Jungle in the City: Story of a 500-room house in Nigeria where tenants live as prisoners

Agboye-‘Estate’-Oduntan-Street-Ketu-Lagos-360x225Covered in a stream of sweat as he made for the narrow entrance leading outside the block, Okoli Nwabueze (not real name), cursed and grumbled angrily. He was deep in slumber by the time the fan in his room stopped rolling that afternoon and so couldn’t make it out on time to enjoy cool, ‘precious’ breeze. Lacking proper ventilation, electricity supply was the only means to keep the temperature within the room normal. Last year, when he paid N140, 000 as rent and related charges for 12 months to move into Agboye ‘Estate’, a gigantic structure with over 500 rooms stretching on about four plots of land on Oduntan Street, Ketu, Lagos, this was not what he expected. The situation leaves him deeply frustrated.

“The heat inside my room is crazy,” he said, nodding his head in complete dejection. “There is no ventilation and so whenever there’s power outage the place becomes very hot. This was not what I expected when I paid for the house last year. I never knew I was moving into a prison yard. I can’t use generator or other household appliances even after paying so much as rent. This is really crazy,” he fumed.

Lamentations all the way

Okoli is not the only one burning with rage in this vast and hugely populated building – the poor and extreme conditions of living is getting other tenants deeply concerned, too. Apart from paying N6, 000 as monthly charges for a single room – not more than twice the size of the space inside a commercial bus in Lagos – occupants who agreed to speak with our correspondent after they were assured their identities would be protected for fear of being victimised by the owner of the house, Onamo Agboye, said they are forbidden from using power generators, electric kettles, air conditioners or even host important social gatherings like naming ceremonies or birthdays within the facility. They were assured of constant electricity supply when moving in but they soon found out that the big generator set stationed at a section of the compound is not meant to service their interest but the comfort of the landlord alone. To make matters worse, the only entrance leading in and out of the compound closes at 11:00pm daily. Once the clock ticks, nobody goes in or out anymore, they

revealed. In case of an emergency, chaos is inevitable.

“There was this day I was coming from FESTAC and I encountered traffic around Maryland, I didn’t get to Ketu until about 11:30pm. The security men at the gate of the house did not allow me to go in. I explained to them that I was new and that I didn’t know about the time of the closure but they refused to listen to my plea. I slept inside the church opposite the house that day,” Lanre Adamolekun, another tenant told Saturday PUNCH.

The regimented nature of the building – like a Nazi facility – has left devastating consequences on some occasions. Injuries and heartbreaks have come in different forms.

“My wife almost died from pains after falling into labour around 2:30am. The security men did not open the gate for us until two hours later because they said their boss would be mad at them for opening the gate at such hour of the night. They saw her condition, that she was dying but they refused to consider her pains. By the time we got to the hospital, she had become too weak to push by herself. She had to give birth through a caesarean section . That was the moment I decided that the house was not a place to live,” Anthony Onyekwere told our correspondent in a telephone conversation during the week. He has since relocated his family to the Agric area of Ikorodu, a fast rising town within the metropolis.

Chilling discoveries

From afar, the massive building looks like a ship sailing on the Atlantic with different national flags flying at the top with scores of bulbs arranged at strategic spots.

During a visit to the house during the week, our correspondent observed that the sanitary conditions were in poor state, while hygiene was also a big issue. In most of the blocks which are constructed only inches away from each other thus making free flow of air almost impossible, at least 12 rooms shared a single toilet and bathroom. On the average, two persons occupy each room, bringing the number of users of a single toilet to 24. An official who works at the building confirmed to our correspondent who posed as a potential tenant that there were presently 370 tenants in the house. Meaning that on the average, there are 740 adults living in the compound. This is aside children and visitors who make frequent stopovers to their loved ones. Unhygienic as this sounds, it is a situation that has existed for a long time and shows no signs of improving soon.

Behind the compound is a vast swamp of stagnant sewage and dirt – the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other deadly insects that combine to inflict maximum horror on the occupants. The section is also home to snakes, scorpions and other dangerous crawling animals. Together, they make life for many of Agboye’s low-income earning occupants hellish.

“We are slaves to malaria and typhoid in this place,” Yemisi Adebambo, said. “Ask people around especially parents with children and let them tell you how much they spend on malaria and typhoid in a month. The mosquitoes here are the deadliest I have seen in my life, no thanks to the swamp at the back of the building; that is their breeding home. Even if you have mosquito nets in your room, you must buy malaria medicine in a month, you can’t escape it. If you are not even careful, you will meet snake or scorpion inside your room. We have killed many of them in our block this year. Ask anybody, they will confirm what I am saying,” the young mother of four told our correspondent.

