Fashola fashions a new Lagos

Kaye Whiteman

A vision of Nigeria’s commercial capital as a model city for the 21st century is emerging after decades of chaotic growth.

It has long been acknowledged that Lagos is a hell on earth, a mass of sprawling slums and traffic chaos, to be avoided at all costs. Some Nigerians have even tried to distance themselves from a city that has for decades proved to be a compelling magnet to all of West Africa. Of late, however, an alternative view of Lagos has been gaining ground – one that it is beginning to demonstrate that chaos can be managed, and that what Nigerians like to refer to as the ‘mega-city’ might well become a model for the complex problems of urbanisation in the 21st century. 

The city’s potential for change has been made apparent to me while writing a historical and cultural companion to Lagos. I have learned that this city not only has a fascinating history going back to the 18th century and earlier, but also an amazingly rich cultural gene pool, in which the superimposition of British colonialism on an already mixed society helped produce an exciting cultural ferment. 

It is 47 years since my first visit, when the population was a little over a million people; when only the Carter Bridge connected ‘Lagos Island’ to the mainland; when the airport was a modest collection of huts which you reached by going down the straggling but friendly two-lane Ikorodu Road; and when the Marina, set out by the British in the mid-19th century, still had the lagoon lapping at its edge. It was also the capital of a large, newly independent federation, with new parliament building, government offices, hotels and its own new university. Further transformation was already beginning. 

The city’s explosion into a mega-city began with the oil boom of the 1970s, coinciding with a great mood of national optimism in the wake of the successful ending of the Nigeria’s civil war of 1967-70. The most important symbol of the change was the development of a massive system of overhead motorways (mostly built by the canny German construction firm Julius Berger) in a vain attempt to cope with the vast increase in traffic, whose choking congestion had become a defining Lagosian feature. 

The decade also saw expansion of commercial access, at Apapa port and the container terminal of Tin Can Island and at the newly-opened international airport in Ikeja. It was the era of prestigious international events: the 1973 All-African Games saw the building of a fine National Stadium in Surulere; and the 1977 Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC) brought the construction of a National Theatre and a whole new town on the Badagry Road. Burgeoning self-confidence found expression in an International Trade Fair on a site near FESTAC Town, with more new hotels. Lagos continued to attract newcomers, not just from the rest of Nigeria but all over Africa, and by 1980, the population had risen to well over 4 million. 

The next two decades of economic depression and political turbulence were difficult but did not prevent the ever-ebullient city’s continued expansion. This was despite the expulsion of millions of West African so-called ‘aliens’ in 1983-84 and the loss of the institutions of the federation to the new capital in Abuja, completed by 1991. The glamorous buildings of the 1970s suffered critically from the Nigerian disease of indifference to maintenance, a process enhanced by the loss of federal interest and the difficulties of Lagos State, created in 1967, in trying to manage the unmanageable. 

These were the years in which the city’s ‘hell-hole’ reputation really took hold. The growth of ghettos, such as Maroko, spectacularly razed to the ground in 1990; the rise of youth unemployment leading to the arrival on the scene of ‘area boys’ (unemployed street touts) who terrorised the business district on Lagos Island; the decline of the airport into a paradise for scams and touts; and the unplanned proliferation of the city in all directions (by 2000 it had over 12 million inhabitants). It was, however, also the period when the Third Mainland Bridge was built, linking Ikoyi to the airport, and which helped keep alive the vision of the city’s master plans since the early 1960s. 

By the turn of the millennium, Nigeria was already on the cusp of something new. The return of democracy may not yet have brought the expected dividends and new foreign investment was still a wistful dream, but the horrors of a decade and a half of military rule were fading and business was becoming a more attractive (and respectable) career than the civil service. 

By the turn of the millennium, Lagos had begun to change. The latest vision of a ‘new Dubai on the Gulf of Guinea’ is a long way from the chaos of old. 

From 1999, Lagos had a civilian governor, Bola Tinubu, who began to bring the area boys under control, and who introduced radical new ideas on tax collection. But the real agent of change was Tinubu’s chief of staff, Babatunde Raji Fashola, who replaced his boss as governor in 2007. As a lawyer and technocrat, who left the political hustling to Tinubu, Fashola concentrated on some of the plans they had designed together. Benefiting from the vast improvement in state fi nances arising from effi cient tax collection, Lagos was now much less dependent than other states on the largesse of the federal government. 

The vision included major transport improvements: the building of super-highways going both east (to Lekki) and West (to Badagry); and, more significantly, the construction of light rail links spreading out from a new station on the Marina. A system of bus lanes, although initially unpopular, has also helped facilitate the mass transit so needed in a huge conurbation. Furthermore, Fashola has cleaned up the city, making it greener – there are plans to plant a million trees – and there is even talk of developing tourism, based on local culture and the swathes of beaches along the undeveloped Atlantic coast.

Lagos State now claims 17 million people, and the UN anticipates 25 million by 2020. Work has begun on a planned export processing zone, with new port and airport, at Lekki, and the greatest dream of all, the reclaiming of Bar Beach to the old 1908 shoreline – incorporating ‘Eko Atlantic City’, complete with condos, shopping malls and a new business quarter, all funded by the private sector. Some see this as a dream too far, but if cynics call it ‘Eko Atlantis City’, planners see it as a new Dubai on the Gulf of Guinea, and a very long way from the chaotic Lagos of old. 

About the author:

Kaye Whiteman was for many years editor of the weekly magazine West Africa and more recently editorial adviser to the Lagos newspaper Business Day. His book Lagos in the series 'Cities of the Imagination' will be published next year.


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