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Beyond Brick and Mortar: Building Solutions for Lagos’ Invisible Citizens

On February 15, 2024, the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, sparked controversy with his announcement to “clear” homeless communities residing under bridges across the city. The Governor, quoted by The Guardian on February 16, 2024, cited concerns about aesthetics, security, and traffic congestion as motivating factors, stating: “We cannot allow people to turn under bridges to their homes. It is not good for the aesthetics of the city.”

This pronouncement carries significant weight considering the vast scale of homelessness in Lagos. Estimates suggest tens of thousands, potentially reaching one million individuals, lack stable housing in the megacity, with many of them finding refuge under bridges, as reported by BBC News on December 12, 2023, and Business Day, Nigeria, July 25, 2023.

The governor’s plan has ignited debate, raising critical questions about its feasibility, impact on vulnerable communities, and alignment with human rights principles. This analysis delves into these complexities, examining the context, potential consequences, and alternative solutions for addressing homelessness in Lagos.

A City Grappling with Homelessness

The governor’s plan to clear homeless communities cannot be fully understood without examining the stark realities of homelessness in Lagos. Official figures are scarce, but estimations paint a grim picture: tens of thousands, and some sources propose up to one million individuals, grapple with the absence of stable housing in the megacity as reported by BBC News on December 12, 2023, and Business Day, Nigeria on July 25, 2023.


These individuals come from diverse backgrounds, with men, women, children, and families represented among the homeless population according to an article entitled, ‘Lagos, megacity of homeless women’ published by The ICIR on October 8, 2021.

Their daily struggles are manifold. Many, like those residing under bridges, face exposure to the elements, lack of access to necessities like sanitation and healthcare, and constant vulnerability to violence and exploitation, according to a Human Rights Watch publication on February 17, 2024. An article, ‘HOMELESSNESS IN LAGOS: A GROWING scourge’, said social stigma further marginalises them, making it difficult to access opportunities and rebuild their lives.

According to a 2021 report by the United Nations, Nigeria has the highest number of homeless people in Africa, with an estimated 24 million lacking access to decent and affordable.

Previous government initiatives aimed at addressing homelessness have yielded mixed results. Projects like the construction of Makoko floating school as published in The Guardian on October 27, 2023, provided temporary shelter and educational opportunities, but concerns remain regarding long-term solutions and the displacement of communities during development projects as highlighted by Amnesty International UK on July 12, 2022.


Understanding the existing challenges and complexities of homelessness in Lagos is crucial for evaluating the potential impact and ethical implications of the Governor’s proposed plan.

Analysis of the Governor’s Pronouncement: A Delicate Balancing Act

Governor Sanwo-Olu’s proposal to clear under-bridge communities has ignited a firestorm of debate, prompting questions about its motivations, effectiveness, and ethical implications. Let’s delve deeper into the complexities surrounding this announcement.

Motivations Unveiled: According to The Guardian, Nigeria, February 16, 2024, the governor’s stated reasons include concerns about aesthetics, security, and traffic congestion. However, some critics reported by Human Rights Watch, on February 17, 2024, argue that addressing these concerns comes at the expense of basic human rights and ignores the root causes of homelessness. They point to the potential for forced evictions without proper relocation plans, further marginalising already vulnerable communities.

Feasibility and Effectiveness: Questions also arise regarding the plan’s feasibility. Clearing communities without addressing the underlying issues of poverty, unemployment, and a lack of affordable housing is unlikely to create a lasting solution. Punch Newspapers on February 4, 2024, reports critics warning that simply pushing homeless individuals elsewhere won’t solve the problem, potentially creating new challenges in different locations.


Human Cost and Ethical Concerns: Perhaps the most critical aspect of the analysis lies in understanding the potential impact on homeless individuals. Displacement can disrupt vital support networks and access to services, further jeopardising their already precarious lives, reports Amnesty International UK on July 12, 2022. Additionally, concerns exist about potential violations of human rights, particularly the right to shelter and freedom from arbitrary eviction, as raised by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Aligning with Human Rights: Evaluating the plan against existing legal frameworks and human rights principles is crucial. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, guarantees citizens’ rights to dignity and freedom from discrimination. Additionally, international human rights treaties ratified by Nigeria, like the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, emphasise the right to adequate housing. This is contained in the United Nations Treaty Collection, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, published in 1966. The governor’s plan needs to be carefully assessed in light of these legal and ethical obligations.

