The city of Lagos takes the form of an awkwardly shaped octopus, with tentacles reaching east and west, plucking up land that was once outside of its edges or part of neighbouring states. The metropolis, the commercial capital of Nigeria, is inundated with water, a fact never more obvious than during the rainy season – about half the year. Pushed up against a lagoon, riddled with creeks and canals and lacking drains, the city sinks under the rain and roads disappear. Lagosians pull up their trousers to wade through the water and cars slow to a near-halt as they tentatively plow through rapidly forming lakes. Most residents live on what is called the mainland, the body of the octopus, where quarters continue to become denser as migrants pour into the city. Settlers build precariously on the wetlands, and the homes, constructed quickly and cheaply, routinely fall in on their residents. At least one hundred and thirty-five buildings in Lagos have collapsed over the last seven years, some of them of considerable scale and some of which were schools.
Every morning, more than 60 per cent of the mainland’s inhabitants, from the upper-class neighbourhoods to the poorest shanty towns, cross three choked bridges, leaving the mainland to work on a series of islands. The original downtown of the city is a tight grid of markets, parks and commercial and government buildings called Lagos Island. Today, the city center includes Victoria Island, Lagos’s financial centre, and its adjacent residential area, Ikoyi. The shaded lanes of Ikoyi, with its lavish homes and boat club, and the corporate offices, shopping malls and nightclubs along the seaside of Victoria Island, are a luxurious contrast to the mainland. The core of Ikoyi and Victoria Island, though – a bare-bones infrastructure straining against the city’s growth – is the same as that of the mainland.
The number of commuters in Lagos will double within fifteen years, and the city urgently needs new crossings between the mainland and the island. Nearly two million Lagosians take boats to and from work in a given month. To improve transportation, the administration under current Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola has renewed a push for ferries along its labyrinthine waterways, and is building terminals and jetties for water commuters. The ferry route from the marina on Lagos Island to the developing frontier of Ikorodu on the mainland cuts the trip during rush hour from four hours to thirty minutes – although demand currently outstrips the supply of boats. The ferry routes will connect, Fashola says, with the already existing bus rapid transit.
Fashola’s transport plan hasn’t been without controversy, especially in its abrupt efforts to phase out existing forms of transportation. In 2013, Fashola banned okada, the accident-prone motorcycle taxis, from highways and major roads. Drivers lost much of their business, and commuters a reliable, cheap way of getting around. As Dayo Mobereola, head of the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority, told me, ‘Sometimes you need a rude shock treatment approach to get things done.’
Public services are lacking in Lagos, so its citizens come up with innovative ways to survive. Even in prosperous gated communities, residents are their own municipal servants, buying generators for electricity, digging boreholes for water and hiring guards for security. Yinka Marinho, who heads Lagos government’s waterways agency, told me, ‘We have the most expensive slums in the world. We’re paying a lot for nothing; no running water, no power.’
For the growing number of Nigerians like myself who grew up or studied abroad and are moving back to reacquaint ourselves with the country and possibly (if you work in oil and gas or financial services) make a fortune, Lagos is simultaneously the love of our lives and the bane of our existences. We dance at a rotating set of nightclubs, gather at art exhibit openings and literary readings, see each other at the same lavish birthdays, weddings and christenings, and go to surprisingly nice beaches not far outside of the city. We also overpay for the same generators because there is no power, overpay for the same imported food and drinks and overpay for the same apartments and houses because of that power problem. But Lagos’s energy is addictive: despite how much it can frustrate you, its hustle and creativity are stimulating. People do not beg often. You will complain here; you will also accomplish some of your finest work.
Lagosians race among themselves, and against the government, to creatively adapt open space. From one hour to the next, a lot could become a car park, a market, a prayer space or a restaurant. In Tinubu Square on Lagos Island, intricate markets stand next to colonial-era Supreme Court buildings on streets crammed with cars and buses, danfo (minivan taxis), pedestrians and endless hawkers. On a coastal avenue on Victoria Island, a series of banks faces a road median where salesmen offer up crocodiles and giant tortoises for the decadent pet owner. ‘People are building fast and furious,’ David Aradeon, a Lagosian architect and urban planner, said. ‘Because nobody’s building for poor people, and they haven’t in years. And this is a damn expensive city.’
Early one February morning in 2013, men hired by the Nigerian Ministry of Physical Planning arrived at one of the biggest slums in Lagos to tear it down. They headed to the Badia East settlement, which is part of a vast slum called Ijora-Badia. After the crew ripped off roofing sheets and bulldozers razed the houses, few things survived: soda bottles, schoolbooks. What mostly remained was people – nine thousand of them. They set up tents with mosquito nets on the rocky dirt and trash that residents had used to build on the swamp, slept out in the open, and took shelter with friends and family who lived in other parts of the slum. Biola Ogunyemi, a trader and sexual health advocate in her late forties living in a section of Badia East that has not yet been demolished, took in four of her husband’s adult children plus their spouses and children. They all live in a single room in her concrete ten-room house, which is filled with tenants and other refugees of the eviction.
