Lagos's chequered history: how it came to be the megacity it is today
Lagos was an orderly urban environment 70 years ago. This was the case from the 1950s, when the city was a federal territory through to the 1960s when it became federal capital – a status it held until 1991.
The foundations of orderliness for any city are planning and management. Lagos had this in place in the early days. The city was governed by an elected Lagos City Council, Nigeria’s oldest, established in 1900. It was governed according to colonial legislation, particularly the 1948 Building Line regulations and the 1957 Public Health Law.
The city was much smaller and was made up of Lagos Island (Eko) which included Ikoyi and Obalende neighbourhoods. It was a beautiful environment that featured Portuguese, Brazilian, and British Victorian architecture. Its streets were clean and tree-lined]. Urban crime was virtually non-existent.
Governance standards declined when political control of Lagos, and the rest of Nigeria, came under military rule between 1966 and 1979 and again from 1984 to 1999. Proximity of the two capitals – federal and state, respectively – in the Ikoyi and Ikeja neighbourhoods of the same conurbation, put more pressure on the city. In the 1970s the city expanded to link up previously distinct areas such as Ikeja, Mushin, Orile, Ojo, Oshodi and Agege.
The result was increased pollution, congestion and wear on infrastructure. This was particularly true between 1970 and 1991.
But things have changed. Efforts have been made to revitalise the city in terms of a cleaner and greener environment, improved road and water infrastructure, urban bus system and waste management, overhaul of security and consultation with citizens through town hall meetings.
Nevertheless, big challenges remain. The city still has far too many slums and squatter settlements, it lacks a functioning public transportation system, proper traffic management, efficient waste disposal, sanitation, adequate potable water supply and routine road maintenance.
Lagos also suffers because of problems that afflict the country. There isn’t regular electricity supply, and there are high rates of poverty and unemployment. And, as elsewhere in the country, many residents don’t comply with laws on building, traffic and sanitation.
Lagos was affected positively as well as negatively by Nigeria’s 1970s emergence as a major crude oil producer.
On the upside, there was investment in infrastructure. This included the building of the second bridge linking the Island, the Eko Bridge, and re-building of the first (colonial) Carter Bridge. The third and longest bridge was commissioned in 1990.
These bridges were aimed at improving accessibility between the two islands (Victoria and Lagos) and the mainland. But, uncontrolled commercial development on the islands has produced persistent traffic bottlenecks. This has been worsened by the lack of a public transport system.
Two developments added to pressures on the city. Its population burgeoned while infrastructure lagged behind. This period marked the beginning of the decline of planning for the city. The worst periods were the late 1980s and the 1990s. As architects Rem Koolhaas and Kunle Adeyemi noted in an interview, these were Lagos’ darkest times:
Lagos, in the 1990s, was the ultimate dysfunctional city and an example of what happens to a society where the state is absent. At that point the state had really withdrawn from Lagos; the city was left to its own devices, both in terms of money and services.
The city was being governed by the military. But it was not cut out for governance, had no accountability and couldn’t care less about planning and environmental issues. As a result it routinely disregarded existing regulations.
In the 1990s, for instance, the largest public park in Lagos – the old, colonial 10-hectare Victoria Park in Ikoyi – was sold as residential development land. The waterfront of the Lagos Cowrie Creek in Victoria Island was also sold for commercial development, effectively blocking direct public access to the waters and a picturesque view of Ikoyi.
The collapse of zoning all over Lagos also led to residential neighbourhoods such as Victoria Island and southwest Ikoyi being converted for commercial use. The military had no reasoned response to Lagos’ urban challenges. Instead, it took the decision in 1975 to establish a new capital in Abuja.
This move, which finally came to fruition in December 1991, left Lagos forlorn.
Positive changes have taken place.
For example, over the past 15 years the authorities succeeded in raising more taxes using money to restore basic infrastructure, expand public services and strengthen law enforcement.
Research shows that the commitment to reform the city was driven by electoral pressures as well as elite ambitions to construct an orderly megacity. The return to democracy helped to make these changes possible by enabling an elected government to work in the people’s interest.
Improvements includes public transport and the reclamation and greening of previously disused and misused spaces below Lagos’s many flyovers, bridges and interchanges. In addition, roads have been fixed and pavements built. In some parts of the city there is potable water supply and blighted residential and commercial areas have been rebuilt.
But, given decades of neglect, a great deal still needs to be done.
One of the biggest problems is the lack of coherent and integrated development .
Another major issue is flooding which Bongo Adi, a Lagos based environmental expert argues, hasn’t been decisively tackled.
Nor have improvements over the past decade impressed everyone. As Femi Akintunde argues, Lagos remains deplorable, rowdy, unsanitary, and a city of the urban poor. Akintunde is the managing editor and CEO of Financial Nigeria International Limited.
For these issues to be fixed, the standard of governance has to improve.
Who should run the city?
There are two potential authorities: Lagos state, sitting at the top, and the municipal authorities which interact with the grassroots.
The problem is that Lagos city isn’t really run by the city authorities. But effective urban governance should be “bottom-up”, making it possible for the people to take increasingly greater control over their lives.
In addition, being run from the top means that local capacity is being stunted. This has implications for sustainable change. As international fellow at International Institute for Environment and Development Jorgelina Hardoy says,
sustainable development in cities largely depends on the actions and capacity of local governments.
Whoever takes charge should recognise the necessity of getting residents’ buy-in before implementing modernisation policies. The city can’t develop by leaving its people behind.
Also, city planners should not plan for only the rich to the exclusion of the poor and disadvantaged. While accepting that slums and informal settlements have to be tackled, my research recommends a policy rethink that should involve
enabling strategies which fully address the rights of people who are illegally settled on public land.