Challenging gentrification through legal aid and legal education training: an interview with Megan Chapman of JEI (Episode 9)

 

Image from @justempower

Nigeria has a huge housing deficit, across the country it’s supposed to be 17 million units of housing that are missing. In Lagos alone it’s estimated at 5 million units of housing that are missing and of course we’re talking about housing in the formal sector and since it’s so difficult to access affordable housing in the formal sector, communities that are informal tend to spring up and tend to exist in order to provide for the basic needs that people have shelter.

Transcript

EduSounds: Today I will be interviewing Megan Chapman of justice and empowerment. A social justice organization based in Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Kenya.

EduSounds: Hi Megan.

Megan: Hello Kayode, good afternoon.

EduSounds: Yeah, good afternoon. It is a pleasure talking to you.

Megan: likewise

EduSounds: So, can we get to meet you?

Megan: Sure, my name is Megan Chapman; I am one of the co-founders and a co-director of Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, JEI for short.

EduSounds: Ok, so what is Justice and Empowerment Initiatives?

Megan: JEI is a human rights organization, a social justice organization as you rightly said. We’re based in Nigeria, in Lagos and Port Harcourt with plans of expanding to other cities in Nigeria which is something that’s already underway. The model of our organization is not to replicate the typical NGO model but rather to work very closely with the grassroots. In particular people living in urban-informal settlements and slum communities, that is to say the urban poor. So our focus is urban and our focus is on people living in poverty and we try to have a model that responds to their needs and helps them to both defend and protect their fundamental rights and also to bring pro-poor and people centered development to their communities.

We work hand in hand and provide a lot of professional and technical assistance to a community based movement called the Nigerian slum and informal settlement federation, which is comprised of people living in informal settlements in the cities where we work. And our goal is to basically make them be the leaders of the change they want to see in their communities, and the different interventions that we have all aimed to address that – to empower them through training and education and professional assistance, to be able to tackle the challenges that they face.

EduSounds: OK, so you started your movement in Uganda, I think?

Megan: I personally have background experience working in several other African countries on access to justice programs, training of community based paralegals and working with the urban poor. I’ve worked in Cameroon actually, in South Africa, in Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo and the experiences and work that I’ve done in those different countries have fed into and shape the model that we’re using in Nigeria, but at this point JEI is working primarily in Nigeria; in Lagos and Port Harcourt. Starting to work in Cotonou in Republic of Benin and very soon expanding to Ibadan, in Oyo state.

EduSounds: How did you get to found Justice and Empowerment?

Megan: So I came to Nigeria first in 2011 and I was working with the urban poor with urban poor communities in Lagos with another human rights organization, Nigerian human rights organization based here and along the way, myself and the other co-founders of JEI started to realize that we wanted to take a much more sustainable grassroots focused approach to creating change for and with the communities that we work with. And that’s what led us to branch out on our own and we’ve been doing that now for the last 3 years.

EduSounds: What I found interesting with your organization is that you work actually with the grassroots’ people. You go into the local communities, so how do you get to engage them?

Megan: Yes that is a core principle of how we work actually. So I would say unless that JEI goes into communities and starts working, so much as we’re a demand driven organization and we work hand in hand with a community based movement, which is known as the Nigerian slum and informal settlement federation. To give you an idea of the scale in Lagos, the Nigerian Federation as we call them for short, has members in over 70 informal settlements and slums around the city.

In Port Harcourt there are nearly thirty (30). So basically, they have a wide expanse across different communities and they’re expanding gradually and they are the ones who basically help us to set the agenda for our work. So it’s rare that we go out in the typical NGO model and put on a program in a community. As much as community members know our office, they bring their issues, concerns, needs and then they help us to shape interventions that respond to those needs. It’s very community driven, community owned.

EduSounds: So it sounds like your model, I mean if am looking at social movements, is it like assets-based community development model or something like that?

Megan: Yes, community development and also justice focused. So we have basically a split focus on development as in you know pro-poor, pro-people development interventions and justice because we believe the two things go hand in hand and you can’t have one without the other and JEI is a relatively small and streamlined NGO that supports and provides professional and technical assistance to a very large and expensive grassroots movement and we grow according to their needs rather than vice versa.

