From its historical origins as a fishing village and the site of a pepper farm, to today’s bustling metropolis, Lagos has evolved into a complex agglomeration of people, settlements and vested interests.
As the economic powerhouse of Nigeria and West Africa, Lagos is projected to become the most populous city in Africa within the next 50 years. Reaching a population of 100 million from 15 million today. If recent waves of migration are anything to go by – from those seeking economic opportunities or escaping the climate crisis and insurgency in other parts of Nigeria – the projections may be underestimated.
Governing a city like Lagos is not a job for the fainthearted. It’s a city that is always growing, and with deep-seated socioeconomic inequalities.
We are part of the African Cities Research Consortium, a new initiative committed to addressing critical challenges in 13 cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Our recent publication sheds some light on the complexities of Lagos and why managing the city is a challenge in itself.
Lagos faces many challenges; some are critical to understanding why metropolitan governance is so difficult.
Firstly, the geographical definition of what constitutes Lagos has become nebulous over time. The city’s urban land area continually spreads to absorb adjoining state, and now even national, boundaries.
This means that it is difficult to gain accurate data for short and long-term planning policies.
Secondly, the city’s governance structures – from local to state level – are unclear and don’t necessarily align in the ways expected. The local government system is essentially an appendage of the state government. It lacks autonomy as well as the technical and fiscal capacity required to perform its constitutional functions.
Lagos bears the historical legacy of having been Nigeria’s longest established capital city. It started as a protectorate under the British colonial government and became capital of the colony and later of the independent Nigeria. It withstood the subsequent military coups, remaining the capital up until the movement of the federal capital territory to Abuja in 1991.
Despite losing its administrative capital status, Lagos remains by far Nigeria’s preeminent economic powerhouse. The city’s economy more than quadruples its nearest rivals – across Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa – in productivity, capital and infrastructure.
Its historical status and ongoing economic power provide the background for the city’s uneasy, and often tense, relationship with the national government which is where the power, revenue and resourcing decisions are located.
Furthermore, Lagos has a history of different political parties controlling different levels of government – those that run the state, and those that run the nation. As a result, policies and fiduciary allocations are often “lost” between conflicting governance systems.
The local government system is severely incapacitated. Instead, informal governance institutions have immense influence on everyday life in the city.
Inequality and informality
For the average Lagosian, these conditions result in a lived experience which delivers poorly on infrastructure and quality of life. Yet the city remains one of the most expensive places in Africa to live in.
The poor residents of Lagos live in sprawling informal settlements within the city core, or create new ones at the peripheral areas. The rest can be found in several gated communities that span the city. In both instances, self-governance is common.
Taxation from local to state level is poorly managed. Basic services, such as primary healthcare and public education, are under-resourced.
There’s an intricate web of informal governance systems that hold sway at the local levels. This results in a class of powerbrokers who oversee the provision of infrastructure in the city. Very few people or groups have the agency to engage with these gatekeepers to development.
Additionally, Lagos is a city of marginalised young people. The average age in Nigeria is 18.1 years. But many young citizens are not in education, employment or training. In Lagos, as in other cities, young people are confronted with poor governance, unemployment or underemployment, police brutality and a high cost of living.
The frustration of these young Lagos residents is visceral. Frustration-aggression and relative deprivation theories suggest that individuals turn aggressive when there are impediments to their route to success in life, especially when material basic needs are not met. The #EndSARS protests that paralysed the city for days in October 2020, ending in bloodshed, showed what can happen when such frustration plays out in the streets.
The government’s inability to investigate what actually went on, and attribute blame, has further added to the underlying tensions in the city.
In all of these challenges, certain things are clear: the immense potential of the Lagos economy, the hope in the hearts of migrants that Lagos offers opportunities for a better future, and the community driven city-making practices of residents.
Our research at the African Cities Research Consortium seeks to investigate how these factors interact with complex governance frameworks. By doing this, we aim to identify which structures have been able to successfully navigate the complex layers of Lagos governance. In particular the local structures which support and deliver physical and social infrastructure for communities.
From these analyses, we hope to examine how bottom-up systems in Lagos – and ultimately in cities across Africa – can be better supported to deliver development and infrastructural change in a challenging and complex landscape.
Header photo credit: Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji / Unsplash. A busy street in Lagos, Nigeria.
Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.
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