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Urbanisation: Lagos, Nigeria, Keeping up with the changes

By Tolu Ogunlesi in Lagos
Posted on Thursday, 3 October 2013 15:42

When Lagos: A Cultural & Historical Companion was published in March, some were surprised by the choice of image for the book’s cover.

Written by Kaye Whiteman, longtime editor of the now-defunct West Africa magazine, the book features on its cover an iconic shot of Lagos, with rows of black-lined yellow buses around which a jumble of humanity masses: street vendors with their trays and colourful umbrellas, shoppers, bus drivers and assistants and area boys.

But there were doubts about how representative the image was of the city – particularly because Oshodi, the bus park pictured, no longer exists as captured in the image.

In 2009, days into the New Year, a demolition squad descended on the bus park.

Demolition crews have roamed across the city, seeking to bring order to chaos

What emerged stunned all who knew the old Oshodi. The railway tracks that ran through it, once buried beneath all the bustle, are now visible again from the bridge that runs past.

There is now a garden there. In an interview a year later, Babatunde Fashola, the lawyer who became Lagos governor in 2007 and embarked on vigorous citywide reforms, outlined the impact of the regeneration.

“Many things followed in Oshodi. Immediately, we monitored crime, refuse management, we monitored disease levels and everything just went down.

“Within six weeks after we did it, the [Divisional Police Officer] in Oshodi said his cells were virtually empty. The refuse tonnage that was being gathered dropped by about 60%.”

The demolition crews have been kept busy across the city, seeking to bring order to the chaos that is Lagos, one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Motorcycle taxis, famous for their truck horns and fatal accidents, were first compelled to wear helmets, and have now been banned from all major highways.

Molues – the overcrowded rickety buses that criss-crossed the city – have all but vanished.

No smoke and drive

Roads are being rebuilt, as are new bridges. (The only road construction worthy of note throughout the 1990s was the Third Mainland Bridge, the longest in Africa).

Traffic lights and zebra crossings are now familiar sights, as are new lanes dedicated to a bus service launched in 2008.

Sidewalks and roadside parks are no longer a rarity in the city. There is a new traffic law that bans eating and smoking whilst driving.

The government is banking on a series of partnerships between itself and private investors to deliver the most ambitious of its planned infrastructure schemes.

The poster-child for these partnerships is the 49km Lekki-Epe Expressway, which is being upgraded into a six-lane tolled highway at a cost of $300m. (Adjoining it is a new 1.35km suspension bridge that connects it to Ikoyi Island, costing almost $200m.)

Soon to eclipse the Lekki-Epe Expressway in scale are the Lekki Free Trade Zone, which will include a new airport; Eko Atlantic City, a brand new development rising on 9 km2 of land reclaimed from the Atlantic; the 10-lane highway connecting the city to the border town of Badagry; and a new rail network. (Its previous incarnation, planned by the civilian government that ran the city between 1979 and 1983, was halted after a military takeover.)

And then there’s what the private sector is doing by itself: upscale malls, gated estates and luxury hotels. Radisson, Southern Sun, Intercontinental and a second Sheraton have all opened in the last few years; a Marriott is under construction.

Lagos now boasts a Porsche dealership and, a few blocks away, an Ermenegildo Zegna store.

But all the years of neglect had left things so bad that only those who knew the pre-21st century city can appreciate how much has changed. The scale of work required is almost inconceivable.

And, despite all the progress, there are entire sections of the city that have been left behind.

Ajegunle, famous for its musicians and home to at least three major national newspapers, remains as blighted as ever, advertising at every turn the absence of government.

Apapa, home to Nigeria’s two biggest ports, is all giant potholes and stationary container trucks.

Uprooting the poor

And public cynicism runs deep: the demolitions and construction hit the city’s poorest hardest, and there are no safety nets. The feeling that the new Lagos is not for the poor is widespread.

One speaker at the Whiteman book launch spoke of a “deliberate policy by the government to use house rents to uproot people who refuse to be uprooted” – this is in spite of new rent laws designed to protect tenants from the avarice of landlords.

“Every criticism we get brings us to a realisation that there is an urgency to do a lot more, and we don’t expect that these problems can be fixed overnight,” Fashola has said.

“The decadence, the deficit of infrastructure of about three decades can’t be turned around in just two years or eight years.”

Where once there was a single face of Lagos, there are now two: the fragile old, which will no doubt linger, and the aggressive new, a raft of roads, bridges, malls, bus routes, railway lines, water works, power plants, schools and hospitals racing to catch up with a population that won’t be slowing down anytime soon.●

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