A new notice pasted on strategic points within the facility which our correspondent stumbled upon, now also forbids tenants from accommodating a visitor of any kind beyond seven days without the approval of the landlord. According to the notice, such persons would be classified under the illegal tenant category of the management’s laws. Others in this category include: persons living in the room of a relation or friend who has travelled even if their rent was yet to expire; those sharing a room without the approval of the landlord, and also persons squatting in a room with a sitting tenant. Those under this category who wish to escape the wrath of the management are urged to obtain a regularisation form at N5, 000 and return with four passport photographs to have their status changed. Defaulters, however, risk urgent ejection and other severe consequences, according to the strong-worded notice.

The landlord of the house, who described himself to Saturday PUNCH as a philanthropist, said he established the place to help the masses and that if Nigerians were like him, the country would have been a better place to live in.

“I am a philanthropist; I do this to help the people. If others were like me, Nigeria would have become a better place. I cannot say much for now but come back in two days’ time (Wednesday, November 12, 2014) when I will give you three hours to interview me. Your paper will sell so well,” he said.

But what our correspondent found at Agboye ‘estate’ is far from what you see in an environment established by a philanthropist. Tenants are ejected without prior notice while monthly rent is increased at will without proper consultations with the occupants. Tenants cook by the entrance of their rooms as there are no kitchens while the passageway in most of the eight blocks in the premises are enveloped in darkness day and night except of course if there is electricity supply to light up the bulbs. In the alternative, occupants light candles to illuminate the place.

The monthly rent for a single room in this highly populated building – N6, 000 – is one of the most expensive in mainland Lagos, higher than in places like Yaba, Palmgrove and even Ikeja, the state capital. In addition to the high rent, tenants pay additional N2, 000 for electricity and other utility bills. New tenants who come on their own are made to pay a certain amount to a woman who acts as in-house agent. Without ‘settling’ her, your tenancy documents won’t be signed. But for those coming through an agent outside the place, they could pay as much as N140, 000 – about N34, 000 higher than the usual amount. In additional, a new tenant is made to perform a mandatory ritual – present a specified number of malt drinks and a bottle of wine to the management of the ‘estate.’

Disturbing as it sounds, the travails of many Agboye ‘estate’ residents, a school housing several professional institutes now converted to blocks of residential apartments, is only a fraction of the accommodation challenges many Lagos residents now face. Confronted with outrageous rents and all sorts of living conditions by house owners, many of the city’s low-income earning families and individuals are forced to accept cheap alternatives that offer no succour in the real sense. Rather, their troubles have been compounded in many of these places, with their rights grossly abused by greedy house owners who ‘lord’ over their lives in every form.

A ticking time bomb

A medical expert, Professor Oladapo Ashiru, told Saturday PUNCH that living in a crowded house like Agboye, poses severe health risk to the occupants. He said except government addresses the factors pushing people to live in such environment critically, the consequences could be harmful to the society at the end.

“If you live in a crowded house where ventilation is poor and a lot of people have to share a single toilet and bathroom, there is a high possibility of infection because oxygen sharing capacity is greatly reduced. There would be poor hygiene in the environment and stress on the bladder as a result of people waiting for each other to use the toilet.

“In such a place, there will be prevalence of malaria, diarrhoea. People in such a place would be visiting hospitals regularly because of the risk they are exposed to.

“The solution I think is for people to spread out to other parts of Lagos. There is too much concentration of people inside the city but if people spread out to other parts, the pressure would be reduced on existing infrastructure.

“Also, government should invest in water transportation so that people can easily move around the state. If this is done, people can live in rural areas where there are still large expanse of land and work in the city without crowding the city itself. The government must also develop proper housing estates in rural areas as well to further address this problem,” he said.

Former Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lagos, Ayobami Makanju, a professor of psychology, told our correspondent that occupants of highly populated houses like Agboye risk having their egos dented. The situation, he said, could lead to deviancy and all sorts of psychological problems if not handled properly.

“Living in houses where there are so many occupants is a big problem for the individual’s psychological development. Every human needs their personal space and once you are denied this, it affects you in every way. It affects reproduction, blood pressure and the physiognomy in general.

“The problem also leads to stress because people are forced to stay on the queue to take their baths and also use the toilet. In the process, some are forced to take their bath in the open at odd hours.

“But the danger of it all is that it affects your ego and psyche. If you live in a place where the condition is not different from what you have in a prison yard, then you could start developing negative behaviour and begin to exhibit gangsterism traits. Places like this are the breeding ground for all sorts of deviant behaviour, especially when you see people who live normal lives and in conducive environments,” he said.

A civil engineer, Akin Ogunbanwo, told our correspondent that if the pressure becomes unbearable on the structure of a crowded house like Agboye ‘Estate’, it could lead to catastrophic consequences.

“In case the foundation is not properly piled and regular checks and maintenance work not done to strenghten the pillars, deckings and walls, a house with this type of pressure cannot escape disaster. It is a matter of time before it collapses completely,” he said.

