Alfa Beach used to be a popular weekend destination for Lagosians, until the ocean washed it away. It destroyed not just a beach, but also the local community’s livelihood and houses. The danger has not subsided: the sea is moving into the land at an alarming pace. How can the people of Okun Alfa cope, and will they be able to organise themselves?
The coastal road passing through Alfa Beach abruptly stops in the sand. The crumbling end of the tarmac might be a perfect place for the neighbourhood kids to play football, but for the rest of the local community of Okun Alfa, it spells disaster. In August 2011, a tidal wave washed away the tarred road that was the lifeline of economic activities on the beach. The surging waters took along the many little shops, bars, and market stalls that were the population’s livelihood. It also destroyed the health centre, the only available public service in the area, which has no schools or police stations. Since then, the famous beach on Lekki peninsula where Lagosians and tourists used to hang out and relax, has been very quiet.
Ocean surges have been a part of life in Okun Alfa for as long as his people remember, says Sheriff Elegushi. The 34-year-old, born and raised in the area, remembers waking up when he was eight to see his street overflowed with seawater. ‘Our forefathers coped with it and our fathers too. But these days the ocean is too strong, and the floods are too many’, says Elegushi. In the last decade the ocean has neared the community at an alarming rate and there have been four serious ocean surges in 2014 alone. Whatever the cause may be is still subject to debate: global warming, dredging activities elsewhere, or the Eko Atlantic Project, which is a new city being built off the shore of Lagos. What’s certain though is that Okun Alfa is under threat.
In the past, the inhabitants of Okun Alfa responded to the ocean’s approach by relocating inland, but these days there is no more land to move to, as much of it has been sold off by the local ruler. How then will the community defend itself against the coming tide?
Trustworthy statistics about the area are hard to find. According to Elegushi, who is the local government councillor, the most recent official population census in 2007 counted 7000 people in Alfa Beach, a figure that, according to him, must have grown since. Their economic activities all had their ties to the ocean. Apart from fishing, the busy beach and the community’s market used to be an important source of income for the community. Since the ocean surge in 2011, many of them are out of a job, he says: ‘Women have little shops inside but don’t make much money, and you see a lot of young men hanging around doing nothing, even demanding ‘gate fee’ to visitors. It is not like before.’
The Elegushi family are indigenes of Okun Alfa, claiming a history in the area going back more than 400 years. Sheriff Elegushi explains that their rights to the land are written down in the ‘gazette’, a book kept by the Oba, the traditional ruler, and so this book is a record of which land belongs to which families. The councillor estimates that Okun Alfa has about 3000 indigenes, a quarter of which, just like him, reside elsewhere in Lagos.
Sheriff’s older brother Yusuff is a Baale, one of the traditional leaders. His palace these days is about 50 metres away from the shoreline, and at this rate, if nothing is done, it will be lost in the nearer future.
Their old ways of coping with the sea – using sand bags to keep the water from coming in, moving further into the land – don’t suffice anymore. ‘We did our own to fight the gods of the ocean’, he says in his decaying palace that shows the effect of the floods, ‘now it is up to the government to come and help us. We cannot continue to lose land.’ The Baale is clamouring for an embankment to reinforce the shore line, in the same way that Bar Beach was protected through the Eko Atlantic project with a seawall some fifteen kilometres westward.
Don’t the people of Okun Alfa think of relocating, since their area is under so much threat? Often indigenes want to stay in a site because of their historical ties to the land, like their forefathers being buried there, but according to Sheriff Elegushi, that does not apply to Alfa Beach: those burial grounds were claimed by the ocean years ago. ‘This was the practice in the olden days, but we had to evacuate those sites. There is nobody buried in the new settlement.’ Maybe that is why the councillor is not entirely against the idea of relocating, even if there is no such offer on the table yet: ‘If the land is large enough and we won’t be scattered, so we can remain a community.’ He is however quick to add that he prefers the Baale’s option of the embankment
Whatever solution the community aims for, in order to be able to address the local, state and federal government for support, it has to speak with one voice. This much has been shown by the successful dealings of the Lekki Coastal Communities with the authorities. The question however is whether Okun Alfa inhabitants are unified.
As a popular coastal attraction for decades, Alfa Beach attracted many outsiders to come and settle as investors and businesspeople. An afternoon stroll along the beach reveals the diversity of the inhabitants. The people closest to the shore often rent from indigenous owners, and these inhabitants are the most vulnerable, but also the most likely to leave after yet another ocean surge
Pack and move
The beach has literally entered the room where Buki Azeez and her family lived. The sand on the room’s floor and the torn-off roof made it uninhabitable. Azeez moved here from Ibadan ten years ago because the rent was low and the market good: she sold Indomie noodles by the side of the now-vanished road. She is not sure if her family can stay here, she says, holding her 8-year-old son Ramon. ‘When the sea came, I ran with my child to Ibadan. If I see money I will pack and move back there.’
Other non-indigenes who had set up shop on the beach seem to be equally mobile. It is hard to find the market women who used to have their stalls there. Many of them have left the area as there’s no market left, says Taiwo Alorinre. She also used to have a stall on the beach. ‘The water chased me six months ago’, she says, referring to the ocean surge that happened in May. She now runs a kiosk overlooking the sea, but is not planning to stay: ‘By the grace of God, by January I hope to move inside town.’
The inhabitants with invested interests in the area, apart from the indigenes, are the ones who bought land to build on. Over the years, many estates arose along the coast, and these constructions are equally under threat by the encroaching ocean.
‘When I bought this piece of land from the monarch in 2003, Alfa Beach was booming’, says Baba Durojaiye. The ninety-year-old house owner is standing on his first-floor balcony, which overlooks a sea that has come much closer to his property over the years. ‘We live in fear’, he says. But at least he has alternatives: ‘As you see me, I come from Ogun State. I like the ocean breeze, but I have another property that I can move to. Most indigenes have nowhere to go.’
The investors in the area have different interests, Durojaiye admits: ‘There are not many visitors interested in the village community.’ Still the nonagenarian believes an alliance between owners of new houses and estates and the indigenous community is the way forward for Okun Alfa. ‘Many residents have little education and don’t know how to fight for their rights. They can profit from the knowledge of the investors from outside, who are often more affluent.’
Councillor Sheriff Elegushi confirms that the indigenes are involving the non-indigenous estate and house owners in their deliberations. At the residents’ meetings at the Baale’s palace about the threat of the ocean, all are invited, he says. ‘The way to go forward also includes the estate owners. I cannot read their minds, but these people invested expecting to make money from their property. Surely they also want a solution that protects that property.’ The councillor at least is hopeful that the stakeholders in Okun Alfa, even if it is not the homogeneous community it used to be, will find a common ground in its dialogue with federal, state and local government about the needs of everyone in Okun Olfa. What steps the government might be willing to take, is the subject of the next article in this series.