Nigeria: Lagos, Maximum City

By Leonard Lawal and Eromo Egbejule in Lagos and Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Tuesday, 5 April 2016 15:12

Welcome to Lagos, the city that chops superlatives for breakfast. The biggest and fastest-growing city in Africa’s largest economy, with a new arrival every minute according to the UN. The best estimates of today’s population in Lagos State suggest it has more than 20 million people. The UN predicts that Lagos will be the world’s third-largest city by 2025. The Global Cities Institute predicts a population of 77 million by 2100.

Nigeria’s epicentre of power and money is a terrain ripe for all types of fantasy, demographic or otherwise. Some see in Lagos slick playboys and ‘subsidy billionaires’ with private jets and yachts. Others see dystopian visions of environmental apartheid, with the 1% pulling up the drawbridge to offshore housing developments such as Eko Atlantic City while the majority of Lagosians languish outside in crime-infested suburbs.

In some ways you can compare his ambitions to Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia in New York

For Lagos to live up to its huge potential, it will need to foster its social dynamism and improve the lot of the 99% while encouraging entrepreneurs, businesses and traders to invest. The Africa Report offers you a guide to the changing city through the officials and businessmen shaping its development, the architects and activists worried about infrastructure, and members of gangs going about their daily business on Lagos’s streets.

Better must come

Lagosians who remember the city in the difficult times of the 1990s and earlier may argue that the improvements are already happening. The reigns of governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu (1999-2007) and governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (2007-2015) have transformed the city. Roads were rebuilt and cleared, markets moved. Lagos is better lit, better run, cleaner, greener and safer.

To do it, the tax base has been overhauled. Tinubu and his successor raised monthly revenue levels from less than $4m in 1999 to more than $100m. This is due to an arrangement whereby a company with links to Tinubu collects tax on behalf of the government, gaining commissions in a system that former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell says resembles “tax farming in the New Testament or under Louis XIV”.

Not everyone agrees things have got better. Femi, who works at Murtala Muhammed International Airport and lives in Oshodi – regarded as perhaps the most dangerous place in Lagos – says improvements in the area were beautification at best. “Fashola only worked on the 10-lane highway that everyone can see. The inside parts are still as they were, and the crime rates are still high,” he says.

Megacity reality check

Rem Koolhaas, the avant-garde Dutch architect, argues that Lagos is pioneering a new form of organisation with its network of functioning ad hoc structures connecting both official political and commercial groups and the informal economy.

Others are sceptical, such as Nigerian architect Giles Omezi. “The Koolhaas approach – celebrating Lagos the Megacity – needs a reality check. We’re heading for 25 million people […]. With the current constraints we’d be sitting on a time bomb, especially without mass transit,” he argues. Omezi has been working on several urban planning projects in Lagos over the past 15 years and says “transport is the key. Without fixing that, the city is jammed. Everything else – electricity, water and sanitation – can be improvised off the grid to an extent.”

Imagine hanging, drone-like, a kilometre above Singapore or Seattle, looking down at the cars moving. Speed up the image so that each 24-hour cycle lasts but a few moments. You will see commuters inhaled and exhaled along well-integrated rail links and highways, in and out of the city. Cut to Lagos. It is choked in traffic. Tempers flare as countless thousands try to push their vehicles onto Lagos Island and Victoria Island.

These twin traffic pinch points – accessible by just three groaning bridges – house key offices, apartments and, importantly, employment. This pressure keeps Lagos at boiling point: pushing up property prices and driving the city out onto the sea and neighbouring states.

But who runs Lagos, and who benefits from the pressure? “We are all winners,” said newly elected governor Akinwunmi Ambode at his inauguration in May 2015. “We must recognise our strength in diversity – a common national identity where everybody counts.”

This message has yet to be heard at the bottom. About 15% of the population lives off the sanitation, power and roads grids. These Lagosians live in informal settlements and slums, paying rents of around N2,000 ($10) per month to stay in rooms where six to eight people live. They will not be accessing the much trumpeted Nigerian housing mortgage scheme, where the smallest monthly mortgage repayment is around N40,000.

“I normally start out around dawn,” says Abiodun Martins, who works at a hotel on Victoria Island and commutes in from the mainland. “I normally get home around 10pm, 11pm. Traffic! I see the kids on the weekend.”

his main aim was to run a really powerful political organisation, using his Lagos operation to build a regional base in the south-west and then to contest for power at the centre

Great countries need great cities, and great cities historically provide quality services. Cities that manage to insulate the poor from larcenous landlords and exhausting commutes create huge up-swellings of talent, creativity and wealth.

There are worries that progress in Lagos is slowing, even reversing. Since the elections in April 2015, there has been anecdotal evidence of the resurgence of daylight robberies and people being attacked while stuck in traffic, something the Lagos government denies. Police commissioner Fatai Owoseni did report that there were 220 murders in the city in 2015. Residents point an accusing finger at ‘area boys’ – young criminals.

Often seen as part of the problem, the 33,000-strong police force in the state, which is under the control of the fed- eral government, is struggling against all manner of lawbreakers. Deputy superintendent Joe Offor, the state policespokesman, says: “We are working on reducing the high crime rate […]. I can’t tell you the new strategies because then you’ll write it and the robbers will be forewarned.” As in other states, the police in Lagos are poorly paid and under-equipped, which saps morale.