Public and Expert Reactions: A Tapestry of Opinions

Governor Sanwo-Olu’s plan to clear under-bridge communities has generated a spectrum of reactions, reflecting the complexity of the issue. Let’s explore the diverse perspectives of different stakeholders:

Homeless Communities Speak Out: Understandably, residents under bridges express fear and anxiety about the potential displacement, highlighting the crucial role these communities play in providing them with a sense of belonging and mutual support, as reported by HumAngle Media on August 17, 2023. They emphasise the need for inclusive solutions that address their immediate needs and offer long-term pathways to stable housing.


NGOs and Human Rights Groups Voice Concerns: Organisations working with homeless individuals raise serious concerns about human rights violations and the potential for further marginalisation as reported by Amnesty International UK on July 12, 2022. They advocate for participatory approaches that involve homeless communities in decision-making and prioritise their well-being.

Citizens Offer Divided Opinions: Public opinion reflects the multifaceted nature of the issue. While some residents express concerns about safety and aesthetics, others emphasise empathy and call for humane solutions, as reported by Punch Newspapers on February 17, 2024

Arguments for and Against the Plan:


  • Improved aesthetics and safety: Proponents argue the plan will enhance the city’s image and address potential security concerns associated with under-bridge communities.
  • Traffic flow: Clearing these areas could alleviate traffic congestion in key locations.


  • Violation of human rights: Opponents highlight the potential for forced evictions and disregard for residents’ rights to shelter and dignity.
  • Inadequate solutions: Critics argue simply moving people without addressing root causes won’t solve the problem and may create new challenges elsewhere.
  • Lack of transparency and participation: Concerns exist about the lack of clear plans for relocation or involvement of homeless communities in decision-making.

Alternative Solutions:

Experts and advocacy groups propose alternative approaches that prioritise:

  • Investing in affordable housing: Addressing the root cause of homelessness through increased housing options and rent control measures.
  • Providing support services: Expanding access to healthcare, mental health services, and job training opportunities.
  • Community-based solutions: Collaborating with homeless communities and NGOs to develop inclusive and sustainable solutions.
  • Human rights-based approach: Ensuring any plan adheres to human rights principles and involves meaningful participation from affected communities.

Nnenna Nwosu, Executive Director, SHELTER, a Nigerian NGO supporting homeless communities, emphasises, “We need a fundamental shift in how we view and respond to homelessness. It’s not just about providing shelter; it’s about addressing the root causes and empowering individuals to rebuild their lives.”

Moving forward, it is crucial to consider these diverse perspectives and engage in open dialogue to find solutions that address the complex issue of homelessness in Lagos while upholding human rights and dignity for all.

A Tapestry of Lives Woven Under the Bridge: Struggles, Dreams, and the Human Cost of Homelessness in Lagos

Lagos’ under-bridge communities are microcosms of the city itself, teeming with diverse individuals grappling with the harsh realities of homelessness. Through the narratives of Godwin (who spoke to BBC Africa in 2018), two Ibrahims, Abubakar, and Darasimi, we gain a glimpse into their struggles, aspirations, and the unyielding human spirit that persists even in the most challenging circumstances. Apart from Godwin, the others spoke to LM correspondent, Irene Alfred.

Godwin, yearning for a life beyond the limitations of his rural town, arrived in Lagos with dreams etched in his heart. But the harsh reality of exorbitant rents forced him to find shelter under a bridge.

“When I was in my final year at university, I used to hear, there was money in Lagos. There’s work in Lagos. My aim was to come and work. I didn’t even think about living a life under the bridge. The little I’m doing now is for me just to load passengers onto the bus until it’s filled up. If there’s 50 naira, 100 naira, the driver will give it to us. I have been doing that so many times for four months now to sustain myself.”

Despite the indignity and precariousness of his living situation, he finds solace in the camaraderie of the local church community and clings to the hope of a brighter future, fuelled by the small earnings he makes loading buses.