EduSounds: That is interesting. So are the core of the operations seems to be tapping into the existing assets the local people have…

Megan: …exactly

EduSounds: …and enhancing their skill sets and what have you.

Megan: Exactly! So, there’s capacity building, we focus on building the capacity of the people whose lives ultimately we’re aiming to change and improve. So that they can lead the changes that they want to see in their communities. For example, when we talk about justice interventions, one of our key models is training of community based paralegals. People from these communities go through six months intensive training, they become sort of quasi lawyers and they are able to provide basic legal aid and legal education in their communities and we see that as a very sustainable approach.

Yes, we have lawyers on our staff, they’re there to support the paralegals but if something ever happened to our organization, the paralegals would be able to continue providing those same kind of services, same education, same legal aid, because most of the things that they do they don’t necessarily need a lawyer, the lawyer just enhances what they’re doing.

EduSounds: The paralegals, how do you go about doing that?

Megan: Community based paralegals are people who are not lawyers. Many of them have lower levels of formal education. Perhaps, secondary education but not usually beyond that. And they’re people who come from the communities that they intend on assisting. They’re nominated by those communities as people who are already change makers, change drivers in their communities and people who are trusted and when they come to us they go through a six-months training program; it’s very intensive.

A total of 18 days of training over 6 months with regular quizzes and a final exam, as well as practical exercises and at the end of it if they pass their final exam and they’ve demonstrated that passion, many of them go on to continue to work with JEI as community paralegals, who are supervised and supported by our team of lawyers in both cities and again the idea is that, they can provide grassroots legal education, grassroots legal aid, be at the forefront of helping individuals in their communities, many of whom could never afford a lawyer, and find their own ways of resolving justice problems that they face and basically the legal education helps people to know their rights, know what they can do in different kind of situations and also helps them when they really need someone to accompany them. Perhaps, through a court proceeding or otherwise, at the police station and so on.

EduSounds: So, the Nigerian legal system, does it recognize paralegals for instance?

Megan: There is a structure for recognizing paralegals through the Legal Aid Council and we’ve been working with the Legal Aid Council for them to recognize the training program that we offer, so that our paralegals could have that formal recognition but I would say that it’s not as regulated a sector as in other places, so we’re sort of leading the forefront of showing what quality paralegals legal training looks like. I think in a way it’s a standard for other organizations that are interested in moving into that field.

EduSounds: Okay, because I was thinking, some people might think what’s the essence of training people if it’s not going to be commercially recognized, you know what I mean?

Megan: Sure, well, I think that you know the goal again is in a way job training but we also have a path for the people who are trained to succeed to start working with JEI itself and they provide grassroots legal aid and legal education and work hand in hand with our legal teams. Presently, we work with over fifty community paralegals in Lagos and about thirty in Port Harcourt, who have gone through the training and continued to work with us. So it could be that they take their training and go elsewhere but most of them actually continue to work through and with JEI.

EduSounds: When you train them, I guess you’re training them without charging them and then they get to work for you. If they choose to work for you, do you have to pay them?

Megan: They receive stipends and you know we cover the cost of their transportation for the work that they do, so, yes, it is a kind of employment for them but the rates are such that you really have to have the spirit of volunteerism as well. We believe that the people who come and work with us as paralegals are not motivated by the financial incentives but the financial intensives make it possible for them to follow their passions.

EduSounds: OK, I guess the main objective is for them to have a better community wherever they are?

Megan: Exactly, and to be able to provide legal aid and legal education for people that otherwise really can’t afford a lawyer.

EduSounds: Then, do you work with organizations like NGOs and the likes in Nigeria?

Megan: Yes of course, we have many partners, many people in civil society and across grassroots movements that we work with but the main work we do is ourselves and the Nigerian slum and informal settlements federation.

EduSounds: I notice that at the same time you provide legal aid to individuals. So, how do you get to do that? Looking at the volume of what you have to be doing.