Living in peace, living in fear

The National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) is meant to lend the police a hand by keeping bus and taxi parks smooth and operational. However, the ‘National,’ as it is known, has extended its operations and, once in a while, its members violently tangle with area boys and ‘cult members’ – supporters of secret societies who often vie for supremacy on university campuses.

Some youth gangs have overlapping memberships. Oshodi resident Femi offers an explanation: “The politicians take popular area boys who are their supporters and bring them to be leaders of the NURTW. As those ones blend into the system, they carry their guys along.”

NURTW groups are scattered across Nigeria, but their powers are strongest in the south-west, where the aspiration to be an area boy or a ‘National’ member is commonplace these days for children in the slums. In a country where more than half of the population lacks decent jobs, ‘National’ members form a pool of willing mercenaries, recruited by politicians during elections and afterwards to ‘keep the peace’ in their ‘hood.’

Gangs clash intermittently with rivals and police over territory. Hotspots for these conflicts are largely north of the central business district on Lagos Island, in the Bariga, Fadeyi, Oshodi, Mushin, Shomolu, Ajegunle, Onipanu, and Ebute Metta areas of the city. According to a statement from the Lagos State Police Command, cult clashes in the state killed 80 people between January and June 2015. Whenever they fight, business grinds to a halt as shop owners close while the gangsters orchestrate mayhem.

In the usually busy Idumota area where some of the largest movie and music distributors have their head offices, NURTW members snuff out the business of pirates. Rasaki, one of those who prowl this district, sits in his ‘office,’ a roaddivider stretching along the entire length of Nnamdi Azikiwe Street. He and his crew respond to greetings from passersby as they puff on joints or drink cheap liquor and intermittently play a medley of pop hits from an old smartphone.

“It’s Young John The Wicked Producer,” one shouts. They belt out the opening bars belligerently, stopping to dance and backslap each other every now and then.

“We collect tickets from these drivers and help secure the area”, says Rasaki in English heavily interlaced with pidgin and Yoruba. “Agbero no dey hungry,” he continues, laughing that his job provides him enough cash. He dropped out from primary school at 10 and lives in a small room where he pays N24,000 annually as rent. Together with five others who work in shifts with him, they act as lords of the streets. So will Lagos confront, co-opt or ignore the problem of these groups?

The heart of the matter

The choices that city fathers make echo down the decades, and Governor Tinubu, the spider at the centre of the web of patronage politics that has driven development at breakneck speed since the end of military rule in 1999, must be wondering about his legacy.

A Lagos-based oil and gas investor who deals extensively with the state government argues that Tinubu’s record in Lagos is deeply ambiguous: “In some ways you can compare his ambitions to Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia in New York,” the investor says.

“Tinubu wanted a patronage system that would deliver some results on the ground, such as the big private urban projects. But his main aim was to run a really powerful political organisation, using his Lagos operation to build a regional base in the south-west and then to contest for power at the centre.”

Although Lagosians debate the sources of Tinubu’s massive personal wealth and real estate holdings as well as his record on social policy as Lagos governor, few dispute that he overhauled the state administration and has a knack of picking talented young technocrats.

Indeed, many credit Tinubu with laying the foundations for his successors as governor, Fashola and Ambode. At his house on Bourdillon Road in the bourgeois Ikoyi district, Tinubu hosts and feeds successive waves of visitors and supporters from all over the city. He may not yet enjoy the influence he was seeking at national level, but he remains the quintessential Lagos power broker and dealmaker.

Deals are made every day in Lagos, but Andrew Maki of the Lagos-based non-governmental organisation Justice & Empowerment Initiatives worries that property speculation is getting out of control. In an echo of cyclical slum clearance and creation from cities around the world, Maki points to a resurgence of a handful of land-owning families that are behind slum evictions: “They are fictionalising history to a certain extent. They are saying: ‘We owned all this land.’ But the way that they work increasingly is very much hand-in-hand with the government”.

What, then, of the man who now takes up the reins of Africa’s largest city and the challenges he faces? Certainly, governor Ambode will stick to Tinubu’s script of patronage politics and limited reform to an extent: his campaign was financially supported by close Tinubu associate and billionaire Prince Dipo Eludoyin, as was Fashola’s.

A new chapter for lagos

Ambode’s current priority is the ‘Light up Lagos’ campaign, a promise to bring street lights to all federal and state roads by the end of 2016. Beyond that, he may attempt to bring a cleaner style of government.

In August 2015, he revoked a contract to revamp the Falomo Shopping Mall on the grounds that the deal with Afriland Properties – owned by Lagos business heavyweight and People’s Democratic Party stalwart Tony Elumelu – included terms that were “grossly detrimental” to Lagos State. He claims to have saved the state N9bn in just three months by restructuring government and is allocating that money to healthcare programmes.

And Ambode has managed to push major rail projects forward. In his first few weeks in charge, the new governor is said to have picked up the phone to President Muhammadu Buhari and got an agreement on land use for the Red Line, Lagos’s planned second metropolitan light railway.

Before, the Nigerian Railway Corporation, a company owned by the federal government, had obstructed the deal as it owned the right of way. Buhari finally approved of the $2.4bn venture, which is no small victory for Lagos. If those tracks are laid, Lagos will take a major step towards strengthening the talent, creativity and wealth that make it a maximum city.

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