‘If you love your life, you moved out of the way,’ Ogunyemi said of that morning, when she found herself running alongside her screaming neighbours, looking for her relatives. Policemen armed with Kalashnikovs, whips and sticks hit residents trying to salvage their possessions and fired into the air. In the eyes of the Lagos government, the slum, which sets near the Apapa wharf and a new light-rail line under construction, had to be reclaimed for the future well-being of the capital: specifically, one thousand and eight new apartments. Lagos is home to more than twenty-one million people, and demolitions like the one at Badia East are a regular feature of life in the city. The raids are generally sudden and violent. Days later, activists marched in protest to the office of Governor Fashola.
On a rainy afternoon a few months later, in July 2013, Fashola visited Badia East for the second time since the demolition. When residents heard that he was on his way, they dressed in their finest traditional wear: elegant gele headscarves and buba tunics. Fashola, who has graying cropped hair and wears rectangular glasses, wore a maroon fila cap with gold stitching, a floor-length cream jalabiya caftan and wellies. With a regal bearing, he navigated his way through the muddy wreckage. An engineer led Fashola to a model of the five-story apartments that will take the place of the old settlement. There would be ‘cross-ventilation to maximise light and air,’ the engineer said, and a front porch in every apartment. The governor squinted and rested his chin in his hand.
Supporters of Fashola, or ‘BRF’, as many Lagosians call him, hail him as a revolutionary leader in the transformation of Lagos from a notorious home of crime and chaos into a disciplined center of commerce. He has upgraded the city’s roads, parks, public transportation and security. But as his term draws to a close this May, the price has become clear: the displacement of tens of thousands of poor people who live in the informal settlements of Lagos. After several residents told him about sleeping outside and losing all their possessions after the demolition, the governor spoke.
‘I can see that everyone wants to talk,’ Fashola said. ‘I won’t speak much. I am praying that everyone will live long. Everyone is going to live long and enjoy the fruits of their labour. I want nothing to do with the land. There’s a lot of trash there, and people are living very close to the trash dump . . . I want to repair and construct the apartments for the betterment of the people. As a governor, I cannot let people live on trash.
‘As soon as we finish with the first forty-two units, they will attract other people interested in developing the area. Everybody will bear the pains of the demolition. Before you can repair, things need to be destroyed.’
Fashola sees himself as the creator of a modern megacity. As new candidates vie for his seat and are forced to grapple with his legacy to lure voters, one question stands out: Is he right?
In the 1960s, after independence from the British, Lagos experienced a growth rate of 14 per cent from people looking for work and higher wages, and continued to surge through the oil boom of the 1970s. ‘We were caught by surprise by our urban growth and were not prepared when it happened,’ Francis Owusu, a professor who specialises in African urbanisation at Iowa State University, told me. Fashola has had to balance efforts to transform the city into a destination for investment while making it also a better place for the poor. He tends towards the former.
Part of Fashola’s dilemma, and the dilemma for any future governor, is that in Lagos it is not always clear what differentiates a squatter and an untraditional tenant. Over two-thirds of Lagosians live and pay rent and buy plots of land in areas that the state government says are illegal shanty towns, but some of these settlements predate the city itself. The original residents of Ijora-Badia even had occupation licences from the federal government, issued after they were evicted from another settlement so that the National Arts Theatre could be built in the early 1970s.
The demolition in Badia East came as a result of a two hundred million dollar loan from the World Bank to the state government. The loan provided funds for the renovation of nine slums across Lagos, one of which was Badia, with drainage services, schools, hospitals and roads. In the case of Badia East, the state government has instead forced residents from their homes to upgrade the area for middle- and high-income residents, to the dismay of human-rights organisations like Amnesty International and the Lagos-based Social and Economic Rights Center. A government spokesman contended that Badia East was unlivable before the demolition, and that it was covered in trash. The residents of Ijoria-Badia have undergone several demolitions and evictions since 1986, and have tried to resist being ousted, seeking unoffered compensation. Under pressure, the government has paid most of the latest evictees somewhere between $565 and $1860, depending on their tenant or landlord status. This ‘assistance’ is a small gesture in comparison to what they’ve lost.
‘The practice of forced eviction has been on the rise for more than three decades in the country, and it’s getting worse,’ Felix Morka, head of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center, told me. Fashola’s government has justified clearing settlements in the name of beautifying the area, reducing crime or because some residents don’t have legal housing permits. Morka went on, ‘But all of that is just an excuse to drag the poor deeper into poverty and deny their place within the city.’