Megan:  Yes, the legal aid work that we do, we have a team of lawyers in Lagos and a team of lawyers in Port Harcourt, and what they do is just to train and support the community paralegal. In fact the legal aid is together with the community paralegal work that we do, it’s one intervention. So that by going out and educating their communities, letting their communities know that these are the types of cases that they can assist with, that’s how cases end up coming into our office for legal aid and then the lawyers come in basically, exclusively where you need a lawyer and we try to have the paralegals doing most of the work where it can be handled by paralegals. But of course things like actually going to court, you need a lawyer to do that because a paralegal can’t do that.

For example, someone living in a community whose relative is arrested might contact a paralegal and say – you know my person has been arrested at a police station. I believe you know they’re fully innocent but you know the police are demanding for money; and a paralegal can go in and actually handle that case without needing a lawyer to assist them. We’re regularly getting people who were wrongfully arrested released from police custody without payment of illegal bail, which you know, the bail is supposed to be free. And we’re part of trying to make it free in reality in Nigeria. So, in that case a paralegal gets involved and provides a solution many times without a lawyer needing to even be involved if the case goes to court and of course the lawyer will have to get involved at that stage.

EduSounds: So the police work with the paralegals as well?

Megan: Yes, the paralegals work with the police, they work with different ministries and agencies of government because what we found is, there’s a huge gap between a lot of things that exist on paper in government interventions and what’s happening in reality. So, the paralegals by learning about existing laws, existing programs that exist, they can now help to close that gap and help people to access those programs. For example, since 2007, Lagos State has had a law that provides certain benefits for people living with disabilities and most people don’t know that that law exists and don’t know that there’s benefits that they can access and so we have a team of paralegals who are helping people living with disabilities who are among the urban poor to register with that office and go through the process of actually being able to access some of the benefits that exist on paper. So that’s an example of the partnership.

EduSounds: These paralegals, for instance, from your own experience, have they given people more agency to question things and then get their rights from the government or society?

Megan: Absolutely! It’s amazing to see the scale of the change starting from an individual level and then starting to actually ripple across communities. I think that most people operate not according to what the law actually says but according to what is commonly practiced and so many times practices that diverged from the law are the norm instead of actually following what the law says and so by educating hundreds and soon thousands of people about what the law actually says it helps people to now know what they should be doing, what they shouldn’t  be doing, and what the government agencies that they interact with should be doing and change by changing their expectations, changing their understanding of what the law actually says. They start seeing that as a tool they can use to improve their lives and the lives of their communities.

EduSounds: I guess in any successful system or project you will probably have your own challenges. So, you might have, maybe, for instance, I don’t know, people that might try to abuse the system. So how do you get to deal with such situations?

Megan: Oh! Actually we have a very strict code of conduct for paralegals. The first thing that paralegals are trained in before they learn anything else is professional rules of ethics and we have a code of conduct that is actually modeled on the code of ethics for the legal profession, which you know like many things exists on paper and not always in reality but we make sure that people understand how seriously we take it and so, one of the rules is that – services provided to their community must be free.

And the first thing that a paralegal has to do when they complete training is to go out and educate their community about a particular area of law, when they go, they’re accompanied by other paralegals and by a supervising attorney and we make sure that everyone understands that the paralegal services are free and that means you’re not paying for transportation, you’re not paying recharge card, nothing at all, because we’ve had a handful of incidents that have occurred but we make sure that there’s, you know, a strict disciplinary process at such time including informing the community that this is not actually what’s supposed to happen and making sure that they understand, so they can hold the paralegals accountable as well. But I would say that I can think of two or three situations where that happened but for the most part it’s been hiccup free because of that emphasis from the very beginning.

EduSounds: …that is brilliant. So let’s briefly talk about this disability benefit that has been in Lagos state since 2007?

Megan: Sure.

EduSounds: I have to own up, I’m just hearing that for the first time.

Megan: Well you’re not the first person.

EduSounds: Yeah, I mean because recently, I know it’s a shame really, to be honest because one of my research interest area has been on disability studies, although not in Nigeria. It has to do with the English educational system. Recently, I know the Lagos state government launched the disability fund or something like that…

Megan: …Yeah, Trust fund.

EduSounds: …so, that was the first time and I was thinking this is great news. I did not know there was really a structure in place since 2007, which is a big shame. Part of the challenges that I’m beginning to see, is it a case of a lot of people not really looking in what the law provides for them to know their rights?

