A city too big to fail

If Lagos were a person, she would wear a Gucci jacket and cheap hair weave, with a mobile phone in one hand, a second set in her back pocket, and the mother of all scowls on her face. She would usher you impatiently through her front door at an extortionate price before smacking you to the floor for taking too long about it. “This,” she would growl while searching your pockets for more cash, “is Lagos.”

These lines from Noo Saro-Wiwa’s recently published travelogue, Looking for Transwonderland, somewhat comically portray Lagos as an unapologetic mix of serious business and bold-faced intimacy for the status-conscious. It is a glimpse of a dynamic driven as much by opportunism as by the strategic engagement adopted by indigenes and settlers, who are only too willing to confront naivety. While seemingly not for the faint-hearted, every year Lagos attracts an astonishing 600,000 people, who pour into the city with ambitions to amass wealth or simply to fashion a better life amidst the smoke and sweltering heat. In “Eko”, as it is affectionately called, migration has been prompted by weaker economic performance in neighbouring states and countries, and in recent times heightened by political instability and sectarian violence in Nigeria’s hinterland. Most settle within 16 of the 20 districts, home to some 90 percent of those in the state, and collectively regarded as the metropolis.

It is little wonder then that the number of city-dwellers, estimated at somewhere between 12 and 17 million, is the focus of municipality’s concerns. According to UN estimates, the head count is likely to swell to 25 million by 2015 – much of this accounted for by births. Despite constituting less than half a percent of Nigeria’s land area, Lagos is already home to a tenth of the national population, making it the world’s fourth most densely populated city after Mumbai, Calcutta and Karachi. Here, a vibrant and predominantly young demographic is crammed into every nook and cranny of a city that caters – albeit unequally – for the expat’s wife and carpenter’s apprentice.

Yes, Lagos is big and major setbacks in the struggle to contain this mushrooming mass jeopardise the wellbeing of a number too great to ignore. For every three people, two live in one of 200 informal settlements, ranging from mere clusters of standalone shacks to expansive conglomerates of labyrinthine complexity. With a backlog of 2,17 million units, Lagos’ housing deficit appears daunting. In the past 15 years, the public body charged with providing housing has delivered only 20,000 housing units across the state. This falls dismally short of the 224,000 needed annually and only covers 0,6 percent of the actual needs. At the end of the day, the scarcity of funding and affordable homes suggest conventional modes of housing in Africa’s second-fastest growing city are failing. Yet with realistic policies and pragmatic interventions, housing commitments can and should be met.

With only 1,25 million state-supported properties, most people rent. Lagos remains Africa’s most lucrative region for real estate, yet in the teeming residential quarter of Agege, densities can be as high as 6,000 people per hectare. In contrast, Accra’s most crowded neighbourhoods rarely exceed 250. It is not uncommon to find up to seven tenants rooming in shoddy apartments, aptly branded “face me, I face you”. The more affluent Ikoyi boasts an immodest 100 persons per hectare. Here, a three-bedroom apartment solicits as much as NGN1,1 million (about $7,000) a month, with a compulsory two-year down payment, 10 percent in legal charges and additional maintenance fees further driving up costs. Thankfully, a recent tenancy bill restricting upfront payments to six months addresses some of this excess. While tenant-to-landlord relations are much improved, high demands mean speculators and private equity firms can continue to exploit inflated rental and sale prices. Business as usual it seems.

Together explosive growth, scant housing and real estate dynamics perpetuate over-crowding and trigger unplanned urbanisation. Speaking on regulating expansion, project manager and architect, Isi Etomi exclaims, “How are you going to stop that? That’s why it is called an informal settlement! Anyone could live there. As long as you have the city, you will always have the slums because everyone wants the better life that comes with living in the city. It is not American or even Lagosian – it is the urban dream.”

Yet neither the incredible projections nor the city’s obvious deficiencies have dampened Lagos’ megacity ambitions, unflinchingly wielded by the current administration. Headed by the recently re-elected Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, the city’s taskforce is charged with the unenviable duty of attending to a legacy of complex and often contradicting conditions brewed under decades of political strain between the federal and state governments. Under Fashola’s leadership, authorities were commended for modest improvements in infrastructure, healthcare, education and policing. Most extensive of these has been its transport plan, which saw strategic highway expansion, 165km of rehabilitated roads, and the planning of a privately-funded light rail system. Most noted is a bus rapid transit system installed in 2008. This scheme of segregated bus lanes saves 200,000 commuters time and money daily while directly employing 2,000 people to ensure the smooth running of its 16-hour operations.

However, not all state actions have been readily received. The controversial clearing of the congested Oshodi area and introduction of the Lekki expressway tollgate incited a degree of local grievance. Yes, traffic has been alleviated, the notorious commercial motorbikes – okadas – are better regulated, and even the simple addition of better signage and lighting make for safer streets. But prioritising investments in one segment of the city unavoidably forgoes another. Some cast doubt on the inclusive nature of public reforms, pointing to infrastructural development that bypassed certain districts and the placative manner of “community participation”. Here too the pro-poor planning falters when set against the cold logic of the markets and personal inclinations of the politically influential.

