Lagos – a model megacity? 

By Anna-Maria Mitchell, Cristina Gomez Saari, Hellevi Holopainen, Lilli Somero, Olli Moilanen, Sara Aalto-Setälä
The authors are students of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Lagos, the former capital city of Nigeria, one of the world’s fastest-growing urban centres, and leading African economies has been considered a model for megacities in Africa. The city went through a phase of various urban problems in the 1990s, after which it underwent major structural changes, as the idea of a “model megacity” was adopted in various city and state strategies since 1999.

While Lagos has undergone notable changes, the modernist and neoliberal ideals which have guided the city’s development, are ill-equipped to provide a transformative and equitable path for development. The modernist approach to urban development is epitomized in the current development strategy and its results are visible in the unequally distributed benefits of the city’s economic growth. We argue that this gives evidence to suggest that the city strategy should include deeper analysis of the historical roots of social stratification and inequality to produce more equitable solutions.

Situating Lagos 

To dissect Lagos’ development ideal what the city itself and some commentators call a “model megacity”, one must first look at its history. A model implies reproduction, yet cities and their economies evolve through and within their own unique histories. Lagos, like many others, is a post-colonial city. First colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th century, the city, which had been a trading and migration hub already before its colonization, became a centre for the transatlantic slave trade. The period of British colonization began in the 19th century and continued until Nigeria’s independence in 1960. Lagos had been made the capital of colonial Nigeria, making it not only a major trading port but the centre of the country’s administrative, educational, and judiciary institutions. This resulted in an amassment of elites, who benefited from the country’s trade with its colonizers.

While an in-depth analysis of Nigeria’s ruling elite and its connection to British pre-, post-, and colonial powerholders is out of the scope of this text, it is worth understanding how the history of trade and colonialism brought about a concentration of power, which was later challenged by the city’s social upheaval and led to some of the structural changes that then resulted in the current economic developments in Lagos. At the same time, there is a question of whether those who have made good use of the changes are the same transnational networks that benefited most during previous historical periods as well.

Political drivers and enablers of the structural changes

By the end of the 1990s transition to democracy, Lagos was riddled with urban, fiscal, and social crises that served as pressures for change. Exploding population growth exacerbated urban decay and disorder, federal revenue was in decline, and public finances unbalanced. The city, struggling with political fractionalization, was on the brink of collapse. As a result, and as an act of self-preservation, the city’s ruling elite coordinated a political coalition to structure a long-term development strategy.

This strategy included committing key constituencies to the policy goals. Business stakeholders were engaged in governmental dialogue, middle-class professionals provided with incentives to pay taxes, and quid pro quo relations constructed between the government and grassroots leaders. The fiscal and political autonomy provided by Nigeria’s federalist structure has been crucial for the reformists’ success.

The envisioned goal for Lagos is self-sufficiency and urban renewal, as well as maintaining the city’s status as an export hub. This was to be achieved by policy shifts favouring economic and fiscal transformations that are pro-productivity, pro-growth, and pro-stabilizing public sector reforms. The focus of urban planning has shifted towards neoliberal policesenticing private and foreign investment and large infrastructure projects.

A diversified economy

These political drivers have contributed to a diversification of the economy. An illustration of the change is an increased internal revenue generation (IGR) and diminishing reliance on federal oil revenue transfers of the Lagos state budget: between 2000 to 2017 federal transfers have dropped from 52% to a little over 20%, while IGR has risen from 42.9% to 84%.

Today, Lagos is the fifth largest economy in Africa. Trade (53.8%), real estate (12.9%) and manufacturing (8.7%) sectors account for over 75% of Lagos’s GDP. However, most of Lagos’s population work in the informal sector and it is estimated that the informal sector accounts for more than 75% of Lagos’s GDP.

Some of the factor endowments that have contributed to the diversification of Lagos’s economy include investment in education and better access to finance. Finance credit, however, is less available for micro and small-scale firms. Additionally, foreign direct investment has resulted in a growing and active private sector, generating for example a highly lucrative real estate business of luxury apartments, office complexes, residential buildings, hotels, and shopping centres.

Key issues

While diversification of the economy has resulted in economic growth, the poor and vulnerable have suffered from urban developments despite the state’s plan to reduce poverty. The neoliberalist vision adopted by the state has resulted in the detriment of social logistics, causing negative socioeconomic repercussions such as homelessness and loss of livelihood for the “urban poor” – a group that is visible in megacities, shaped by poor living circumstances, and a lack of decent living standards.

The model megacity plans have led to forced evictions in some of the city’s 200 informal settlements. Ironically, the building of new housing has resulted in homelessness as infrastructure developments have focused on luxury housingwhile ignoring the urban poor. At the same time, livelihoods of the urban poor, such as street trading, hawking and commercial motorcycles have been prohibited, further enhancing their suffering.

In conclusion: searching for solution-driven alternatives?

It is clear, that while the economy of Lagos has diversified and grown, the benefits are not being distributed equitably. The structural changes aimed at creating a model megacity have instead increased inequality and driven the poor away from the city. The modernist, neoliberal ideals that have led the changes have ignored the poor and marginalized who are viewed as part of the city’s problem, rather than beneficiaries of change.

As an alternative development path that could address the city’s inequalities we suggest a system of land value taxation, in which the revenues gained from taxing land would be shared equally with the citizens or used for public socio-ecological projects. As land would be taxed more, labor could be taxed less, and people would be able to receive more of the value they produce. In addition, we argue that the aspect of global responsibility should also be acknowledged, when searching for solution-driven alternatives to Lagos. Mere apologies will not be enough to fix the injustices of colonialism, rather, reparations from the Global North will need to be strengthened and institutionalized.

Therefore, we conclude that any alternative paths will require understanding the structural changes that occurred in Lagos during the 21st century, as well as its history of colonialism which continues to impact the city through neo-colonial power structures. These historical aspects, which have shaped Lagos to be what it is today, are not addressed in the neoliberalist vision the city currently engages in.

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