Megan: Exactly, I think that many times laws are passed, laws are changed and there’s very little done to educate the public about what those laws actually mean for them and so there’s a lot of gaps and one of them is in this area, it’s called the special people’s law of Lagos state 2007, it doesn’t provide for example,  a right to freedom from discrimination based on disability status, protection against cruel inhuman and degrading treatment based on your disability status but it has a system for registering with an office of disability affairs at Lagos State (LASODA) and once you register with them you’re intended to get  certain things for free; free treatment in Lagos State government health facilities, free transportation on the BRT system and a few other things like that. So it’s not comprehensive benefits but it’s something that is meaningful, especially to the urban poor and yet so few people have actually registered for that and benefited.

And so what we tried to do is – we try to identify places where there’s a legal framework or you know opportunities that could actually be beneficial to communities and then work with the paralegals to try to help people access them. In fact, I would say that in terms of disability rights, most of our work has actually focused on not only helping people to access the few benefits that do exist but also tackling rampant discrimination and discriminatory practices and rights abuses against people living with disabilities among the urban poor. Which unfortunately is still very much a reality in Lagos state and including violations that are perpetuated by the state government. So it’s been a major campaign of ours over the last year. And I would say that one of the general patterns that you see is that, any area of the law there is a gap between how the law applies to rich people or people of means and how the law applies to people living in poverty and I think this is one of those cases.

EduSounds: That was what attracted me to your organization because I’m quite big on social justice, I’m really big on it, and I think it is a basic right people should have access to. So having said that, this disability benefit, does extend to, like students in primary schools, secondary schools because I could remember the last time I went to my primary school, the head teacher was telling me of kids with severe mental health issuesdisabilities and special needs, and the school could not really cope with them. And that particular classroom, I was there when I was in my year 2 and it’s just a different world entirely. So this kind of benefits, is it something they could access to provide better education and what have you?

Megan: Well I’d say that the program of benefits is somewhat limited like I said. It basically provides for free medical care to a Lagos State facility, free transportation and you know principles of nondiscrimination and so on. I think the best way to tackle the issue of not having provisions for people living with disabilities to be educated in the mainstream public school system is something that probably needs to be addressed through a nondiscrimination framework, basically saying the law says these people shouldn’t be discriminated against and yet in practice if they go to a government school there’s no provision by which they can learn that is suited to their needs. So I think that would be the way of tackling it.

Unfortunately, in reality here in Lagos what you find is that many children living with disabilities and/or the children of people living with disabilities because of the barriers that they face never even get enrolled in school in the beginning, because there’s an assumption or an understanding that the school can’t provide for them or in fact that’s even what they’re told or because their parents are in the case of children of people living with disabilities maybe their parents are actually too poor to be able to pay for school fees and of course education is supposed to be free but in reality it’s not. So, that’s another area where we try to tackle cases as they arise.

EduSounds: That is quite pathetic really but I will keep a tab on that.

Megan: Yes

EduSounds: and I will constantly follow you on that and hope you help us to change that industry, I’m quite interested in the Nigerian education sector.

Megan: Yes

 

EduSounds: Let’s now go back to you. Why did you choose to locate in Lagos and Port Harcourt and not other parts of Nigeria?

Megan: I think, it started from where we were working, where we have communities that were asking for our support and our partnership, and of course one of the core issues that we work on that affects the urban poor is forced eviction. And during the time that we were setting up here in Nigeria the two real hot spots for mass forced evictions were in Lagos and Port Harcourt and that was what really started us in those two areas and again we’re working to expand to Cotonou in Republic of Benin and Ibadan. We’ve done our reach to Abuja but we found out that Abuja actually has a strong NGO sector and we don’t feel that there’s as strong a need for us to move to that area but we’re open to gradually in a sustainable way expand to other cities.

EduSounds: OK. Then, you talked about this 70 informal settlements in Lagos and 30 in Port Harcourt, that’s quite huge.

Megan: Yes

EduSounds: So are there any particular factors leading to informal settlements in those places?

