Lagos, Africa's Mega-City

Growth Continues, With or Without a Plan
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 30 2009 11:35 AM

Lagos, Africa's Mega-City

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LAGOS, Nigeria—Bar Beach wakes up later than the rest of Lagos. The prostitutes, touts, and religious devotees who live here on the breakwaters of the Atlantic Ocean emerge from their small shacks or from underneath tarps after the rest of the city has already begun its daily hustle. They had a late night.

Jutting up against the shoreline is a long concrete sea wall, similar in color, shape, and seeming disdain for aesthetics to Chicago's south side Promontory Point revetment, with hundreds of tractor-tire-sized X-blocks meant to protect the nearby high-priced real estate. On a recent morning, I walked down the sea wall as men, women, and children appeared from behind the X-blocks, taking pulls from small brown bottles, smoking joints, or picking at their teeth with bits of plastic.

A few city employees were bent over, sweeping the causeway of dirt. Beside them was a sign that read, "Eko o ni baje!" Yoruba for "Don't spoil Lagos." The signs are posted all over the city. Few heed them, from the state minister driving by in his Bentley to the tattered guy next to me drinking his breakfast.

A few hundred yards down the road stands the Eko, Lagos' most expensive and ostentatious hotel, where wealthy businessmen, foreign oil workers, and government officials drink expensive Champagne and chat up high-end working girls. The food at the Eko is overpriced and bland. The prostitutes have business cards.

Lagos, where I have lived for the last year, is filled with many such juxtapositions. Endlessly frenzied but somehow functional. Massively rich but poor beyond belief. Bursting with 15 million people but resolutely familial.

Lagos is the commercial hub of Africa's most populous nation and its second-biggest economy, trailing only South Africa. Depending on how you see the world or what kind of mood you're in on a particular day, you can look out of your window and see the unstructured chaos of a Third World city on speed or the vibrancy and sense of hope that continues to attract thousands of newcomers every day.

City officials love to tout Lagos' status as a mega-city, and according to the United Nations' definition, based on population size and density, it is (somewhere between 12 million and 18 million people, an estimated 20,000 people per square kilometer).

Dozens of proposed mega-city projects have been unveiled by officials and developers eager for cash in the years since military power gave way to a flawed but earnest democracy in 1999. Their titles, and price tags, are ambitious. The Lagos Energy City Project ($1.5 billion). The Lekki Free Trade Zone ($1.5 billion). The Lagos Beautification Project. The Lagos Drainage and Sanitation Master Plan. The proposed projects, despite good intentions, could each be characterized in similar ways. Foolhardy. Corrupt. Wasteful.

Bar Beach is the site of the city's most ambitious project, Eko Atlantic City. The goal? To build an entirely new high-end residential mini-city on land reclaimed from what is currently the Atlantic Ocean. Original estimates put the cost of the project at $3.5 billion, but analysts think the cost could eventually be much higher.

Previous efforts to improve Lagos' infrastructure do not bode well for Eko Atlantic City.

A local newspaper account of recent efforts to ease traffic, for example, began with this simple, poignant couplet: "Traffic congestion seemed to be the order of the day in and around Lagos metropolis. Several efforts in the past to holistically address the trend had little or no effect."

The traffic is still some of the worst in the world. Roads are terribly potholed. Drainage ditches flood even during light rainfalls, spreading waste everywhere. Electricity is a luxury; most of the city runs on diesel-powered generators. Pure water is hard to find, so small boys walk the streets of Lagos selling jerrycans filled with water pumped from boreholes miles away.

The governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Raji Fashola, is considered by most Lagosians to be an honest striver who aims to improve the city. (The city and the state of Lagos are basically one and the same, such is the expansiveness of the urban sprawl.) I have heard Fashola speak on several occasions; each time, I came away impressed but just as convinced that his lofty and admirable goals would not succeed.

"Most places do planning before development," said Moses Ogun of the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners. "Here they do development and building before they've done the planning. I call it disjointed incrementalism."

The architects of the 1998 city master plan promised to develop 28 new districts in Lagos and ease congestion, but they didn't follow through, according to Ogun. Only 15 percent of the 1985 master plan was implemented.

"There is no one guiding the growth," Ogun said. "The governor needs to wake up."

I don't think wakefulness is the governor's problem. Disentangling himself from rich patrons and the corruption long endemic to Nigeria may be.

There are huge amounts of money to be made in Lagos, particularly in the housing industry. Demand is high, and so are rents. A two-bedroom apartment in Ikoyi, Lekki, or Victoria Island (where Eko Atlantic City will be constructed), the wealthier areas of Lagos, can cost $6,000 a month.

Developers have been quick to pounce on this housing bubble, and they are very keen to build additional properties on the islands. The city's plan to reclaim land from the ocean is music to their ears.

The poorer neighborhoods of Lagos invariably get neglected.

Mabel Samuel lives in a shanty village enclosed on all sides by multistory homes and businesses catering to wealthy Lagos residents. The people here work as servants, cleaners, and drivers for the more affluent folks who surround them. They pack themselves and their entire families into tiny rented rooms because they cannot afford the cost of commuting daily from other, more affordable neighborhoods. Mabel, her husband, and their three children live in a room that is about 6 feet by 8 feet.

The only utility provided for this slum is water, and that is only because a large industrial company, whose smokestacks are visible a few hundred yards away, built a borehole as a PR move. If the borehole weren't there, Mabel said, "we'd have to trek about 2 kilometers to buy it and start standing in the queue at about 5 a.m."

When night falls, the neighborhood goes dark except for the flicker of kerosene lamps. Residents huddle outside their doors, chatting with neighbors and waiting for the next day of work.

Bar Beach residents have been waiting for the night to come. Touts swarm everywhere, offering anything and everything to revelers. Hundreds of white plastic tables are planted into the thick sand. Young men smoke and drink from large brown bottles of potent beer. Working girls sashay between tables looking for johns. Music blasts from dozens of competing loudspeakers as bars court patrons. A Fela Kuti impersonator dances for an audience of no one.

Farther down, away from the bar lights, the beach takes on a seedier vibe. Men stumble in and out of small huts. Idle women stand by, chatting with each other. Young boys with joints the size of their arms try to look tough. They usually succeed.

As part of its plan to build the Eko Atlantic City Complex, the Lagos government will raze all the bars and drive out the squatters who call Bar Beach home. As smart as Lagosians are, they are equally tough. I wouldn't want that job.

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