Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ajah: Temperature Rising

A week ago the first of what would turn out to be a trio of conflagrations erupted in the centre of Ajah, where I live. I better paint a clearer picture for those who are not in the know as far as physical maps are concerned. Ajah is close to the end of a narrow corridor that begins from Ikoyi on the Lagos Island, runs through Victoria Island and Lekki Peninsula before ending at Epe, via Ajah. For nearly a century it's been the bone of contention between the Monarch of the historical city of Lagos and a set of indigenes, with the former claiming, if not suzerainty then outright ownership of the rough-hewn patch of swampland Ajah is.
Up to twenty years ago this state of 'no-love-lost' had generally been limited to court cases and fist-shaking, no real menace worthy of the name. This was however before the continued expansion of Victoria Island led to an irrevocable strain in property availability, and before the boom in business experienced under Ibrahim Babangida when liberal rules allowed all sorts of banks, insurance companies and finance houses to be established in that era's version of smokes and mirrors voodoo national planning.
The need for offices and banking halls, guest houses and warehouses encouraged the householders who had bought property in the fifties and sixties to pull up, sell for huge profits and then leave in search of other accommodation that would still leave them with a considerable portion of their windfall intact for the rainy day.
For most of these people , Lagos Mainland was out of the question. With its disorderliness, street trading, high crime rate and noise pollution, it was usually left standing, a distant second in the race for the rent money of these newly rich ex-landlords. In addition, the population explosion brought about by the under-development of the Nigerian hinterland, had, ironically, stretched the mainland to spillage over the bounds of classical Lagos, until it was nudging those same hinterlands whose populations were being seduced by poverty into abandoning it. Rents and property prices had equally begun to rise.
For most of these people Ajah, Lekki, Epe and the host of suitcase towns straddling the corridor leading from Victoria Island to the Peninsula was the perfect option. It was the Petit bourgeois' perfect place of habitation. There was to it a genteel feeling without the cost associated with old Ikoyi and Victoria Island annex. It was close enough to merit a Victoria Island zip code but far enough for the old neighbors not to visit and and witness the ramshackle, run down roads and non-existent social services. It was the perfect place to be heard in and not be seen in.
The indigenes of the town however did not fail to notice this migration. In the beginning land which today can be purchased for about $200, 000.00 (2007 value) weighed in at about $500.00. 'In the beginning' was the early nineties. From disposing of land for as much, or as little, if you wish, as one would need to fund a three day drinking binge and maybe two nights of debauchery in a cat house, a veritable industry was built on a legacy that flew brazenly in the face of all known notions in Real Estate Economics. Only one road connected Ajah to the rest of Lagos. The last time that road was capped with a surface of coal tar was in the early nineties, when HFP, the huge construction giant built the Victoria Garden City which adjoins Ajah . And that road had become more notable for the presence of potholes than for any other thing. Yet prices kept rising, nourished for so many years by a myth that land and rent was affordable and amenities were aplenty.
It took the imperfections of NEPA or PHCN as it has now been disingenuously renamed(perhaps to alter the argument and start polemics afresh) to put the lie to those claims. But a little before then, it had already become too late for Ajah, because armed with a court judgment dating back (perhaps with radio-carbon isotopy) to 1899, representative of the Lagos Monarch arrived just in time to lay claim to what had in the previous decade, via foolishness and simple greed, become arguably the most juicy tract of real estate, taking costs vis-a-vis real value, social amenities, state of infrastructure and city planning, in west Africa.
Overnight town criers went to town and informed Landlords all over Ajah that they were squatters, that they had been duped for purchasing land from the former owners rather than the Monarch's representatives. And to make it all clear, in case there were any among the 'purported' Landlords who could not hear, another set of agents moved from house to house with stencils and red paint and published this news boldly for the whole world to see.
This was accomplished by large groups of people, with cutlass and gun wielding bodyguards embedded. Overnight the lucrative grip which the indigenes held on the neck of this gold-egg laying goose was being challenged in a very open manner liable to all sorts of interpretation. And the worst form of interpretation was given to it. A gauntlet had been thrown down, and there were to many hotbloods who would not let it lie there for long, not to talk of the businessmen ready to bankroll the war, in whose interest it was that somebody pick it up.
For the last one week the dogs of war have been straining at the terrible challenge of lifting that carelessly flung invitation to a bloodfest. It is a tradition now for both parties and in the way of measuring events, in Africa, with the birth and death of people, it can easily be said that children born in the first years of that conflict would probably be in the process of transiting from primary schooling to secondary education. And in all those years they would have known no peace because the fighting, though intermittent has been consistent, being practiced in season, like a ritualistic celebration of some one eyed god's feasting. And except for fools, the whole world knows that these spirits do not eat foofoo, nor do they lubricate the passage with soup, but with many sacrifices of flesh and the cold, numbing soporific that blood is. Especially blameless blood.

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