Megan: Surely, well, informal settlements sometimes, slums depending on how you look at look at the situation. They are actually communities that we see as being a solution or a community led solution to the problem of the lack of affordable housing in the formal sector in the cities. You know that Nigeria has a huge housing deficit, across the country it’s supposed to be 17 million units of housing that are missing. In Lagos alone it’s estimated at 5 million units of housing that are missing and of course we’re talking about housing in the formal sector and since it’s so difficult to access affordable housing in the formal sector, communities that are informal tend to spring up and tend to exist in order to provide for the basic needs that people have shelter.

EduSounds: So how can the society or the system or the government address this kind of fundamental human right issue?

Megan: Well first of all, the best way of dealing with slums and informal settlements is not demolition, it’s not forced eviction; which is why we campaign so much on that particular issue. Whenever there has been a demolition in the past, all it has done is shifted people living in poor, in poverty from one place to another, moved the “problem” from one place to another. Demolitions do not solve the problem of informal settlements or slums, so basically what we see as being a solution is – one, to bring an end to forced evictions. We’ve seen tens of thousands of people displaced just during the last seven years that we’ve been working in Nigeria and each time you displace people through forced evictions, people living in poverty are set further back. They may be on a path to bringing themselves out of poverty, improving their lives, improving their children’s lives and demolition or forced eviction destroys all the wealth or the assets that they’ve created for themselves and sets them back to zero. So it’s really a negative practice and it has to stop if Lagos wants to develop as an inclusive city and Port Harcourt the same.

What we advocate for as an alternative to eviction because, of course, you can’t just say no, that do not do this, you have to pose an alternative. What we propose is a practice called in-situ slum upgrading, which has been practised across many different developing countries around the world where there are large informal sectors in cities. And in in-situ upgrading, first of all, you have to have a strong community foundation which is why we put our focus on that and the Nigerian slum and informal settlement federation that we partner with, basically builds, creates the building blocks for a future in-situ upgrading through community level savings groups, through profiling and mapping of their communities so they know the population they know the people that are on ground, they know what the community lacks.

Basically, with those structures on the ground, you can plan for a kind of wholesale holistic and gradual upgrading process, ideally in partnership with government. So that the government could ensure that everyone ends up with security of tenure, the proper documents that they need, the necessary infrastructure. But people lead the process of improving the quality of their housing, improving community assets; and they use their savings and they actually also use their savings to access soft loans through the federation structure, to be able to do development projects. That is the solution, the best solution for the “problem” of informal settlements. Again we don’t see them as a problem, we see them as a solution to a problem and it’s a solution that isn’t perfect, so we need partnership from government and we need strong and organized communities to improve on that solution and make it a better solution.

EduSounds: I was going to touch on your social housing project, so is that to attend to this issue?

Megan: Sure, exactly. So, basically the social housing work and community upgrading work is led by the federation. JEI’s role is to provide professional and technical assistance. Right now we’re doing basically a first phase of upgrading projects in communities, starting with the important issue of sanitation.

One of the things that we found is that many of the communities have health challenges, many of which are linked to lack of adequate sanitation.  We know that Lagos and Port Harcourt don’t have a citywide sewage system, so there’s nothing for people to tap into and so informal settlements like people in the formal sector have to come up with their own solutions on sanitation and so in this case, what we’re doing is piloting an environmentally sustainable composting toilets system that is quite affordable and supporting the federation to build the these toilets in different communities across the city.

The goal being to demonstrate something that’s affordable, that’s a dramatic improvement on existing sanitation practices and can be replicated across those communities. The social housing intervention is more of a long term project, basically through this kind of in-situ upgrading, but in-situ upgrading can happen through kind of a holistic plan if you have external support. It can also happen in a gradual process and presently the toilets are kind of to demonstrate the type of approach that we’d like to advocate for and we’re looking for partnership from the Lagos State Government. We’re already working with the Lagos State urban renewal authority, LASURA, which we see as being a key partner in planning towards more holistic in-situ upgrading.

EduSounds: So the core challenge will be financing, isn’t?

