With a befitting house close to the fish ponds and two of his children already in the university, the native of Basa in Kogi State could beat his chest that his family was right on the corridors of comfort.
Unfortunately, the prosperity within Ajinzo’s reach came to a shocking end in the early hours of Monday when his fishery and residence were brought down in one fell swoop by some suspected land grabbers who invaded the community and demolished about 400 buildings.
For several hours, the father of five was left in a daze, watching helplessly as the fortunes he toiled to build for years crumbled under the heavy blades of bulldozers. “Everything is gone,” Ajinzo said in a low voice fraught with gloom and hopelessness.
Down and disorganised, Ajinzo was lost in the enormity of the downfall that has cruelly beset him as he narrated his ordeal to Saturday PUNCH at an apartment on Golf Road – some distance away from his demolished residence – where he and his family now squat with a friend. “I have 17 big fish ponds filled with fish, and a hatchery with a capacity of 400,000 fish per cycle,” he began.
“The farm and the residential building were on three plots of land. The demolition came suddenly and I could not evacuate anything. The pieces of fish destroyed were worth N2.5m. They were ripe for sale. I came here in 2009. I built a house and was living there with my wife, our five children and my younger brother. Now, we are squatting in a friend’s house while our luggage is on an open land.
“I read fishery but I could not secure employment from government after I graduated. I laboured so hard to establish myself, but now everything is gone. There is absolutely nothing for me to hold on to. Two of my children are in the university, studying medicine and surgery. Two others are in secondary school while the last child just finished primary school. This is the business I relied on to take care of them.”
In the coming months or even years, Arinzo would need divine intervention to wriggle his way out of the terrible situation he has found himself. Sadly, he has little or no hope of getting justice by way of compensation from the perpetrators.
“I, like other affected landlords, want justice but I doubt if we can get it in this country where some people could violate a court order and bring bulldozers to destroy our buildings. We called the police but we did not get any response.
“I am consoling myself with the thought that I can’t commit suicide and that I need to be a man. I wonder if this country is worth living in,” he added.
Demolition in violation of court order
Our correspondent learnt that the massive demolition in the community was the height of a dispute that started about 10 years ago when a company – Toll System Limited – met with the residents and asked them to vacate the place, claiming it had bought the land from the Lagos State Government.
The matter was taken to the state High Court in 2011 for determination but, like many land cases in the state and Nigeria in general, it has lingered for years. However, at the instance of residents complaining of threats to their lives, Justice J. O. Pedro in a ruling dated November 21, 2018 granted an accelerated hearing of the suit and ordered that “parties maintain status quo pending the determination of this suit.”
“The trial will come up on June 26, 2019 but our oppressors have flouted the court ruling and decided to operate with impunity. They came last Thursday with four bulldozers and started pulling down our buildings,” another affected resident, Francis Akpowenre, told Saturday PUNCH.
He added, “Almost all the buildings in the community have been demolished; more than 400 buildings were affected. This is a matter that is in court. They sent hoodlums guarded by policemen to the community. They have prevented us from coming into the community.”
A retired banker Akpowenre, had staked all his entitlements and savings to put up five buildings in the community. To guarantee the proper upkeep of his family of five, he used two of the buildings for a guesthouse and let out another two.
“I lived in the remaining two-bedroomed flat with my family members. Now, all my properties have been destroyed,” the 53-year-old man said, looking forlorn.
“The hoodlums didn’t allow me to pick anything. My buildings were demolished around 7am on Friday. They levelled them to the ground. What have I done? I laboured hard to acquire these properties. This is wickedness, but I have resigned myself to the sadness brought on me and my family. They brought policemen all the way from Gombe to supervise the demolition.
“I am a retiree. I used the rent and income from the guesthouse to cater for myself and my family. I invested all my savings and entitlements in the properties. The land was gazetted by the state government and I bought it from Ojomu family. I have the receipt, the agreement and survey plan.
“We are now squatting in a relative’s house in Badore. The police have compromised their integrity; they are with them. We wrote a petition to Area G Command in Ajiwe. The police did not do anything.
“I met with a senior official at the Ministry of Lands sometime ago. The man asked for where I came from. When I told him I came from Delta State, he said how could I come from Delta and be involved in a land dispute with people in Lagos. Can you imagine that; the land that I bought. There are powerful people supporting the perpetrators.”
From landlords to squatters, hotel guests
Tokunbo Ifalagbo had parted with his wife and three kids with warm smiles while he hurried to his workplace at a choice hotel in Lekki around 7am last Friday. With several tasks he was confronted with at the office that day, the 41-year-old accountant was already getting exhausted as of 12pm.
However, he was spurred by the pleasant thought that it was the last working day of the week and that weekend was around the corner. He had planned to spend the weekend at home to bond more with his kids and every member of the family had looked forward to revelling in the fun.
It would later dawn on him that his plan had been shattered after he received a call from a neighbour that his two houses had been reduced to rubble.
He recalled, “I lived in a duplex with my wife and children. I had three-bedroomed and two-bedroomed flats separately at the back of the duplex. My two tenants lived in those flats with their families. I got a call around noon on Friday while I was in the office that the buildings were being demolished. On getting home, the buildings had been completely brought down.
“I am now squatting with a friend while my wife and children are somewhere else. I had to keep my properties in different places. I was unable to retrieve everything from the building. What I am concerned with now is how to secure an accommodation where my family can move to and have a rest.”
Ifelagbo stated that he bought the land in 2003 from Ojomu family, and started building it until 2011 when he parked in there with his family.
