by Sainey Belle, Campaign volunteer at Action on Empty Homes

Sainey writes on why Nigeria's millions of empty homes matter, as social protests highlight disparities of wealth and power in Africa's biggest economy

The recent social protests in Nigeria have highlighted the effects of the huge disparities of wealth and power in the country and the reluctance of those in power to address these disparities and the generally acknowledged corruption that feeds off them.

It has been estimated that 24.4 million of Nigeria’s 200 million population are homeless. However, there is no official record or data-keeping within the country and, as a consequence, numbers could easily be much higher.

The lack of official records also means that there is no way to know the extent of the homeless problem, no real data kept on the number of empty homes, and no way to know what steps need to be taken to tackle both problems.

The problem of empty properties has been visible for some time. In 2017, banking consultant Abimbola Agbalu told the BBC that he has to live at his grandmother's house because renting his own place would be too expensive. He said ‘"The problem is not that there are no houses. If you look around, there are empty houses all over Lagos; some can even go a year without being rented out. The problem is that people can't afford them. We need better alternatives.”

At a press conference in September 2019, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Adequate Housing,  Leilani  Farha, urged the Nigerian Government to impose a vacant home tax on citizens. Farha explained that most residents in Nigeria’s informal settlements live without access to even the most basic services and that:

“At the same time, newly built luxury dwellings are springing up throughout cities and made possible often through the forced eviction of poor communities. These units do not fulfil any housing need, with many remaining vacant as vehicles for money laundering or investment.” 

Mass evictions are very frequent in Lagos. Government officials typically give no warning before forcibly removing residents. In one startling example, reported by Amnesty International, between March 2016 and November 2017, 30,000 residents from the Otodo-Gbame community, on the outskirts of Lagos, were made homeless as machete-wielding men cleared out entire neighbourhoods.

Nigeria does not currently have any 'vacant property tax'. It has been suggested that such a vacant property tax could prove fruitful in reducing economic equality and providing more resources to tackle homelessness. The choice not to have such a tax can be viewed as political, as empty homes can quite literally be linked to wealth hoarding and corruption.

At the same time, luxury homes, unaffordable to most, are continuing to spring across the country with no potential buyers due to lack of funds and stability; and as a result, they remain empty. A recent story that gained traction on social media was of a man who had squatted in an abandoned building 22 years ago and eventually began renting out some of the rooms. The proceeds of which led to him building his own home and starting various businesses. Exceptional responses like this may prove tenuous without legal protections however.

The empty homes crisis the country faces can be attributed partly to high rates of corruption from those living within the country and in the diaspora. The property market has been at an effective standstill for several years, leading many to conclude that luxury homes are essentially used as a means to hoard wealth, by both those developing them and those who may ultimately purchase them.

One thing seems certain and that is that they seem to offer no solution for Nigeria's current crisis of homelessness and housing affordability and instead serve only to illustrate the disparities of wealth and power which have fuelled recent protests.