PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Plans to demolish waterside slums in Nigeria’s oil hub of Port Harcourt risk leaving tens of thousands of people homeless and could spark protests in the volatile city before elections next year.
The government of Rivers State, one of the three main states in the oil-producing Niger Delta, wants to tear down shanty towns in the Waterfront district of Port Harcourt as part of an urban regeneration programme launched last year.
Human rights group Amnesty International warned in a report on Thursday that the planned evictions and demolitions would leave more than 200,000 people in danger of homelessness.
“The Rivers State government has consistently violated its international human rights obligations by carrying out forced evictions,” Amnesty said in a 40-page report.
“It has failed to develop any resettlement plan to provide alternative housing to the hundreds of thousands of people who will be forced to leave their homes if the waterfronts are demolished,” it said.
Port Harcourt has a history of political violence and is considered one of the main potential flashpoints in Africa’s most populous nation before presidential, parliamentary and state governorship elections expected next April.
The communities that make up the Waterfront area comprise several hundred thousand people. Some of its buildings are brick or concrete structures, but most are made of wood and corrugated iron built on reclaimed land along the city’s shoreline.
There is no running water or mains electricity.
Armed robbery, gang violence and kidnappings are frequent in and around Port Harcourt — home to offices for oil firms including Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron — and the state government says the shanty towns harbour criminals.
“A Shell worker was abducted just a few days ago. A few hours ago there was shooting in the Waterfront,” Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi told reporters. “If we have to end shooting in Port Harcourt, the Waterfront must go.”
Bundu, one of the main communities in the Waterfront area, is also one of the largest voting wards in the state and Amaechi’s plans risk inflaming tensions before elections.
“We are not opposed to the development, as the governor wants the world to believe. What we want is that the people of Bundu be carried along in the process,” Williams Addah, head of the Bundu community development committee, told Reuters.
Amaechi’s government has said it wants to provide decent accommodation and basic facilities and has promised to pay commercial rates for any building that has valid documentation.
Some residents hold temporary occupancy licences, but many are tenants with no such paperwork.
Few believe the pledges to provide better housing. Thousands were forcibly evicted from Njemanze, another Waterfront community, last year and part of the land has been set aside for the construction of a multi-screen cinema, not housing.
Amnesty quoted one 15-year-old boy as saying he had been forced to live under a flyover since the demolition and had been regularly harassed and beaten by the police and older boys.
Amaechi’s plans for Waterfront have in the past put him in conflict with armed gangs operating in the surrounding creeks, most notably that of Ateke Tom, a field commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) rebel group who accepted a federal government amnesty last year.
Tom, whose gang was initially backed by politicians to help rig local elections, went on to carry out years of attacks on oil infrastructure in the creeks. Although he agreed to lay down his weapons last year, not all of his supporters followed suit.
Seen as a local hero in the Waterfront communities, he won rapturous cheers at last year’s disarmament ceremony when he interrupted a local government official’s speech to protest against the planned demolition.
“I beg the defence minister to please call on Amaechi not to demolish the Waterfront. If he continues with that goal, the fight will continue as well,” Tom said, beer in hand.
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Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Heinrich