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With free trade zones, what’s the fate of communities?

This Day (Lagos) | OPINION | September 10, 2006

With Free Trade Zones, What’s the Fate of Communities?

By Gboyega Akinsanmi

The State is primarily an institution designed to protect the rights of its people and comply with their general will. But as Chinese companies prepare to invest in Lekki Trade Free Zone, about 300,000 dwellers of 26 Lagos suburbs, who are primarily farmers and fishermen, are faced with displacement from their fatherland.

Elder Jubril Ayetutu hails from Elekuru village, a Lagos suburb primarily known for farming and fishing. He is well above 70 years and has spent all his life in the village with his children and grand children.

Now that Lagos State Government is taking frantic effort to expand its economic base with the development of Lekki Free Trade Zone (LFTZ), the 70-year old farmer is faced with a multitude of challenges, including being forced out of his ancestral home.

The state government has acquired over 16, 000 hectares of land on which there are twenty-six villages. The government just embarked on LFTZ project, a $260 million joint venture between the government and a Chinese consortium.

Other dwellers of the affected twenty-six communities, like Elder Ayetutu, have been directed to quit their homes and communities without clear plans to compensate and resettle them, thereby subjecting them to serious psychological trauma.

The 70-year old farmer had received a compensation of N7, 000 from the state government while his first son received a token of N10, 000. To him, this peanut has shown that the Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s Government has no intention to make good his promise that formed the core of his address at the ground breaking event.

The indifference of the government has continued to heighten the fears of dwellers in these communities whether their rights are protected despite the emerging trends in the international economic relations that the flow of people, investments and ideas across the universe.

International law actually gives credence to the fundamental human rights of communities and people irrespective of their geographical boundaries. So the pace of national growth and development is being determined apparently by its level of integration into the contemporary global order.

Nigeria is signatory to Universal Declaration for Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and other conventions on people rights. In the face of these legal instruments, can there be justice for the dwellers in these Lagos suburbs.

As people in these communities are confronted with possible displacement and its consequent implications, there is no thought agenda to manage the challenges that may rear their heads with the full commencement and implementation of LFTZ project.

On the consequent humanitarian concerns the project might generate, the Social and Economic Rights Centre (SERAC) had at an interactive forum in Lagos, recently drawn the attention of the government to the impending humanitarian challenges the people would face.

Mr. Felix Morka, its executive director noted with emphasis that the centre always stands in support of laudable initiative aimed at advancing and promoting the social and economic development of Nigeria in general and Lagos State in particular.

He said the centre had embarked on various studies of LFTZ initiative to determine what the state and its people stand to gain if the Lagos State Government continued to implement the $260 million project that would see Chinese investors into the state. Morka, while giving details of the free zone project, said the Federal Government established Nigerian Export Processing Zone Authority (NEPZA) under Decree 63 of 1992 with defined roles.

He added: "NEPZA is responsible for licensing, regulation, operation and monitoring of Free Trade Zone activities in Nigeria. There are currently five free zones in Nigeria which include the Calabar, Kano, Onne Oil and Gas, Maigatari Border and Banki free trade zones.

"These zones have large expanse of land and easy access to international airports and seaports. They are also equipped with police posts, pre-built warehouses, storages for raw materials and good internal and external road networks," he stated.

He said the economic importance of the free zones was to encourage industrial production, agriculture and agro-allied industry, commercial industrial research, high profits and dividends, off-shore banking, insurance and reinsurance among others.

In view of its many economic gains, he stated, the Lagos State Government set up a fifteen-member Committee in 2005 to devise the modalities for establishing a vibrant free trade zone in Lagos. Mr. Segun Jawando according to him headed the committee.

Based on the report of the fifteen-man committee, the state government on February this year signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Chinese Consortium of CCECC and China Naijing Jiangning E/T development zone committee in order to commence the proposed development of Export Processing Zone.

He said: "The Chinese consortium of experts led by Mr. Cheng from Niagjing, China is expected to commence the full project as soon as possible. It would begin with the development of Lekki Free Trade Zone project which would cover about 16, 500 hectares of land.

He said any initiative conceived, planned, implemented and monitored in accordance with the rule of law and democratic principles of due consultation, full disclosure, transparency and inclusive participation serve better to promote growth and development.

The free zone can, Morka held, be an important stimulus and a vehicle of economic growth and development. The initiative is certainly not an end in itself. Its ends should be the upliftment of the social and economic well-being of the state and its people. If it differs from this goal, it is no longer in the people’s interest.