Morka has the build of a wrestler and a forceful, scratchy voice. Local newspapers portray him as Fashola’s arch-nemesis: the avenging Macduff to Fashola’s ambitious Macbeth. Also a lawyer (and running for house of assembly in Nigeria’s Delta state), he joined the pro-democracy movement in the late 1980s, campaigning against the then-military regime, and has since taken up the cause of Lagos’s poor.
State governors gained control of urban land through a 1978 law called the Land Use Act, which gave them the right to appropriate land for public use. Military leadership approved the law shortly after Nigeria’s civil war, when most land was privately owned and it needed to construct new roads, airports and hospitals. But, according to the act, the public takeover of land was supposed to include consulting with the affected communities and assisting them with their resettlement, little of which has occurred. ‘This is the backdrop that these governors have used to take land from the poor in favor of their friends, their cronies, and themselves without the due process of law,’ Morka said.
‘Because these neighbourhoods were not within the greater plan of Lagos, the development plan of Lagos, they were never really served by the state: served with a budget, with services, with infrastructure and all of that,’ Morka went on. ‘You withhold development, you withhold services, and, in turn, you use the lack of services and the lack of facilities to justify destruction of the communities.’
Fashola says that the residents he evicted from Badia will have the first right of refusal for the new apartments, as well as the opportunity to sign up for ten-year mortgages. ‘If you default on your mortgage, it means you should lose your house,’ he told me. He believes that the threat of losing your home will make Lagosians ‘more conscientious at work’ and strengthen their abilities to resist corruption. Though the cost of the new apartments is still unknown, they will likely be out of reach of the settlement’s former residents.
Fashola is a toweringly tall and trim fifty-one years old. His face falls easily into a jaunty smile, all full cheeks and merry eyes. Whether speaking in front of a crowd or one-on-one, Fashola has a tendency to sound like a high-school science teacher, projecting his voice to the back of the room. He has an air of intense intelligence (a university student told me, ‘I don’t know the last time [before Fashola] I saw a governor thinking’). Meeting Fashola for an interview was extraordinarily difficult; his media advisor had read a short article I had written about Lagos that was somewhat critical of the governor and wouldn’t get back to me despite my calling him for several weeks, and so I began to ambush him at Fashola’s events and reach out to the governor’s siblings. An administration receptive to criticism, Fashola’s is not. We eventually met at the end of 2013. In his office, the governor told me that he likes ‘easy to read’ books like Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor, who had been the Bush Administration’s spokesman in Baghdad during the war. He kept various editions of the Quran on his office desk.
Fashola grew up in the mostly middle-class Lagos neighborhood of Surulere. His late father, a journalist, had five wives, in the Nigerian Muslim tradition, and nine children. Several of Fashola’s half-brothers and sisters went to boarding schools in the United Kingdom, but Fashola describes his own childhood as one of financial hardship. ‘I was raised by a single mother so I know the pangs of hunger. We were ejected from our home because we fell back on rent,’ he told me. The childhood eviction seems to have hardened him to the plight of his constituents who are in a similar condition. (He has had scores of migrants picked up from Lagos’s streets and dropped off in other states to discourage people from coming to the city to beg and sleep outside.)
He spent over fifteen years at a law firm in the city, and then, in 2002, was picked to be chief of staff for Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu during Tinubu’s second term, after which came Fashola’s own election to the office. Fashola has since railed against the indiscipline and corruption of the federal government and the unnecessary waste of Lagosians. ‘Could you fairly and honestly complain that the economy is bad if you make the choice to be extravagant?’ he said at an event last year. ‘If we party with moderation and consume any rice, drinks and food that we make in Nigeria, will we not be better off and create more jobs?’
Fashola’s administration adopted the slogan ‘Eko o ni baje,’ which can be translated to ‘Lagos must prosper.’ In his first term, Fashola revamped the city, earning praise from Nigerians. (He was reelected in 2011, winning over 80 per cent of the vote). He converted neglected spaces near highways and under bridges into gardens and parks. Trash collectors raked away litter on streets spruced up with trees and flowers. Fashola also made Lagos safer, increasing the police presence in hazardous zones like the roads to the city’s airport, where residents and foreigners alike once feared robbery. Underpaid policemen regularly ask for bribes when stopping motorists – ‘Give me small,’ they plead – but keep kidnappings down. Fashola created an official public safety system that hired many of Lagos’s infamous ‘area boys’, jobless young men who once lived lives of crime, to patrol city neighbourhoods and apprehend petty criminals (though they favour evicting market women who trade by the roadside). And notably, he led an impressive effort to quickly contain an outbreak of Ebola in Lagos last summer by deploying an already-existing contact tracing system for polio and emphasising public awareness; the World Health Organization declared Nigeria free of the disease in October.
