The Oshodi Squatters in Lagos:
''Why we live under the bridge''
Time is 10 pm. The traffic gridlock on major Lagos roads has reduced. The streets were getting deserted as workers stood at various bus stops to return home. The street lights hovered over Oshodi, a popular hub in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos. This reporter was going home as usual, after a hectic day at work.
While many looked forward to good times at home, Banjo Adebayo, 19, sat gloomy on the pedestrian bridge, his right hand by his cheek. Since he arrived in Lagos a few years ago from Osun State, he has been sleeping under the bridge. When this reporter beckoned him over, the lad, who is a casual worker in a factory, recounted his story as an orphan, saying he came to Lagos to hustle for survival. “Even though I have been able to feed myself with the little money I get from factory work, my problem is sleeping under the bridge because I can’t afford house rents. I left home some years ago because I lost my parents. I wish things change so that I can continue my education,” he said.
Voices of the World gathered that the Oshodi bridge has been home to many urchins like Banjo. Despite beng exposed to the harsh elements, many seek comfort on its concrete harsh surface at night. These urchins, who were evacuated in 2009 by the Lagos State Government for constituting nuisance through extortion and robbery, look beyond its dirty and hostile façade as a home for the night. It seems to be business-as-usual under the bridge as the urchins, popularly known as ‘area boys’, are back to the area and flourishing.
The only difference between now and before is that the boys no longer harass commuters during the day, unlike before, when people were afraid to pass through the place in broad daylight. However, commuters plying the bridge claim they still constitute a threat to the area with the way they smoke Indian hemp in broad daylight, or defecating and bathing in the open using the bushes beside the rail line as cover.
Chatting with some of them reveales that most come from troubled homes. A few had problems with their guardians and parents and ran away from home. There are those who are orphans and have resigned to living under the bridge. Their stories evoked pity, as they confessed that life in Lagos has been pretty tough.
When this reporter visited the area, the urchins were seen on the rail line, popularly called Oju-Irin , under the Oshodi bridge, chatting and gambling. These it was learnt are their pastimes under the fly-over. As some lie like a log of wood on the ground in the debris, others can be sighted smoking. They are distinct from other youths around with their earrings, different kinds of tattoos emblazoned on their bodies, and weird hairstyle.
Even with the heavy presence of the officers of the Kick against Indiscipline (KAI) and the police, these urchins were seen smoking and selling hemp, which they popularly call ‘eja’. One of them, Banji Oluwafemi, 21, popularly called Anago, a bus conductor, has been in Lagos for the past 15 years. He was among those arrested by the police and detained in 2009 during the mass arrests of urchins in Oshodi. He told his story: “I have been in Lagos for the past fifteen years. I was formerly in Ijora Seven Up living as a bus conductor. I am from Ilorin, KwaraState. I dropped out of school and started conductor work because there was no support. My dad died in 2009 and due to the condition, I started hustling. Sometimes later, the governor directed that the Oshodi should be demolished. About 158 of us were taken to Alausa and detained. I was in police custody for six months and some days. I never believed I was going to be released. I also have family in Lagos but I don’t go to them. I got bailed and left for Ilorin but now I am back in Lagos because I can still make ends meet with what I earn as conductor’’.
Anago described his experience under the bridge as fun, saying that even if he had money to rent an apartment in a Lagos, he would rather go back to Kwara state and invest the money: “My eyes have seen a lot in Lagos. I trained as a bus conductor for four years in Ajah. I sleep on the rail line and I have my bath along the rail line. Life in Lagos is very hard but I believe things will change. I want a better job that can fetch me money.
The case of another who identified himself as Azeez appears similar. “I have been here under the bridge for like 9 years because there is no helper. I am a driver. I don’t want to stay here forever. I sleep in the bus at night.”Asked why he smokes under the bridge, Azeez denied smoking hemp, even though he was sighted doing so with others. Asked to know where he have his bath, he pointed to the public toilet just beside the parks. He spoke further : “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life here. I am used to sleeping under the bridge that is why I don’t complain to anybody. Living here also gives me freedom. I can do what I like anytime,” he said.
Mukaila Sakiru, another squatter under the bridge is a driver. Sakiru who showed scars of wounds inflicted on him by the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA) officials to this reporter said life under the bridge has not been easy. Asked what he wanted the Governor Fashola to do for him, Sakiru urged the Governor to assist them,saying it is not his wish to be destitute. He said : “I want to appeal to the governor to look into our case and assist us with whatever he can do. I am neither a thief nor a beggar. I earn a living driving but sleep under the bridge because things are not the way I expected.’’
A mild drama ensued in the area when one of the urchins, who was spreading his clothes on the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) pavement, was arrested by some officials of KAI who hurled him into the KAI post in Oshodi. Olawale,18, from Ibadan said returning back to the bridge was not because the area is pleasant but because it is centrally located. He also appealed for helped from Nigerians.
Speaking with this reporter, the KAI Area Commander in charge of Mile 2 and Oshodi, Mr. Ayodele Ogungbiye, said the urchins have been constituting nuisance under the bridge by ignoring environmental rules but assured that the officials would not relent in their crusade for law and order. His words : “We are putting on our best to ensure the tempo of zero tolerance for environmental abuse is sustained. These urchins are not working. That is why I will appreciate if you can go to that Okomalla and see the kind of life they are living.’’
Ogungbiye attributed the constant presence of KAI under the bridge as one of the factors responsible for the peaceful state of the area, saying the urchins would have returned to their normal offensive behaviour otherwise. On the challenge of law enforcement in the area, he said: ’’We need more hands, the KAI personnel in the entire Lagos cannot meet the environmental challenges in the state for now. I believe those in authority are looking into that. Once we have more personel and security back up, it will be better. In some cases when you are enforcing the environmental laws, you are attacked by the hoodlums. We don’t beat any offender but sometimes you see KAI officers fighting some people. It is not KAI that started, it is the area boys. Some of these area boys told the traders to be selling on the roads or illegal places. By the time you chase the traders away, they will attack you. Whoever is being attacked is not expected to fold his arms to be killed by the hoodlums, they have to defend themselves.’’ In conclusion, he resumes: “The commuters in Oshodi should be rest assured that there won’t be any attacks from the hoodlums’’.