“I built them with all my savings. My immediate younger brother, Tunde, fainted when he saw what the houses had been turned to because he knew how I struggled to build them,” he added with eyes filled with tears.
Early in 2018, Emeka Azubike, was full of excitement that a decade of living in a rented apartment and struggling to pay rent was over. He moved into a three-bedroomed flat in Fowoseje with his wife and their three children after labouring hard for about eight years to build the house on a parcel of land he had.
The 48-year-old native of Anambra State was in his shop attending to some customers who wanted to buy some air conditioner spare parts when he received the sad news from home that his hard-earned fortunes had vanished.
“We have since lodged in a hotel pending the time I would find an apartment to rent,” he told our correspondent in a grief-laden voice.
“I started building the house about eight years ago. I moved in with my family a year and some months ago when I finished it. It was a fenced three-bedroomed flat. Our valuables are now in an open space somebody provided for us. I built the house with the joint contributory savings I participated in over the years.”
I sleep outside with my family – Factory owner
Mrs Ann Imhoitsiki and her family appear to be the worst hit by the sudden demolition. Their sachet water factory and only house were brought down and the middle-aged woman has been left in shreds in the wake of the incident.
For people who were already used to sleeping in the comfort of their air-conditioned apartments, adjusting to the harsh night weather occasioned by mosquitoes, rodents and rain is a terrible reality the Imhoitsikis have been dealing with in the last few days.
“We have been sleeping outside since last Friday when our house was demolished,” the mother of three said, blaming her croaky voice on excessive cold.
She stated, “Our two buildings, a four-bedroomed flat and a sachet water factory were demolished. The water factory is our only source of livelihood. I watched as they brought down the buildings. We are homeless now. We have nowhere to go to. I have been sleeping outside with my children and husband. We were in the rain all through Sunday night. Spots of mosquito bites are all over our bodies, but we have no choice.
“I got to the community in 2003 and I was living in peace with my family members. Suddenly, some people came around 2009 and said they had bought the land from the state government. They started victimising us and the matter was taken to court. Despite the court order, they went ahead to displace about 300 families and took away our means of livelihood. It is sad.”
Police, state govt failed us
Mr Toyin Ekundayo, who lost two bungalows to the demolition, said “the unlawful act” was carried out with the backing of some influential persons in the state.
He said several petitions written to the police and the state government did not yield any positive result, alleging that their refusal to act accordingly led to the massive destruction.
Ekundayo stated, “I completed my houses 10 years ago and that was when the land dispute started. This is the second time they would demolish buildings here. At a point, the company negotiated with us to move to a neighbouring community. But the management of the Community Development Association disagreed on the grounds that we have the government gazette.
“There were already a lot of buildings in the community they wanted to move us to and there would be disputes in the long run if we move there. The company said the government had sold the land on which we built to them. They said the kind of houses we built did not befit the environment. They are terrorising us because they have the backing of influential people in the state.
“We negotiated again and they wanted to relocate us to somewhere else. When we made enquiries about the place, we discovered that the land there was also disputed. They promised to give us a quarter plot and N200,000, but of what value is that? Unfortunately, some of us accepted the offer.”
Ekundayo, who runs a driving school, lamented that he found it difficult to squat together with his family in a mini flat rented by his younger sister.
“My two bungalows were demolished. I was living there with my wife and three children. We are now squatting with my younger sister in a mini flat. We have been to the police, but they did not intervene,” he added.
Narrating the painful loss he suffered, Mr Paul Odum, whose four houses were demolished, said he had lost sleep at night since the incident happened.
He also faulted the state government and the police for not acting decisively on the residents’ complaints.
He said, “I had four buildings on three plots of land in Fowoseje. Two of the buildings had four-bedroomed
flats in each, and were not yet completed. The third and fourth houses comprised three mini flats each. I rented them out.
“It is unfortunate that Nigeria has turned to a jungle. We protested at the Governor’s Office, House of Assembly, and Zone 2 Command in Onikan.
“A lot of people will die from this kind of experience but it may not be immediate. I can’t sleep at night. I have another building where I live, but what of hundreds of others who don’t have any other place to sleep but uncompleted buildings?
“We were told that the policemen that came with the hoodlums came from Gombe State. How can policemen from Gombe State carry out such an operation here and the Lagos State Commissioner of Police will not be aware? Demolishing houses without regard for court order is a criminal offence.”
Odum said the site had turned to “a new market for scavengers,” who pick crushed irons, roofs and other building materials from the rubble.
He added, “The land was gazetted in 2005 by the Lagos State Government. Of course, all the properties belong to the state, but it is wrong to displace owners by selling the land without making provisions for them.
“We sued the state government and the second defendant is the company. The case has been on since 2011. All we are asking for is justice.”
Go back to court, LASG, police tell owners
The Lagos State Commissioner for Information, Mr Kehinde Bamigbetan, said the state government did not have a hand in the demolition and urged the affected owners to approach the court.
He said, “As far as the matter is in court, all parties are supposed to respect the provisions of the court. That is the standard procedure. The state government is a respecter of the law.
“No one will be allowed to give the government a bad image by pretending that the government can work outside the provisions of the law. My advice is that the parties concerned should resort back to court and demonstrate that the court order has been violated and proceed from there.”
The Police Public Relations Officer in the state, DSP Bala Elkana, said the matter was a civil case that did not involve the police.
He said, “This is an issue that is purely civil in nature. We cannot do anything on the matter that is in court. Issues that have to do with land are civil in nature. The affected people should go back to court to complain that one of the parties has erred. Then, the court can decide. The police cannot be tracking civil matters.”