A disaster of such magnitude in this crammed and highly populated building is best imagined.



         Gory statistics

According to statistics, the gap between demand and supply in accommodation is massive, fuelling indiscriminate    rent        increase by many landlords in most parts of the country especially in big cities like Lagos. This has also led    to   the              emergence of many slum settlements in recent years with families and individuals living in crowded    rooms, thereby exposing them to all sorts of diseases.

The menace of the house agents who demand excess rent and all kinds of charges from potential tenants is another  dimension to the problem. Though the Lagos State government in 2011 promulgated a tenancy law, restricting new  tenants from paying beyond one year’s rent and six months for existing tenants, it is still business as usual in terms of the demands made by agents who serve as middlemen between tenants and house owners, Saturday PUNCH discovered.

Commissioner for Housing, Bosun Jeje, said that for the tenancy law to be effective, residents must also play their role by reporting any errant agent to the law enforcement agents.

“It’s a law and it’s in place. If you pay, you are also a culprit. It is when residents report such acts to us that we can make the law effective. Residents can report to the office of the Public Defender or Ministry of Housing and

we will take it up.

“More so, residents should also note that in the law, if you pay for two years contrary to what is stipulated, you will also face the wrath of law. Residents have a part to play; report the person.

“On our part, we are embarking on massive constructions to address the housing needs of Lagosians. Lagos State is a mega city, the third in the world, and housing is always a major problem associated with a mega city; but we are addressing it. That is why we started construction in the senatorial districts and five divisions of the state. We are trying as much as possible to provide enough accommodation,” he said.

The 2006 population census puts the population of Lagos at 17.55 million while the United Nations projects that the city would become the world’s third most populous with 24.6 million inhabitants by 2015. But experts believe that that figure is well over 25 million today with dozens of individuals trooping into Lagos on a daily basis in search of a new life.

According to a 2010 study by the Lagos State Ministry of Housing, over 91 per cent of the total population lives in the metropolis with a population density of about 20, 000 persons per square kilometre in the built-up areas of the metropolis. The occupancy ratio is 8 – 10 persons per room with 72.5 per cent of households occupying one-room apartment.

While the growth of the population in the metropolitan Lagos has assumed a geometrical proportion, the provision of urban infrastructure and housing to meet this demand is, not at commensurate level. This has resulted in acute shortage of housing to the teeming population with Lagos alone accounting for about five million deficit representing 31 per cent of the estimated national housing deficit of 18 million.

The problem of inadequate housing for the citizens in Lagos is further aggravated by the inadequate budget for housing by the government. In 2000 for example, N667m representing 4.05 per cent of N16bn budget was earmarked for housing while N776m representing 1.42 per cent was budgeted in 2005. Four years ago, out of the N224.6bn total budget for the year, only N6bn representing 2.7 per cent was earmarked for housing. This was revealed in a 2010 report by the Lagos State Ministry of Housing. Even though the state government earmarked N50.537 b for housing and community amenities in the 2014 budget, much hasn’t changed in the accomodation challenge, forcing all sorts of structures – many unfit for human habitation – to spring forth across the metropolis.

Defeating the monster

Real estate developer, Mr. Segun Ogunshile, says the simple way out of the housing challenges in big Nigerian cities like Lagos is for government and the private sector to provide more affordable shelter for the middle and lower classes in the society.

“Most players in the real estate industry are into the top end of the market, building three-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. Most of those buildings are in highbrow areas like Lekki, Ikoyi, Ikeja and other posh parts of the city. The truth is that this is not what most people in cities like Lagos actually need or can comfortably afford.

“There are hundreds of people who need shelter in Lagos but they can’t just afford those big houses springing forth here and there. The houses are too expensive. So, that’s the mismatch.

“But if the real estate sector can change focus a bit and build houses that people can afford, accommodation problem will be solved,” he said.

The last few years has witnessed an explosion in the real estate and construction sector across Nigeria. In Lagos and other big cities for example, plots of lands that sold for reasonable amounts in the past, now go for more than five times that price, forcing rents to skyrocket. The trend has also provided a platform for quacks pretending to bridge the gap.

But President, Building Collapse Prevention Guild, Mr. Kunle Awobodu, say sub-standard building materials must not find a place in the real and construction sector if the problem must be curbed.

“It is not practicable to test materials being used on several sites in the country. However, the most reasonable approach is to tackle quality problem from the source, that is, the manufacturers’ end,” he said.

In spite of the Lagos State government’s mega city drive, slums and squatter settlements are still a prominent feature across most parts of the metropolis. Like Agboye ‘estate’, schools now serve as makeshift residential quarters while motor parks and abandoned buildings are used for similar purposes. At the Bar Beach in Victoria Island, a posh section of Lagos for example, dozens of homeless families and individuals sleep in the open, enduring harsh weather conditions during day and night.



Source: PunchNg

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