Demolition Squad in Action

Lagos State government pulls down Victory Christian Church, prompting allegations of religious terrorism by the overseer.

Between November 14 and December 7 last year, some structures at the premises of Victory Christian Church, along the Badagry Expressway were destroyed by agents of the Lagos State ministry of environment and physical planning in defiance of a court order. Nkechi Anayo-Iloputaife, general overseer, described the action as illegal and a case of state terrorism with undertones of religious antagonism.

Trouble started when NASCO plc, owners of NASCO Estate Limited expressed its wish to reclaim the 4,861 hectares of land out of 292,428 hectares leased to it by federal government for 99 years in 1979. It had leased it to Motor Tyres, (now Michelin Nigeria plc), in 1981. Motor Tyres had in turn sub-leased the land to Victory Christian Church in 1992 for 99 years with a reference number LUIA/AU/B/FL/92.

The refusal by the church to return the land to NASCO plc inevitably locked them in a legal tussle. At the last hearing of the case, October 25 at a Lagos State high court, the presiding judge, Eniola Longe, ruled in favour of NASCO plc. The church, through their counsel, Gani Fawehinmi, appealed alleging bias in the hearing. The case came up for hearing December 3, but was adjourned for further hearing to January 14, 2002 , and a stay of execution of the judgment was obtained. It was while awaiting the January 2002 date that agents of Lagos State government moved in to demolish the structures.

At a press conference, Ilupotaife accused the Lagos State government and the state police command of conniving with Islamic fundamentalists to unleash terror on her ministry with the ultimate aim of dispossessing her of the land. She explained that two months after the killing of her husband, Harford Anayo-Ilupotaife, by unknown men at his Festac residence on February 4, 1995 , agents of NASCO plc came demanding for the return of the land to them. She said they also offered her money in order to part with the land, which she refused.

According to her, NASCO plc had claimed in a 1998 suit that the land was not being used for the industrial purpose for which it was leased. She said the church not only used the premises for worship but that they also operated both commercial and humanitarian services such as running a printing press, a clinic, a school and a water project for the host community. She also tendered about 10 documents on the land and on other claims.

Ilupotaife believes a religious war is being waged against her and by extension, the Christian community in Lagos State . "The crux of the matter is prejudice based on religion. The state government is clearly hostile to Christians," she said. Governor Bola Tinubu and the owner of NASCO plc, Ahmed Nasurudeen, are Muslims.

Osita Obed Onyema, spokesman also told Newswatch that NASCO plc had approached the church in 1996 and had asked them to change their entrance to the backside but that they refused. According to him, they learnt that NASCO plc intended to build an Islamic centre inside the estate and were not happy that a church should be situated at the entrance of the estate.

Ilupotaife told Newswatch that after the first demolition she went to Mike Okiro, commissioner of police, to complain and to seek for police protection. The police boss, she said, refused her request on the ground that the case was still in court.

"Why would the same Okiro who refused us police protection now deploy policemen to protect the agents of destruction? What is the business of the Lagos State government and the Lagos State police in a case involving Victory Church and NASCO plc?" she asked.

Mike Okonkwo, bishop of TREM and national president of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, condemned the demolition. At a press conference December 12, Okonkwo said the action was part of a grand design by Muslim fanatics to bring civil disorder to Lagos State . According to him, they were taking advantage of the state governor's Islamic leaning to 'islamise his government in tune and action.' He urged Christians to resist such a move.

Okonkwo explained that in the last couple of months the Lagos State government had demolished about eight churches among which were the Victory Christian Church and Kingdom Bible Church , Ijesha. He gave the state government a seven-day ultimatum to stop the demolition of churches and a 21-day ultimatum to rebuild the demolished structures to avert a statewide protest by Christians.

Victor Chilaka, the Lagos State police public relations officer, told Newswatch that the action of the police at Victory Church was in order. "In the issue of property and agency, the agency recognised to have a say is the law court. If the status of that property is finally determined by the law and judgment is given, then that order must be carried out."

He said the police did not play any role in the demolishing of Victory Church but were only there to maintain law and order. "The police has no technical know-how to demolish a building," he said.

Newswatch sought to know why the police accompanied the agents of the state government to carry out the demolition when the case was still in court while the police had on the other hand refused protection to Victory Church . The police spokesman refused to comment.

Tinubu justified the demolition of Victory Church . In a five-page letter addressed to Okonkwo, Tinubu said the church structures were demolished because they had 'no single building plan,' in accordance with the building plans of the state. "It is unfortunate that a member of your association was affected by the exercise, but must we condone illegality or allow environmental chaos by pretending not to see those who run foul of the law?" he asked.

Tinubu also denied the accusation of religious bias. "I was elected by all to serve all. I hold no religion more supreme than the other because I have always believed that as a leader I must strive to uphold at all times the rule of law," he said. He promised to rebuild the damaged structures if Okonkwo produced the church building plan and that he would have to apologise to him if otherwise.

But Onyema said the governor's comments on their non-possession of a building plan was diversionary. "Tinubu is dodging the fundamental question which is, has the state government right to enter this land? They don't, because this is a federal government administered territory and the federal government has not relinquished their hold on this matter. They don't have a legal ground to do what they are doing, no court issued them any order for demolition. If there is, the deputy sheriff of the high court should have been here to supervise the demolition. And if any demolition is to be carried out, it should be by the federal ministry of works and housing and not Lagos State government," he said.

According to Osita, the church had a building plan with the works and housing ministry. "Is there any building put up without plans?" he asked. He also explained that the church went on with the development of the land while the case was still in court because, according to him, the matter was not about ownership of the land but about its use.

Onyema told Newswatch that the church had sued the Lagos State government claiming N300 million for damages.

But the Lagos State government, in what appears to be a reconciliatory move, recently set up a committee to look into the crisis. That followed the intervention of Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, during the New Year thanksgiving service held at the Lagos State House, Marina, January 3, 2002.

Ilupotaife was present at the service, so was Tinubu and Anibaba, commissioner for environment and physical planning.