By Chris Anyokwu
When William Shakespeare in King Lear remonstrates thus: “Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this?… unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal …,” he speaks a timeless truth. It is not for nothing, it would seem, that both the snail and the tortoise carry with them their home wherever they go. For what is a thing without its habitus, what Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s Dream calls “a local habitation”? For non-human nature, particularly fauna, they might be able to withstand homelessness, being ambulant or itinerant as most of them are. But for the higher primates, I mean, the homo sapiens species, a house or home is an essential desideratum. Beyond using accommodation as a marker of status or class, depending on such variables as location, neighbourhood, facilities, level of sophistication (or lack thereof), etc., all human beings need as a matter of survival a roof over their heads; a place to set out from in the mandatory pursuit of daily bread at crack of dawn and return to by fall of night. Then, what befalls one in the event one does not have a place to lay one’s head in order to catch a wink? What, indeed, happens when one is left at the mercy of the elements?
For those who have not experienced homelessness, who have not endured the pain(s), the indignities and the insufferability of shacking up in the open, or, at best, in uncompleted buildings, abandoned vehicles, deserted stalls or under bridges a la Achebe’s Madman of the same eponymous story, the sheer horror of houselessness/homelessness might seem far-fetched. You might not have experienced it or even know that things like these really and truly happen on a daily basis, especially in urban areas such as Lagos. Speaking of which, lately, buildings in the Lagos metropolis have come under the microscopic attention of the authorities on account of the rather alarming incidence of collapsed buildings, often resulting in colossal loss of life and property. Examples of such tragic occurrences abound in recent memory, particularly the recent Ikoyi Towers collapse that claimed the lives of many souls as well as the Ebute Metta tragedy which also claimed about ten lives, including that of a youth corps member. However, prior to these sad developments, the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development, to its credit, has always gone out of its way to inspect buildings and subject them to stress/integrity testing. Evidently, these officials do not only test old, existing structures but also test buildings under construction. Experience has shown that, curiously enough, both old and newly-built (or buildings under construction) do betray egregious signs of stress or fail the requisite integrity test, thus necessitating their being marked “Distressed” and consequently “Sealed”. In most cases, the owners of these structures approach Alausa to grant them re-approval for use of property after attending to the identified structural defects. It is either they are granted their prayers or approval is withheld if all the specified deficiencies are not satisfactorily addressed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, given the extremely high number of houses officially declared “distressed” and “sealed” sparking mass evacuation of tenants, landlords as well as developers have gone absolutely Shylockish!
Houses built even before Nigeria got her “Independence” in 1960 and which have never been renovated substantially are now being priced out of the reach of an average salary-earner. Houses located in the business districts of town or in areas that could be described as upper-crust or high-end are utterly unaffordable, reserved perhaps only for the nouveaux riches, the upper-middle-class and, of course, old money. Should the building be close to, say, a university campus such as UNILAG, a polytechnic such as Yabatech, a highly-regarded secondary school such as Kings’ College, or a popular cinema or shopping mall, the asking price is usually quadrupled! By the same token, the more far-flung and out-of-the-way the building or property is from the epicentre of civilisation, the less-costly and more affordable. As a result of this economics of scale, most people in the city prefer to live on the outskirts of town and commute to and from work, school, church, etc. by public transportation. The net effect of this is that they lose daily several man-hours in traffic snarl-up; they are routinely exposed to sundry forms of insecurity, including traffic robberies, mugging, abduction and, in worst-case scenarios, death. Further, the relative scenic beauty of the environment where a property is sited attracts additional cost to the said property. This is why, for instance, when someone says to you: “I live in Lagos”, you may politely ask them: “Which Lagos?” The fact of the matter is that there are many Lagoses, among which include highbrow places such as Ikeja GRA, Anthony Village, Lekki Phase 1 and 2, Victoria Garden City (VGC), Dolphin Estate, Osborne Estate, estates along the Lagos-Epe corridor, Apapa GRA and, of course, Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Banana Island. Lagos suburbia content themselves, on the other hand, with such urban ghettoised infernos as Ijora, Amukoko, Ajejunle, Okokomaiko, Agege, Orile-Iganmu, Mushin and Bariga. Houses located in the highbrow areas of town attract high-rent because they are normally ultra-modern, fitted with state- of-the-art facilities. The surroundings are beautiful, Edenic at times, comparable to paved streets of London, Paris and Beverly Hills. Drive through Bourdillion, for example, and tell me if you do not feel as though you were “in the abroad”, as they say. Not to talk of living close to the Lion of Bourdillion himself!
