Is Lagos the future of coastal urbanization in Nigeria?

There is truly no other place like Lagos, for now at least. It is the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa one of the fastest growing in the world. Less than fifty years ago, a scenic Lagos had a population of 300,000. There was a highly suspect census conducted a few years ago indicating that the current population was 9 million, but that even government officials admitted that was impossible. Today the population is at least 16 million. In ten years, Nigeria’s largest city will have 25 million residents, making it one of the planet’s top five megacities.

The main problem for Lagos is that that although 600,000 people move there every year, there is physically nowhere for them to go because the city is a collection of islands. The scant land that exists is swampy and unstable, easily eroding away during harsh weather. Nigerians are survivors though, highly adept at making it through the most adverse conditions, so some of the ¾ of the city population that live in shantytowns have responded by building floating slums out of garbage. Lagos produces hundreds of tons of garbage every day. One source said that it was 300, another 9000, so let us assume it is somewhere in between. Some of the new arrivees have devised an ingenious system of creating their own new land based on all this garbage.  They dump (or pay someone a small fee to dump) the rubbish to float on the water where they wish to expand onto.  Then they gather sawdust from the local timber yard (Lagos has the largest one in West Africa) and leave it on top of the floating rubbish for six months to help it decompose.  Then, bucket by bucket, they place sand on top of the sawdust and when that is packed down, the rubbish/sawdust/sand layers become stable enough to build a home on.  It is an incredibly resourceful system of land-filling.

The largest slum, Makoko, built half and mile into the water of Lagos Lagoon, is home to 100,000 people who live in homes perched on stilts.  There, everything from taxing people to selling herbal medicines is done on canoes.  Residents use larger canoes to transport children to school, ferry commuters to their day jobs on the mainland, and even move machinery and building supplies. They are some of the few Lagos inhabitants who may be able to avoid the infamous traffic, including the single 12-mile long go-slow that forms every morning and evening every weekday on one of the city’s three main bridges.

It is not unusual to spend 4-5 hours per day stuck in traffic in Lagos.  It is just part of living there. The only way to avoid it is to have the good fortune to be able to live and work on the same island, which is really only a possibility for the wealthy. One solution is to take often dangerous okadas (motorcycle taxis) but riders must be willing to arrive at their destination dirty, sweaty or wet from rain.  The traffic problem is so bad that it is part of the reason that the country capital was moved from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. Here is a video on the city problems, of which there are many.  In all fairness however, there is never a dull moment in Lagos, and it can offer some of the most memorable scenes to be witnessed in Africa, e.g. a calf strapped to the back of a bicycle, a multi-million dollar yacht sailing past beach shantytowns, hundreds of Muslims wordlessly and simultaneously stopping their bartering to pray together amidst freeway traffic. Fascinating place to visit, less than optimal place to live:



One problem that isn’t discussed enough here is the way that climate change will negatively impact Nigeria’s coastal cities, specifically Lagos and Port Harcourt. The slums were built by rural farmers from inland Nigeria who couldn’t make ends meet in the countryside and came to find economic opportunities in the big city. West Africa has been suffering from an unprecedented drought for a decade now, attributed by many scholars to global warming-induced desertification of agricultural land. At the same time, rising sea levels are pushing Lagos residents farther inland as they try to avoid flooding. Although sporadic at the moment, clashes over land and resources will only increase in the coming years as these two groups are forced into conflict with each other.

Even after years of living in these conditions, many of the rural-to-urban migrants speak with yearning of their home village, and maintain the hope that they will save enough money to return one day. These conversations make one wonder why the state doesn’t invest in making villages more livable, instead of trying to accommodate the influx of arrivees in cities.  Rather than perpetually building and rebuilding urban roads, an ongoing financial drain, those funds could be used to improve key national highways that allow the non-urban to better transport their agricultural goods to market.  Rather than building new university campuses where the flood of aspiring students are, it makes much more sense to build a university in a smaller town where students will move to and can have a more affordable cost of living anyway.  The government should be responding to the Lagos population crisis reactively instead of proactively, and in a way that gives Nigerians a positive incentive to leave the cities if they wish to.

5 thoughts on “Nigerian Urbanization (II)

  1. I read the article on Nigeria’s new SWF. Couldn’t help but wonder if there is an opportunity there for solving of the problems you mentioned here. Though the AfBD and other institutions are supporting infrastructure projects there is clearly stills shortage of funds for projects in Nigeria. One possible solution could be the use of the SWF investment earnings as a way to finance a New Dealesque/Marshall plan program for many of those longing to go home. Transport, road, rail, education, health, and various other infrastructure needs to be improved. These improvements would substantial improve conditions for investment in the not only Nigeria, but through West and Central Africa. I suspect efficient ports with rail and roads leading away from them will draw more business to Nigeria.

    I know the conventional wisdom is that none of these things can or will happen given the situation on the ground. However, one way to look at the SWF is an work around, especially if managed by honest, and effective people. Saw the Governor of the central bank speak and I judge him to be those things, though I am not following Nigeria news so I don’t know if there are other sides to him I am missing. Perhaps, a small group of determined individuals can chsmart Nigeria!

    I know I am a bit of a dreamer here but one can hope right?


    1. Nigeria needs dreamers, Ayo, lots of ’em. There is so much disillusionment surrounding oil reform, especially among the federal and state politicians I interviewed, that anyone with a spark of hope is welcome as far as I am concerned. I see your point about the hope for something akin to a Marshall Plan, and that would present the benefit of possibly curbing the “brain drain” that is one of Nigeria’s most acute problems.

      My concern is that a SWF simply gives politicians a new excuse for losing money to graft, e.g. instead of, “Oh, it was the politician under me who took the money, and not me!” it can now be, “Oh, we just made some poor investments, sorry-o.” Because investments are by nature risky, they might actually create the perfect cover for corruption (Nigerian Bernie Madoffs?).

      A second line of thought I have about all this makes money analogous to power, although it is easy to argue that they are the same thing actually. Political theory teaches us that consolidating political power, even under seemingly well-intentioned leadership, increases corruption rather than helping that power to be used equitably and responsibly. I fear that the same can be said for the SWF—consolidating revenue into one account under the guise of investment might very well increase corruption and disincentivize its equitable and responsible use. But alas, perhaps I have spent too much time in interviews with above-mentioned politicians!


      1. I hear your concern about the politicians, though I worry that its saying that there are no institutions that can be trusted in Nigeria. Additionally, I am operating under the assumption that a SWF would be operated like pension funds are here, with mandates set by the government but with an administrator responsible for operational decisions. On the consolidation of power versus diffusion, I only ask how might that possibly be done in countries like Nigeria? As Africa’s history shows, negative effects when power is in the hands of a few are vast and disastrous. However, China, Korea and I would argue America, shows the positive potential albeit with a lot of negative, including corruption, that can be had when power is in the hands of a few educated, dedicated and focused individuals.

        Maybe this SWF could be an example of the latter and not the former?


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