The road to Aro is rough and much sandier than the last time I came only two days ago. If I were to properly explain the significant change in the level of sand, I would have said: The sands got fed up and decided to procreate.
“Cars can only pass here during the raining season,” Mr. Ajibade says matter-of-factly; he is here to guide me through Aro.
“If any car goes through this road like this, the tyres will sink and these aboki boys—"He points to a group of youths wearing nothing but faded underwear and jeans soiled in grease, sitting across each side of the road. They are smoking what looks like wrapped cannabis—"they will come and help you carry your car, and you will pay them like ₦5,000.”
Ajibade’s description of the process sounded like something from a pitch deck: Car aid, on demand. Just another quick hustle on the streets of Lagos.
As we approach the town’s main entrance, I spot a market for second-hand goods. Ajibade responds to my silent enquiry. “We call it Kasuwa.”
“The things they sell here are now expensive. They were really cheap before,” he complains. “I bought almost everything in my house from this market. My rug, my fan, my wardrobe and even my bed.”
I watch as two men push locally fabricated wheelbarrows filled with wood, metal, and some other things. The town seems to be full of stories.
Three years ago, Aro was a fenced piece of land by the beach. It served as an alternative entrance to the now demised Lekki beach. Its exact capacity, wild speculation (My request to speak with the Baale—High Chief—of the town proved abortive).
“Aro is big! It’s a mighty population. I can say that more than 1500 people are staying here,” Ajibade exclaims.
How did an empty settlement grow to accommodate so many people in three years?
There may be jobs in Lagos, but are there houses?
My father arrived in Lagos in the early 70’s, looking—like others were—for a better life. The guiding ideology being: There is work in Lagos.
But not all of Lagos is created equal; opportunities are found in some places more than others.
In my father’s time, Ikeja the place to be. Hearing that someone stayed in Ikeja signalled a comfortable life. If you were coming to Lagos, you were heading to Ikeja. It was all that mattered.
Today, Lekki is the new Ikeja; a new enclave for the wealthy, spurred by high prices in real estate. A three bedroom in the area could go for ₦4,000,000 in annual rent. The same type of apartment could be found for less than ₦300,000 in Ogba or Ikorodu.
“I was paying ₦60,000 per year for a self-contained apartment in Agege, but in Lekki, if you don’t have up to ₦200,000 you can’t even rent a good room,” Ajibade chips in. He relocated to the island after he’d lost his job in Agege and got a similar role in Lekki with twice the pay.
“I was asked to pay ₦50,000 for agent and agreement plus two years upfront at ₦180k per year. Where do I want to see that kind of money? How much is my salary?” He laughs.
Ajibade isn’t the only one relocating. Many people flock to the island for promises of a good job, yet house rental prices continue to dissuade them. Is the disparity in rent on the island driven by demand or the sheer indulgence of the affluent?
Ajibade does not doubt that it is the latter. “If you look at most of the houses in gated estates, they are empty. Nobody is renting them, and they don’t want to bring the prices down.”
Although companies like Fibre and Muster are trying to solve housing problems through innovations like shared apartments and monthly rental payments, how far can these go in a state with over 15 million people?
Aro’s main entrance once had wooden gates, until the Lagos State Government attempted to demolish the settlement last year.
“Everybody in Aro was scared. A lot of people had no other place to go. Plenty people actually moved out,” Ajibade remembers.
Main entrance to the settlement
It was during the State Government’s rampage that the gates were put down. The community had thought the gates would dissuade the officials who came with bulldozers and uniformed men.
The bike men who rode through Aro’s route were scared. Aro wasn’t just a community to them, it is a means of livelihood. “People were crying that day. I heard someone call on Elijah; some people fainted,” Ajibade adds solemnly.
The bulldozers had arrived in Aro’s vicinity on a Saturday night. The officials had started their demolition in similar settlements on the island; Ikate was hit first, then Marwa. Properties were brought down with little time for their owners to recover valuables. Aro was to be the third.
Residents were forced out of Aro during the demolition
Ajibade looks at me intently as he recalls that frantic period. “I moved all my important belongings out of Aro about one week before they came. I kept them at a friend’s place, but a lot of my clothes were still in Aro.”
The demolition started on Sunday morning, from the market leading to the community. Everything was brought down and set ablaze. The officials claimed they gave a 6-month notice to the occupants of the town. The bulldozers moved with the uniformed officers as reinforcement, but something surprising happened. Something the hopeless inhabitants of Aro didn’t expect.
The salvation of the Baale
Aro is made up of wooden shanties, built in clusters around each other. The entire community is fenced and controlled by a council set up by the Baale.
A lot of Aro houses are made of wood
The wood making up the houses is wrapped in nylon thicker than polythene. The houses lack any form of waste disposal, and some houses are without a bathroom. The average occupant of the town works a blue-collar job, as a driver, laundry personal or a cleaner. There are also bankers, architects and other professionals who reside comfortably in the wooden ghetto
“We don’t pay rent here. When I first came to Aro, I bought my pako for ₦45,000. We don’t pay for any other thing, apart from ₦500 security levy and ₦1,000 NEPA money,” Ajibade asserts.
Ajibade uses the term pako to reference the wooden houses. The value of each house put up for sale is determined by two factors: its size and its proximity to the main entrance. There is never talk about rent; each occupant becomes a landlord to his pako.
“Every last Saturday we usually have environmental sanitation, and everybody is expected to participate, if not, they will be fined ₦500,” Ajibade says.
I run the numbers in my head. Given Aro’s estimated population, these little charges everyone coughs up each month would make for decent internally generated revenues. So, does the council have any long-term development plans for the community, I wonder.
“We have three schools inside Aro that the Baale built. We also have a lot of churches,” Ajibade responds. He thinks the Baale is trying.
When the Lagos State Government officials had their bulldozers bring down the wooden gate, they stopped and went back. “Someone said it was the Baale that came out to intervene. I don’t know, but what I know is that they left. All of them left with their bulldozers, without entering Aro.” Ajibade acclaims.
People jubilated. Mothers held their babies in one hand and danced with the other. Shops that were previously closed reopened that evening. The community was relaxed.
“Some people said they would come back, but it’s been over a year now and nothing,” he finishes.
“Are you comfortable in this place?” I ask Ajibade.
“For now, I’m not thinking of moving out. At least till I can afford Lekki’s rent. Let me be managing this place like that,” he replies, and for others like him, Aro is a saving grace; a chance to be closer to what feeds them.
Ajibade is a hopeful man. I follow him as he shows me more places within the town. A part of me wonders if he is indeed comfortable, if his heart isn’t in his mouth, waiting for the dreadful news of when the bulldozers come back.
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*The annual rent of a three bedroom in Lekki has been corrected from ₦10,000,000 to ₦4,000,000 on September 13th, 2018