Ms Jumoke Lawal, former SERAC director, described the LFTZ project as anti-people and the same served the interest of the state, leaving over 300,000 dwellers of the twenty-six affected communities to face terrible socio-economic crisis that might arise.

She said the planned forced evictions of the people dwelling in the communities will further destabilise them, adding that the government was supposed to duly consult the entire communities to devise how the affected people would be resettled.

Lawal added: "Governor Bola Tinubu at the ground breaking ceremony assured land owners in the area whose land will be acquired for the free trade zone that reasonable compensation would be determined and paid to those who have genuine case and claims.

"Tinubu informed that a clear resettlement programme will be developed to ensure conducive and suitable accommodation for all displaced persons in the affected communities, and that the representative of the communities will be appointed as members of the implementation committee in the would-be project, while indigenes will be employed," she stated.

Disturbed by its lackluster attitude, the government has been urged to stop henceforth the planned evictions of the communities under the LFTZ project development and implementation process in conformity with due process, democratic values and principles and basic human rights standards.

Within this context, Morka noted the important of the state government compliance with the constitutional provisions, regional declarations and international conventions relating to the fundamental rights of the people dwelling the LFTZ areas.

He noted: "Anything different from its compliance with law, we are going to employ all means, both at the national and international levels to make the Bola Tinubu Government comply with the related International Conventions on human rights.

"Our advocacy is clear: Government should allocate them land where they can farm and fish since they have other means of living than farming and fishing. We have tried to negotiate with the government on the conditions and terms of resettling them, but all to no avail after several efforts have been made to reach midpoint.

"The rights of these people should be duly taken care of. This is very important in order to avoid the madness going on in the Niger Delta region. There is no map of the area the government has acquired to enable these people what remains for them," he said.

Determined to protect their rights within the context of law, Morka said it was unfortunate that the government had not come out with clear plans despite that they had asked for due compensation of their crops and lands. He said they asked the government to relocate them to economically viable area and build the houses.

He pointed accusing fingers to the state government for drafting unilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that never serves to protect the interest of the communities and their people. He said it was a violation of international legal instruments.

On its face, according to him, the MOU is badly mutilated with mark-ups, alterations and revisions that reveal that it was either hastily designed to be unclear and imprecise or quite frankly worthless. The state government has shown flagrant disrespect to basic declarations on human and people rights.

"The MOU was intended to be a tripartite agreement between the Lekki Community through an undesignated representative, the Lekki Local Council Development Area (a non-legal entity that is not recognised under the constitution) and the Lagos State Government.

"The MOU, as presented to the people, was pre-signed by the Lagos State Commissioner for Lands, Mr. Fola Arthur-Worrey. Arguably, that the document was already signed was meant to reinforce that the active participation, consultation and involvement of the communities was neither to be solicited nor secured at the planning, design or implementation phase of the project," he said.

He said the affected communities have rejected and refused to sign the memorandum, adding that "they have regularly met, mobilised, and are committed to ensuring that their heritage and burial grounds should not be denigrated in any way and that their human and people’s rights must be protected and responded."

He said the memorandum is so defective that it makes no reference to environmental impact assessment studies (EIAs) and social impact assessment studies (SIAs), two of which are required by law for such a magnificent project prior to its development.

He challenged the Tinubu-led Government to produce facts if it has definitive specification of the land mass communities due for acquisition, thereby establishing that it was upon the shady arrangement of the government that made the people reject the MOU.

Morka, while stating the positions of the people on the LFTZ project, made clear his argument that the current agitation was aimed at disrupting the economic development of the state, but to ensure that the future of the displaced people are security.

He therefore suggested that the government should look beyond the implementation of LFTZ initiative as it currently put together, but must go back to the drawing board to devise how the project would not escalate humanitarian challenges and crisis in the areas.

"If the government must proceed with the project, it must have clear legal and moral obligations to take full steps to provide adequate alternatives to the affected local populations. The government must enter into direct dialogue with accredited representatives of the communities," the SERAC executive director stated.

He asked the government to observe paragraph 16 of the United Nations Comprehensive Guidelines on Development-Based Displacement in order to avoid further infringement of people’s rights.

Consistent with the laws of Lagos State, the Constitution and human rights instruments, he stressed, the government is legally obligated to resettle, rehabilitate and compensate the local communities.

He urged that these legal instruments should be observed in such a way that "all affected persons including women, children and indigenous people shall have the right to all relevant information and the right to full participation and consultation throughout the entire process and to propose alternatives" as stated in the UN Guidelines on development-based displacement.