General - May 4, 2016

INTERVIEW: “Security of tenure biggest challenge of Nigerian slum dwellers, urban poor’ – Megan Chapman

Megan Chapman is a human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Justice and Empowerment Initiative, JEI, a human rights NGO working with dwellers of urban slums in Nigerian cities

What is the Justice and Empowerment Initiative, JEI, all about?

Justice and Empowerment Initiative, JEI, is an organization that is committed to working with the urban poor, by helping to build their capacity to be able to face their challenges as well as be able to engage with the government to protect their communities’ dignity through the protection of their fundamental rights and bring about community-led development to their communities.

My experience working with these communities has been wonderful, the people we work with in these communities inspire me every single day; they are some of the strongest and most adaptable people I have ever met. This is because they have to survive things that many people will find unthinkable and unimaginable – whether it is being thrown out of their homes, having their places of work demolished, or even police extortion and harassment.

They are also living with a lot of deepening challenges, lack of access to water, lack of access to basic sanitation, I can’t say lack of access to electricity because that is common across Nigeria but the challenges they face and their tactics for survival are but incredible and it is a constant source of inspiration for us as we pursue the work that we do.

As someone working with urban poor in the Nigerian cities of Lagos and Port Harcourt, what would you say are the most critical challenges facing the urban poor in the country?

I think the number one challenge facing the urban poor basically is security of tenure which means legal protection for them staying on the lands they occupy. This is also based on a community level profiling that we have done with the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlements Federation in the course of which communities identified their major challenges and priorities and we collected basic data about the communities. As such I think for any real, sustainable urban future in Nigeria, there will be need to address the issue of security of tenure as an urgent priority.

You also train community paralegals who work with the urban poor, helping them to have access to justice. How effective is the paralegal system in bridging the access to justice gap among the poor including those in living in urban slums?

I think the only way of closing the access to justice gap for the poorest of the poor is through interventions like the community-based paralegals. Community-based paralegals know their communities; they know the challenges facing their communities. They also know the strengths and weaknesses of those communities; they know who the decision makers in those communities are.

Therefore, if you bring them to training programs like ours which last for 6 months, you give them skills and capacity as well as support them as they provide grassroots access to justice services, it really helps to bridge the access to justice gap. In these communities, like I mentioned earlier, they face issues of evictions, routine harassment by the police among other challenges.

The community-based paralegals are always on ground and ready to respond whenever they are called to do so. For example, if there is an incident regarding threat of demolition in a community and there are community-based paralegals in the community, once they heard that bulldozers are moving in, they won’t have wait until a working hour or day comes, they will immediately go to the site.

Once they drove to the place, documented what was happening, and sent us the information, the appropriate response will begin immediately. If it is a police issue, they are there on the ground, they can move to the police stations, we have built the relationship between the police and the paralegals so they can help resolve issues and help get people out of custody. So, paralegals really provide immediate solution to the challenges that these communities face.

At this point, what we are doing is helping to build a network of paralegals in across the urban informal settlements of Lagos and Port Harcourt and our dream is that it will follow the growth of the Nigerian Slum/ Informal Settlement Federation, which now exists in Lagos and Port Harcourt, across the country; from urban center to urban center so that eventually there should be paralegals working in every single poor urban community across Nigeria.

Paralegals are still not legally recognized in Nigeria, what are the challenges working with legal and security institutions?

I don’t think the biggest challenges we face relate to lack of legal recognition for paralegals, I think there are ways it will be helpful if, for example, the Legal Aid Council was overseeing and a sort of buying the idea of the need for the paralegals that we trained. This is because we take the quality of the paralegals we train and the quality of their work very serious therefore we make sure that anybody who is out there providing paralegal services using the name of JEI has gone through 6-month long training and they have passed an extensive exam.

Like people across the world, we envision cities without slums and that doesn’t mean we need to pull down slums and send the inhabitants back to their villages, it means we have to gradually work with the people who find themselves living in slums because they don’t have alternatives since slums are but the response to the lack of affordable housing in cities, which is a huge challenge.

We provide regular supervision; the paralegals attend weekly meetings with lawyers, where they discuss about the cases they are handling and any slight infraction in terms of following the code of conduct of the paralegals is dealt with very seriously. So, we are very meticulous in terms of quality provision of services, therefore, it will be useful to have the recognition of say the Legal Aid Council or other authorities in Nigeria.

When it comes to the role of paralegals in engaging with security institutions, if a paralegal goes to say a police station to try to get someone bailed, the first question they are asked is are you a lawyer? And if they say they are not lawyers they must explain what a paralegal is and why they are there. We issue them with ID cards which help them to be recognized but I think if there is a broader understanding of the role of community paralegals it will help as well.

Having worked with the urban poor for some time now in Nigeria, how do you see the future of the plight of the urban poor living in informal settlements across Nigeria’s cities?

I would say that within this period I have seen certain improvements in the situation of the urban poor; I think the incidences of forced eviction have come down to some extent. I think the government is now more conscientious about the rights of people to security of tenure, to adequate shelter and so on. So, there have been small improvements and that are very positive, although we still have a long way to go.

Like people across the world, we envision cities without slums and that doesn’t mean we need to pull down slums and send the inhabitants back to their villages, it means we have to gradually work with the people who find themselves living in slums because they don’t have alternatives since slums are but the response to the lack of affordable housing in cities, which is a huge challenge.

The idea is you have to work with those people to find solutions that they themselves are already are trying to provide and then see where the government can come in and support them to make that possible. We believe the only solution will be bringing organized communities to work with local governments to find solutions.


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