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Lagos at 50: What about the poor?

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With a population, anywhere between 17 million and 23 million, it is one of the most populous cities in the world. Despite being the smallest state out of the 36 by area, as of 2015 it accounts for 60% of commercial and industrial activity in the country. PHOTO: Travelstart Nigeria

Since moving here I have been asked many times to describe Lagos. Questions like: is it dangerous? Fun? Exciting? Chaotic? Is the traffic as bad as they say? After trying my best to paint a picture of the commercial and cultural capital of the biggest black nation on earth, I usually run out of words and conclude with something along the lines of, ‘You need to see it yourself.’ Either by circumstance, design or a combination of both, Lagos is an outlier.

With a population, anywhere between 17 million and 23 million, it is one of the most populous cities in the world. Despite being the smallest state out of the 36 by area, as of 2015 it accounts for 60% of commercial and industrial activity in the country. It generates billions of internally generated revenue each year and is a global hub of commerce and culture.  If Lagos were a country, it would have the 5th largest economy on the continent. But it’s not just about the numbers.

Commercial clout aside, Lagos has established itself as a city where things are possible. People from all over the country move to Lagos in search of a chance of a better life. In a 2016 statement, Akinwunmi Ambode, the governor of Lagos state said 86 immigrants move to the city every minute with no plan to leave, that’s 123, 840 people a day. It’s estimated the population of Lagos is set to double in 15 years. The governor acknowledged that providing for an increasing number of people would be a big challenge the city has to face and Lagosians wait with baited breath.

In a country where politicians are more often derided for their empty promises and lip service, a number of Lagosians give the administration (particularly the last three) a lot of credit for transforming it into the powerhouse it is. The ambitious mega city project is upping the ante to sell Lagos as a global city. Road works, a proposed fourth mainland bridge, the introduction of BRT buses and a proposed light rail to boost transportation services, an emphasis on culture and entertainment, and Eko Atlantic – perhaps the government’s most ambitious plan (a new coastal city adjacent to Victoria Island). This is gat news for investors and the budding middle class, but what about the poor?

Despite the city’s achievements and wealth, there are still major gaps in terms of economic prosperity.  20% of Lagosians are vulnerable to poverty according to The Oxford Poverty and Human Development initiative (OPHI). According to The World Bank, two out of three Lagosians live in slums, millions of Lagosians cannot access clean water and sanitation is poor as a result.

In addition to these, recent administrations have been accused of ‘waging war on the urban poor’ by implementing policies that essentially criminalize poverty. From demolitions of Makoko in 2012, to Otodo Gbame more recently, scores of Lagosians have been left homeless, with nowhere to go. What was their crime? Not fitting into the vision of a global Lagos? Hundreds of thousands of Lagosians make their living by hawking on the streets and road-side trading. By banning this activity without implementing a viable alternative, what is to become of these Lagosians? Malls, trains and coastal cities are great, but at what expense?

The words of Herbert Humphrey, the 38th Vice President of the United States spring to mind: “…The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” With that in mind, how does Lagos fair? What can we say about Lagos, the city of dreams, where anything is possible? As it moves into the next 50 years let’s hope it stays a city that’s open for all.

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