But effecting more egalitarian policies will require more than political will and articulate strategies. Funding such initiatives remains a challenge, especially as the central government has been less than forthcoming in allocating resources and attending to federal-owned remnants in the former capital. Realising Lagos could no longer afford to clamour at the purse strings of federal reserves, the preceding governor introduced tax reforms. Accomplished writer and daughter of the political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Noo, tends to agree with this stance: “The city is being held back by many things – especially a lack of funds. Too many residents, not enough taxation.” At first outsourced, tax collection has been hugely successful, with internally generated revenue increasing from a meager NGN600 million (about $3,8 million) eight years ago to the current NGN20 billion (over $126 million) monthly.

Public private partnerships have also been aggressively pursued in recent times. This has meant devolving greater powers to private companies and foreign investors. The danger of this is the pressure to prioritise corporate preferences over tackling the sharp socio-economic divisions reinforced spatially in the city. It is worth questioning whether losing a degree of autonomy is a worthy compromise for the unfettered capital flows. For now, joint models with private sector actors open up possibilities to meet rising public service demands and deliver high-profile projects. The most prominent of these, the 16,000 hectare Lekki Free Trade Zone – Nigeria’s version of Dubai – is managed by an independent development company forged through partnership with a Chinese consortium, the Nigerian Lekki Worldwide Investment, and the Lagos
State government.

Yet Lagos is more at risk than any other emerging market city as most of its flagship projects, including the Eko Atlantic City (EAC), are located on vulnerable coastal stretches and artificial islands in the lagoon. Land reclamation projects are poised to transform the water-logged inland – which accounts for up to a fifth of the state – into a web of corporate-driven islands and flashy waterfront developments. Independently, local climate experts have cast doubt on the EAC environmental impact assessments, and their fears may be confirmed by residents at the highbrow Goshen and Alpha Beach Estates, who complain about higher ocean surges and coastal erosion causing property damage and even deaths.

It seems most are unaware or choose to ignore the impending risks in favor of quick returns and impressive demonstrations. Formerly inhabited by Awori fishermen and farmers, Lagos consists of an agglomeration of low-lying islands along the Atlantic coast which scoop around to lock in the eponymous lagoon. These same features guaranteed its logistical value and consequent exploitation, first under the slave-trading Portuguese in 1472 and later imperial Britain. Today, the obstruction of the limited waterways that determine the city’s groundwater supply and disrupt its wider ecological balance are more readily addressed as newsworthy subjects than as planning priorities.

According to Monika Umunna, of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the German NGO which supports green development in Nigeria, power still remains one of the city’s biggest woes. For those who know the city well, it is hard to imagine Lagos without the incessant hum of privately-owned, fuel-guzzling generators. This resilient problem has proved tricky to address as the distribution is directed through the national grid. This is the irony: Africa’s largest exporter and the world’s seventh-largest producer of crude oil imports the largest number of backyard generators in the world.

Umunna stresses opportunities to lead Africa’s urban renaissance by embracing the green economy. She suggests focusing on decentralised energy generation from renewable sources, improving research at both the federal and state level, and better coordination between ministries. Much will also be gained from a transparent fund set up to foster innovative solutions and support entrepreneurs. “We can really develop very innovative programmes that can be an example to other countries. I understand this is what Lagos is really interested in: showcasing innovation.”

It seems one way to confront reality is to redefine it. In many ways the megacity ideal is too limiting because it fails to capture the nuances that define the city’s richly textured character. In rebranding Lagos, more can be achieved by directing some of the fastidious city marketing away from the city’s largesse and in a more balanced manner, adopting a discerning outlook towards the comparatively small and deceptively ordinary. For starters, Nollywood has played more of a successful role in putting Lagos on the global cultural map than the city’s administrators. As Saro-Wiwa points out, its low-budget productions and botched editing lack both the cinematic quality to compete at Cannes and the institutional muscle to support considerable wealth creation. Nevertheless, as the third-largest film industry in the world, Nollywood commands an enormous following of faithful viewers on the continent and within Africa’s diasporan communities.

Though African cities are expected to struggle for greater global presence, Lagos is better placed than its peers to fulfill this ambition. The city sits at the focal point of the Great West African Corridor, a transnational urban highway that spans 600km. With its logistical capacities, its well-established industries and improving regulatory systems, Lagos may well have an important role to play in facilitating regional integration – an asset to those seeking greater access to African markets. That is, of course, if they can get beyond the city’s dubious reputation.

For decades, Lagos, with its crumbling infrastructure, exhausted public services and political deadlock, has defied the logic that should pronounce it a “failed’” city. At a time when major banks and whole economies are being bailed out, its continued growth and resilience in the face of daunting challenges deserves careful consideration. If world cities are indeed the ideal, it would be better not to measure all “success” and “failure” against their alleged standards.

Lagos is working. In fact, some of the more imaginative and potent activities taking place there are not the most visible or the loudest, but small-scale industries and pioneering startups that have the potential to redefine internal production and grant economic inclusion to the marginalised majority.



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