Bimbo, 57 and a mother of four, grew up in Makoko, Lagos Nigeria’s largest slum, married, and established a thriving soft drink business in boisterous Badia East, another Lagos slum. Her life was upturned when the World Bank-financed Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project bulldozed Badia East in 2013 without notice.
The “urban renewal” project promised to upgrade nine Lagos slums. Instead residents were evicted without consultation, warning or compensation, and left homeless in crowded, dangerous Lagos. The bulldozing aroused global condemnation for bringing homelessness and misery to thousands of Lagos’ poor.
The World Bank ignored its Involuntary Resettlement policy that commits to consult and compensate evictees to a level that restores or exceeds original living standards. The policy regularly fails communities worldwide. Following Badia East’s destruction, the Bank instructed the borrower Lagos State government to compensate the victims. A year later each household received a $400-$2,000 lump sum, far too little for new housing. The evictees were pressured to sign “compensation” forms without time to review them and in too dark a room to read the fine print. Later they learned that the forms prohibited them from seeking additional compensation.
During the first few months following eviction Bimbo slept outdoors on cartons atop the rubble. Rain and noise prevented her from sleeping. She has moved from one shelter to another. Currently she sleeps on a chair in the Stars Clinic run by a friend.
The destruction of Bimbo’s home separated her from her spouse and four children. Her six-year-old son repeatedly caught colds from sleeping outdoors and was sent to a friend’s house in another community. Two of her children moved with her husband to northern Nigeria, where he found temporary work. Her mother-in-law cares for her fourth child in Ogun State. The children had to drop out of school because of homelessness and loss of income to pay school fees.
Bulldozers also flattened Bimbo’s soda-drink business, her source of livelihood. What an ironic outcome for a project financed by the World Bank that claims to support small businesswomen. Following demolition, Bimbo found one empty 7-up bottle that she keeps as a souvenir.
Other evictees became utterly destitute. A few died from malnutrition. Some women turned to sex work to survive. But Bimbo’s homelessness transformed her into an activist.
“I came to be the voice of my oppressed people because everyone around me was afraid [of the government],” says Bimbo, also known as ‘Iron Lady’ owing to her tenacity. “I felt I needed to be bold and speak on behalf of my community. Our children were more or less orphans because we couldn’t fend for them. We felt naked and vulnerable and someone needed to speak for them. The government acted as if they owed us no obligation, no education for our children, no housing, and the little we were scrambling to survive on, they yanked it from us. It was clear that we were already down and out and had nothing to lose by speaking. I chose to speak out against the inhumanity.”
The civil society group Justice & Empowerment Initiatives trained Bimbo as a paralegal. Now Bimbo helps other slum-dwellers, especially women, obtain justice. She takes female rape victims to Mirabel Centre for treatment—sexual assault has spread among homeless evictees, and girls as young as eight years old have been raped—and is leading efforts, with other activists, against corruption in this World Bank project. In the absence of new Badia East construction, evictees suspect project funds have been pocketed by corrupt officials.
“I sensitize communities about their human rights,” Bimbo said. “If nobody talks, the government will continue to trample on our heads, like they have done to so many marginalized communities across Lagos, Rivers State, the Federal Capital Territory, Kaduna and others.”
Following World Bank procedures, Bimbo and other evictees sought recourse through the Bank’s accountability mechanism called the Inspection Panel. So far the mechanism failed Badia East’s destitute evictees, whom the Bank calls “project beneficiaries.” They continue to live as squatters.
Bimbo visited Bank headquarters in Washington DC in April to appeal in person to Board members and Inspection Panelists. She pressed them to reopen the Badia East investigation. She presented a powerful video interviewing her and other evictees amid the rubble. She told Bank officials that following losing their homes and livelihoods some evictees died, especially from malnutrition; some women resorted to prostitution to survive; and a mother lost her newborn triplets after eviction had caused her to suffer a mental breakdown and she was deserted by her husband. World Bankers blamed the borrower Lagos government’s noncompliance with Bank safeguard policies, and so far has not responded to Bimbo’s appeal for a renewed Bank project investigation.
Bimbo later left DC to fly back to Lagos where she—like so many others from her destroyed community—remains homeless but not hopeless. “Housing is a human right,” she said upon her return, “and we will continue to shout.”
Photo: Bimbo and fellow activists at a vigil for Berta Caceres, March 2016. Photo on this page: Bimbo in front of the World Bank Headquarters, Washington DC. Source: Ms. magazine.