Godwin (unsuspecting of the ominous government policy) poignantly reflects, “Nobody will disturb you. Nobody will tackle you because this place is very peaceful. So that’s why I chose this place. The under-bridge community, despite its hardships, offers a sense of belonging and solidarity. Building on this existing social capital can be a cornerstone in developing successful interventions.

Ibrahim from Kano, a young man of just 20, left his hometown seeking opportunities. Now, the underbelly of a market serves as his roof, exposing him to constant vulnerability and the daily struggle for basic necessities. Yet, his spirit remains unbroken, harbouring dreams of returning home as a hero, his pockets lined with enough money to establish his own business and chart a new course for himself.

When asked what he would do if he had money, he replied in Pidgin, “I wan use am for market.”

Another Ibrahim, hailing from Kwara, embodies the quiet resilience often unseen beneath the surface. Though skilled in his trade, the lack of resources to launch his own venture confined him to a life of carrying loads for meagre wages. Raids and harassment by law enforcement add another layer of hardship, but his resolve to return to his family whenever possible and his aspiration for a stable job to shed negative stereotypes about the homeless paint a poignant picture of his unwavering spirit.

Guided by his Muslim faith and strong work ethic, Ibrahim emphasises his desire to escape the misconceptions and dangers associated with street life. He longs for any opportunity, even a gateman’s position, to rebuild his life and provide for his loved ones. His story underscores the importance of recognizing the humanity within each individual experiencing homelessness and the dignity they deserve.

“Na condition o, because as Muslim, I go to ile keu (Arabic school) and I do wolimat. I learn work and I do freedom. So, I cannot just be on the street and just be following all the boys who are smoking and begging for money up and down. But once I’m doing this work, sometimes the thing makes me happy small, based on the way I see the money from the work. Anytime I did not see money, I would sleep and mosquito go even bite and everything. I just put it on God saying, “There is a good day coming. God will help us.”

Darasimi, a student from Kwara, walks a tightrope between pursuing her education and navigating the brutal realities of homelessness. Food insecurity and societal biases add to her burdens, yet her determination to defy the odds and carve a successful path in her chosen field shines through. Her story is a testament to the power of education as a transformative tool and the urgent need for support systems that empower individuals experiencing homelessness to reach their full potential.

She says: “People are very funny sometimes, that someone doesn’t have a home doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t have any other hope or option. Through some things, it’s a journey of life; towards my own profession, I see it’s a journey, so let me say I have a home and I also don’t have a home.”

Aisha, a homeless woman in Lagos, was reported by Human Rights Watch in 2020 as saying, “I left home because of domestic violence. Living on the streets is dangerous, but I have nowhere else to go. If there were shelters for women, I would feel safer.”

These are but a few threads woven into the complex tapestry of human lives existing under the bridges of Lagos. Their stories lay bare the multifaceted nature of homelessness, unveiling not just the challenges and vulnerabilities these individuals face, but also their unwavering hope, resilience, and dreams for a better tomorrow. Amplifying their voices and advocating for their rights are crucial steps in dismantling the social and economic barriers that perpetuate homelessness and building a Lagos that offers dignity, opportunity, and a chance for everyone to weave their own narratives of success.

Beyond the Bridge: Tackling Homelessness in Lagos with Humanity and Holism

The narratives woven from the interviews paint a stark picture of the multifaceted realities of homelessness in Lagos. Each story reveals a unique journey – Godwin’s yearning for an opportunity, Ibrahim’s struggle for independence, and Darasimi’s fight for education amidst precarity – all bound by the harsh thread of homelessness.

Addressing this complex issue demands a nuanced approach that recognises the diverse needs and experiences of individuals experiencing homelessness. Simply offering temporary shelter fails to acknowledge the systemic and structural factors that drive individuals onto the streets in the first place. As Amnesty International Nigeria reminds us, “Forced eviction exacerbates the homelessness problem in the city.” Long-term solutions must focus on upholding human rights, particularly the right to adequate housing, as enshrined in international law.

Ultimately, tackling homelessness requires a commitment to addressing its root causes, such as poverty, unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, and social exclusion. Sustainable solutions must prioritise human dignity and support individuals in rebuilding their lives. By listening to the voices of those experiencing homelessness, investing in comprehensive programmes, and working collaboratively across sectors, Lagos can bridge the gap between invisibility and inclusion, creating a city where everyone can find a safe and secure place to call home.

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