocked canal and re-channel it from the White Sand area, to the National Theatre, but nothing has been done.”

A representative of Action Aid, Newton Osetmaye, who was part of the delegation said poverty is sure to multiply when people are denied access to potable water, quality education, health facilities and basic amenities, including good roads.

“Without being told, when we got to this community, we could feel their pains; they did not need to define poverty to us, as we saw things with our eyes. We will try to amplify the voices through the Journalists Against Poverty platform so that policymakers will begin to respond to issues around community development.”

Osetmaye, who said poverty was not natural, but man made, and orchestrated by policymakers, who fail to do their bid, establish a link between poverty and corruption.

“When corruption is high in a society, what you see is that the downtrodden are left with the brunt of corruption, and the brunt of corruption is what you see around in villages like this,” he stated.

Echoing the organisation’s belief that no Nigerian should be poor because the country is blessed with enormous resources to take care of everyone, Osetmaye explained that Action Aid has been working in 30 states of the federation to bring development to people living there.

The National Coordinator of JAP, Wale Elekolusi, in his remarks, said the group has been working towards amplifying the voices of the less privileged so that duty bearers would be called into action.

He assured Otumara Ilaje Community that the group would ensure that their voices are heard so that authorities can take urgent actions to bring them up to speed with civilisation.


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