Now, his government is building expressways from Lagos to the rest of West Africa; a light-rail system; a free-trade industrial zone with the Chinese and a new international airport, all in varying stages of construction. Most lavishly, he is at work on Eko Atlantic City, an artificial metropolis with luxury high-rise condominiums and offices for the tiny Lagosian elite, scheduled to open in 2016 to its first residents: politicians, business leaders, oilmen and women, and expatriates. Thirty per cent of Lagosians have no access to electricity at all. Lagos receives about nine hundred and fifty megawatts from the national grid on a good day; it needs ten thousand. Fashola took control of some of its power production. His government built three power plants independent from the national grid on the mainland and on Lagos Island that supply constant electricity to state buildings like courts, schools, hospitals and water plants. In 2008, fewer than two kilometres of streets were lighted; the city was literally in darkness. Today, over three hundred kilometres are illuminated. Night markets have emerged.
Lagos’s aggressive tax collection funds 70 per cent of its operations, reducing its reliance on the national oil income (and the falling oil price). Lagos took in 191 million dollars in annual tax revenue in 1999. In 2011, it raked in at least one billion. Its gross domestic product is an estimated ninety-one billion dollars, more than the fifty-five billion of Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy.
‘We urge people who trade by the roadside to move into properly ordered stalls that take them away from the dangers of roadside trading and imminent death,’ Fashola told me. ‘We must make them aspire. Residents are now not asking only about roads, but about high-speed trains.’
But an energetic self-reliance drives Lagos. Without trading by the roadside and other informal work, most of Lagos would not be able to afford to eat and find homes. Fashola, by imposing a top-down reform, may have missed the chance to develop Lagos in tune with its largely informal economy: ensuring street vendors have decent housing and access to electricity and water before forcing them to move into shopping centers with pricey rents.
In the end, the race may come down to Tinubu, Lagos’ former governor and a man Nigerians call the ‘godfather’ because of his outsized influence in choosing his political party’s candidates and supporting their campaigns in Lagos and surrounding states. The Action Congress of Nigeria, which he led until recently, controls nearly all of the southwestern states. He now leads the All Progressives Congress party (which includes the merged Action Congress of Nigeria). The party is fielding Akin Ambode, an accountant, for Lagos governor; Ambode has vowed to continue Fashola’s policies.
When Fashola first ran, he acquired a guiding hand from the veteran politician. Tinubu, at sixty-two, has a frail build but spoke alertly when I met him in one of his opulent homes in Ikoyi. During his terms from 1999 to 2007, he strengthened tax collection and pushed for a ‘new and different, economically independent’ Lagos; New York and Chicago served as model city-states. The task he left to Fashola, he told me, was Herculean: ‘Lagos was filthy and littered with dead bodies. The entire city was a slum.’
‘He has the interest of the people and makes the sacrifices that are necessary,’ Tinubu went on fondly about Fashola. ‘Some people didn’t see that in him before he ran, but they believed in me.’
In return, Tinubu ensured Fashola remained indebted to him. One of the country’s richest men, he has evaded corruption charges (such as operating ten private accounts abroad while governor). Tinubu may own much of Lagos: banks, supermarkets, hotels, housing estates, newspaper and radio stations, along with ventures in oil, construction and tax consultancy contracted by Fashola’s government, but because he allegedly uses proxies, his connection to the businesses is untraceable. ‘He is completely corrupt, and he uses that corruption to control Lagos,’ Tunji Shelle, chairman of the opposition People’s Democratic Party in Lagos, told me. And to clear way for his blueprint of a new Lagos, Tinubu’s government grabbed land underneath its residents to sell to real estate developers, or to develop itself, with inflated contracts. Fashola continued the practice. ‘A majority of these developments are vacant; they are struggling to get occupants. And that will tell you that the developments are not done through market indicators. Because if they had done research, they would have discovered that the market cannot cope with all the level of development that they are doing in the upper market,’ explains Sola Enitan, a Lagos real estate developer. ‘Now why would somebody not do sufficient research before putting billions of naira into a project? It’s money laundering.’
When I asked Tinubu about the widespread perception that he still controlled politics in Lagos, he defended his relationship with Fashola defiantly, ‘Is it not a good model? He [Fashola] is a technocrat, not a politician. Since I believe in him, in his capacity to do the job and do it well, why don’t you relieve him of all political activities that are not necessary?’
Despite the chokehold on politics in Lagos, in a country that continues to deal with large-scale graft of its oil wealth, standards for successful governance have become different than in other megacities. Lagosians saw Fashola as a welcome change because he has improved the face of city more so than his predecessors, and so many cynically tolerated his (and Tinubu’s) egressions. Their patience is waning, though. Those egressions – lopsided development tilted towards the wealthy, evictions, and demolitions – can’t continue if Lagos is to become a true modern megacity. Nigerians will continue pushing ahead in the world’s most dynamic, swelling city – they just need their governor to keep up.
Photograph courtesy of Clara Sanchiz