Megan: Yes, but I think the core challenge actually, financing only becomes an issue when you have an agreement about a particular approach and right now we’re still waiting to see the full buy-in of the state government to an approach that everyone can agree with. Some of these challenges that we’ve had with forced evictions make it difficult for people to feel that they can invest in improving their infrastructure, invest in improving communities in which they live, because they don’t know if tomorrow there’ll be a bulldozer at their door and they’ll be homeless. And we’ve seen… the truth is that in places like Lagos, land is so valuable.

It’s not only poor communities that face forced eviction, it’s also middle class communities, and we’ve seen places across the city demolished, rich and middle class alike. I’m sorry poor and middle class alike. And so, I think that what we’d like to see as sort of the first step in this process of creating an enabling environment for in-situ upgrading is an agreement that forced eviction and demolition is not the way, and in other countries like Kenya, there’s been a time maybe 15 – 20 years ago where the government has actually declared a moratorium on such practices. I think that such a step here would go a long way to giving people that confidence that they could actually invest in their infrastructure.

Then, when it comes to financing as I mentioned before, the communities that we work with have savings groups, the savings groups have access to something called the urban poor fund, which actually enables them to get soft loans, to undertake housing and infrastructure upgrading projects in their communities but again they might be hesitant to go through that process until there’s a certainty that they won’t invest and then see that investment destroyed.

EduSounds: So the first thing now is to get the trust of the people back?

Megan: Exactly and it’s not us that can do it, it’s the government that has to be able to build that trust. So we’re trying.

EduSounds: That is a huge call really.

Megan: …it is a huge issue.

EduSounds: … but if you look at most poor communities all over the world, there’s always the issue of high unemployment rate. I don’t think those communities in Nigeria will be exceptional to the problem. So how do you want to bridge that gap of probably facing high unemployment or under-employment, coupled with the challenges of having to fend for their families, provide basic needs for their family? They are usually desolate and abandoned by the system and they have to do everything on their own and then finance social housing project for instance or all these infrastructure we’re talking about.

Megan: Wel, I think that the way we see that issue of the livelihoods of the urban poor, I think that’s actually not the case that you’d find that most people living in informal settlements are most of the urban poor actually unemployed. They’re not employed in the formal sector, they’re not, they don’t have jobs at banks or jobs you know sort of formal jobs that one would recognise but there’s a huge spirit of entrepreneurship and what that means is that, 70 – 80 percent of people living in Nigeria are actually employed and working in the informal sector and so I think that if we had a system where the government was actually supporting the informal sector and finding ways of helping people who are working in the informal sector to improve on what they’re doing, then we wouldn’t really be facing the kind of challenges around livelihoods that many people face most at times.

The challenges that we see people facing around livelihoods, the urban poor, that is, the people working in the informal sector, the challenges they face are actually because of government policies and laws that are detrimental. Things that actually undermine their ability to do their work in the informal sector. For example, the ban on street trading, the ban on hawking, recent attacks on, as it’s known – sand diggers and sand dredgers. And also certain practices that have made it more difficult for fisherman to also pursue their livelihoods. There’s no one in …because people have to do for themselves, people don’t sit at home and just wait, and they’re always doing something to be able to survive. The question is, are we creating an environment where they can actually do that and survive?

EduSounds: Then let’s talk about the Ijora Badia and Otodo Gbame communities, in recent history of Lagos state, there’s been a huge, dislocation of people or something like that.

Megan: Yes, there has been a huge pattern of mass forced evictions, which like I’ve said already undermine the capacity of the urban poor to pull themselves out of poverty and simply shift the “problem” of slums from one place to another. So one example is these series of demolitions that took place at Badia east community. First in 2012 and 2013 under the auspices of the world bank financed project that led to the forced eviction of over 9,000 people and then again in 2015 which led to the further eviction of another 10,000 people. That was the first forced eviction that I witnessed in person and it really solidified my personal commitment to bringing an end to that practice, because when you just see, you know everything that urban poor populations have destroyed in the blink of an eye without any alternative, it really makes you realize that this is not a sustainable way towards the future.

The Otodo Gbame demolitions that took place between November of 2016 and April of 2017 I have to say are even worse and more destructive than what we saw in Badia. In that there were a number of people who died as a consequence or in the course of those evictions. The methods that were used by the government when carrying out the evictions were even more brutal; indiscriminately shooting, gun fire, shooting bullets towards people who were trying to flee and pack out of their homes, you know causing people to rush into the water and drown and setting people’s homes and properties on fire, in a very systematic way designed to basically pursue them as far from the place as possible. Really very brutal and something I didn’t even imagine knowing everything I know about Lagos. I didn’t even imagine the state government would be prepared to do so in 2017.