So, if landlords in these regal regions of town charge forbiddingly high rent, you might as well cut them some slack, because building a house in these areas is not “moimoi”. But how does one irrationalised a situation whereby landlords who built their houses in the bygone era of Mungo Park or when Lord Lugard still swankily held sway on the Niger, require prospective clients to fork out huge sums of money running into millions of naira for a dilapidated and decrepit two-bedroom flat? Even when the authorities mark such houses distressed and sealed, some of these rogue and unscrupulous landlords (old men that should know better!) would brazenly erase the offending inscriptions with paint and, on rare occasions, carry out largely cosmetic and meretricious repairs and unleash an army of estate agents on Lagosians to hoodwink and wheedle them into renting these “death-traps” at cut-throat prices. As of now, many houses in urban areas, especially Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt and Enugu have been declared unfit for human habitation. In the same connection, therefore, a kind of cat-and-mouse game is being played between the authorities and landlords hell-bent on outwitting the regulatory agencies and going on to make an overkill on the real-estate market. Caught in the crossfire of this cornubatory skulduggery is tenants who in the execrable event of a rainstorm, run the risk of being buried alive should the buildings collapse. This is, sadly, a familiar pattern in urban Nigeria. One cannot put it past some of the government officials charged with the responsibility of regulating the structural integrity of buildings that they might be financially compromised to bend the rules or/and look the other way where and when strict adherence to the rules of due diligence is required. Just like everything Nigerian, the Nigerian Factor bulks large in real-estate matters. The collateral damage for this criminal negligence and ethical irresponsibility is staggering since no one is prepared to accept blame when avoidable tragedy hits.
The fate of the homeless is made direr with the rising cost of building materials, especially cement. Sadly the duopoly which works the levers in this regard is untouchable. Part of the result of this is that Nigeria’s landscape is littered ungainly with straggly clumps of abandoned and uncompleted structures most of them entombed in rank weeds and trees. Most regrettably, government merely pays lip-service to providing low-cost housing for its workers and the citizenry at large. As things stand, Nigerians who are already at breaking-point being pauperised by huge utility bills cannot afford to build their own homes. Where and how do they get mortgage loans?
Perhaps the most disturbing development in all of this is the growing plague of ethnicism muddying the waters. Right now in Lagos, being Igbo is anathema as far as getting accommodation is concerned. Yoruba landlords will tell their agents “I don’t want Igbo people in my house!”
Thus no matter how impressive your profile is, as soon as you fill in the pre-tenancy form and it is discovered you are Igbo (read: non-Yoruba), you are denied accommodation forthwith and thus back in the rain. The trite line is often that the Igbo as a whole are difficult to deal with; they are very stubborn; they don’t pay rent as and when due and they tend to render their living quarters untenantable. The question then, is: do these ethnic champions have the credible statistics to validate their highly incendiary claims? Should you consign a whole race to Gehena because of few bad eggs? Are we now going to be drawing up ethnic polarities at a time when we as a people should be soldering yawning fault-lines threatening our body politic? The truth is that every ethnic group has both good and bad people and therefore we must never tar everyone with the same brush. Thus the ethnic profiling and scapegoating of the Igbo, a clear corollary of our tragic past and present anxieties, is wrong and must be condemned by all who have a conscience. Besides this, other demographic categories such as singles, the elderly, the disabled, single-mothers and childless couples are denied accommodation for pinheaded reasons. For some landlords, your religious affiliation could either be your saving grace or your albatross! All told, we can only urge landlords and developers to be active agents of national cohesion in these turbulent times rather than harbingers of Balkanisation.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.