But the courage of people to really take that stand and take that step is something that we have to applaud and if more Nigerians were ready to do what these communities are ready to do to fight for their rights, I think we’d start seeing much more systemic change in the country.

EduSounds: That’s quite sad, because I saw a lot of your social activities on Twitter and I saw your YouTube and Vimeo channels and I was wondering in the era of digital social activism, you have decided to be on ground, at the grassroots level, as well as on the street with the people with the risks involved, that must take a lot courage and determination. So how did you get to get this energy, the drive to go in harm’s way?

Megan: Well, I think that it’s the people in the community who are affected that are facing the greatest challenge, the greatest threats and risks. They are the people who face severe consequences. If they choose to advocate for their rights. And yet when they’re willing to do it, it has to inspire other people to be ready to stand with them and so there have been some amazing feats of mobilization in the last 6 – 9 months before Otodo Gbame was evicted.

And there was a threat from the government to take all the waterfront communities in Lagos, which would have affected over 300,000 people living in 40 communities according to profiling done by the Nigerian Federation. We saw people come out from all those communities to join hands together, first to try to approach the governor peacefully, you know out of court, to try to seek a solution and then later to stand up and say that they wanted to protect their communities and so they were going to go to court. In fact, they were able to get an injunction saying that Otodo Gbame and other waterfront communities should not be evicted and despite that the government went forward in violation of that court order, but what we see is tremendous courage, to the extent that Otodo Gbame, even after the first phase of demolition took place, when they knew the state government was coming back to continue and to carry out a further eviction, they were brave enough to stand up and create a kind of human shield at the entrance to their community, because they knew that the law was on their side, they knew that it was unlawful for the government to come and demolish their community in violation of a court order and so they stood up with women and children and peacefully stood at the entrance of their community and on two occasions were actually able – just through the power of peaceful people – to turn back the demolition squad and the people that had come to destroy their homes.

It’s unfortunate that in the end that strategy didn’t work and that the government used every brutality that I’ve already described. But the courage of people to really take that stand and take that step is something that we have to applaud and if more Nigerians were ready to do what these communities are ready to do to fight for their rights, I think we’d start seeing much more systemic change in the country.

EduSounds: Yes, a friend of mine, he blogs as well, and he wrote an article about it. So I re-posted it on my blog and I think it was how I got in touch with you guys to use some of your videos and pictures. And when I spoke with him, he said he just thought for posterity’s sake, he might not be in Nigeria but for posterity sake he needs to put some things in perspective and say look, this is the history of Lagos. The history of Lagos I know is very inclusive and that has always been my pride about Lagos. So whatever challenges society might have with a particular group, you’ve got to have an inclusive approach to solve the problem, not by segregating or by forcefully decimating communities, I don’t think that’s the best way to go, but that led to the arrest of professor Maurice Fangnon, who apparently you tweeted about a bit of his background of coming from Republic of Benin, I think, fighting for human rights and relocating to Nigeria and how he has being at the fore front of human rights activism in Nigeria. So it was quite enlightening reading your tweets. 140 characters and that really gave me a lot of insight about, oh! Who is this person?

Megan: Yes, Professor Maurice Fangnon, he runs a Pan-African NGO based here in Lagos, like I had written, he originally is from the Republic of Benin but because of his human rights work there and an oppressive government, he had to flee in 1980 and seek asylum in Nigeria and so Lagos is his adopted home. He’s been living here since around 1980. And he works closely with many of the vulnerable and urban poor communities and he has worked with Otodo Gbame community for many years and was at the forefront of calling for justice for them even before JEI was around and on ground. And it’s quite unfortunate that two weeks ago he was arrested by a team of police from Abuja, from force CID, Abuja and whisked away, taken to Abuja and the reason for his arrest was the petitions that he wrote calling for justice for Otodo Gbame. And we are very grateful that through our own efforts, efforts from Amnesty International and others, after five days Professor Fangnon was released from custody but the investigation is supposedly still on and Professor Maurice Fangnon is seasoned and he has been working on these issues for a long time and I doubt that any form of intimidation will succeed in silencing him.

EduSounds: You held an international conference on urban slum communities or so, in Unilag, engaging international academics on things like that.

Megan: We use different opportunities to engage with the academic community and people who work in different sectors because we believe that the movement for justice for the urban poor has to be very broad and we need everyone who cares about and works on these issues to join hands together, so, yes, we have spoken at the University of Lagos and engaged with academics there and from other universities. We work with a cross-section of different organizations in different sectors and we try to bring town planners and architects and other professionals into the work that we do because all those different professional skills are essential to creating change.

EduSounds: How do people get referrals to use Justice and Empowerment?

Megan: Well, it depends where you are coming from. I think that in the academic and media fields a lot of people find out about us through social media but when it comes to communities which is the main focus, people hear about us mainly through word of mouth, through the grassroots work that’s happening with the Federation. Of course at the beginning we really needed paralegals to go out and do Community Legal Education and let people know that these services were available in their communities.

The Federation does a lot of outreach to constantly add and bring new communities into the movement and so, of course, that grassroots community outreach is going on a regular basis but we’ve also found that word of mouth is one of the greatest ways that the word spreads about what we’re doing. For example, we recently had a client who was released from Kiri-Kiri and before she left there she got the contacts of other people who were there facing similar nonsense charges that had led to their detention and she has asked us to assist some more people who were there. A lot of times it’s word of mouth that ends up bringing people in the door. We handle cases or issues that are cross-cutting, where entire communities are involved and we handle individual cases. If you think of the paralegals, you earn trust through the work that you do when people see that actually what you’re doing is bringing benefits. Actually what you’re doing is solving problems, then it’s really more a problem of not having enough people to handle all the different issues that are forthcoming than the opposite.

I think the other challenge for me personally being a foreigner here is that – whenever someone meets you for the first time, they think that whatever you’re doing is going to bring them money and of course we work by providing other forms of assistance not handing out the typical Nigerian empowerment which should be a sum of money or a thing of value. So, I think that’s the main myth that we have to bust in the work that we do if we can. I personally, I’m not at the forefront of the outreach, it’s people talking about their own experiences, people from the communities that we work with talking about their own experiences and letting people know how the work that we do has improved their lives and that’s the best recommendation you can have.

EduSounds: So do you think, or don’t you think it’s high time you have like an online radio or TV for social issues in Nigeria, dedicated to social problems and things like that?

Megan: Hmm, I think that it would be great to do more media work to get the word out, share some of the legal education that we do through different means. In fact Nigerian slum and informal settlements federation has a very new media team that is actually working from the grassroots level to try to do more of multimedia, do more video work, actually start doing some podcasts. So maybe stay tuned and hopefully in the next six months you’ll start seeing more and more of that coming out

EduSounds: All right, that’s fantastic. So where do we hope to see JEI in the next 5 years?

Megan: I hope that JEI will continue to be a small and streamlined organization, supporting an ever growing and ever more successful movement of the urban poor, that it is able to make progress engaging with government, bringing an end to forced evictions and improving access to justice for the urban poor.

EduSounds: And I do hope, I wish you all the best on that. So, where can people get you? How can they get in-touch with you? Maybe on Twitter or Facebook or your website?

Megan: Absolutely, so our website is www.justempower.org, our twitter handle is @justempower. You can reach us by e-mail at info@justempower.org, and you can also walk into our office at Sabo Yaba or in Port Harcourt.

EduSounds: Thanks a lot, thanks for granting the interview.

Megan: It’s a pleasure, thank you so much and have a lovely rest of your day.

In this conversation, we discuss many issues, amongst which are:

  • Providing community led social justice advocacy
  • Training community members as paralegals
  • Providing legal aid and legal education training
  • Initiating social housing projects and in situ infrastructure improvement in poor urban communities
  • Lagos state disability benefit provision
  • The Nigerian slum and informal settlements federation

Enjoy!

  • Listen to this episode on Mixcloud
  • You can listen to the previous episode here

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