In his epic 1976 anthem “Go Slow,” Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti described the traffic in his hometown of Lagos, casting it as a metaphor for Nigeria’s spiritual standstill. “Then your head start to ache because car crush they for your head,” he sang. “Lorry they for your front, tipper they for your back, motorcycle they for your left, taxi-moto they for your right.”
It’s a far cry from this vision of the city put forth by the developers of a new seafront business and residential district for Lagos called Eko Atlantic: “It will be a masterpiece of urban planning … with its wide boulevards [and] tree-lined avenues with views over the marina and waterway, dynamic waterfront [and] traffic that flows.”
If it seems there is a gulf between the two, there is — literally. Eko Atlantic is an artificial island, just offshore, being created entirely from scratch, built of sand dredged from the ocean floor. It will be 7 km wide, extend about 2 km out to sea and house 250,000 residents, with offices for 150,000 commuters. A scale model at the offices of its developers, South Energyx Nigeria, features gin-clear canals, giant malls, three marinas, trams, the island’s own power station and a sail-shaped 55-story skyscraper that will be the new headquarters for a Nigerian bank. David Frame, South Energyx Nigeria’s managing director, calls Eko Atlantic “the new face of Africa.” Onno Ruhl, country head for the World Bank, goes even further, calling it the future Hong Kong of Africa. But plans for Lagos’ renovation don’t end offshore. Eko Atlantic is the centerpiece of a city redevelopment strategy whose ambition is simple and astonishing: take one of the world’s worst cities and make it one of the best. “This is a real attempt to prove Lagos can be an economic powerhouse and a gateway to Africa,” declares Frame. Ruhl says, “It’s an amazing thing, not least because it actually looks like it will happen.”
It would be hard to pick a tougher city to make over than Lagos. The place is more normally known as a living, breathing definition of anarchy. With 10 million to 18 million inhabitants — no one is quite sure — Lagos is the biggest city on the world’s poorest continent and one of its fastest-growing, with the population expected to be as large as 25 million by 2015, which would make it the third largest city in the world. Those figures describe an unmatched concentration of poor people. About 65% of Lagosians — up to 11 million people — live below the poverty line, earning $2 or less a day. This is chaos at its ugliest, deadliest and most colossal: a malarial megalopolis mostly built of driftwood, tin and cardboard, with precious little running water, electricity, employment or law and order, where the ground is filled with garbage, the water with sewage and the air with the noise and smog from a million unmuffled exhausts.
How did it get so bad? It is Lagos’ peculiar blight that on a continent with space to spare, the city managed to run out of it. When Portuguese explorers arrived in 1472, the settlement of Eko was so scattered around marshes that they eventually renamed it after the Portuguese word for lakes. Then the growth started. First Lagos became a trading hub for slaves, then a British administrative city, then after oil was discovered in the Bight of Benin in the 1950s, a boomtown filled with oil executives and riggers. Finally, as the biggest port in the most populous country in West Africa, it became a megamecca for migrants. Today a new resident arrives every minute, and each finds ever less of Lagos on which to live. Erosion from the pounding Atlantic means the city’s coastline has retreated a kilometer since the 1960s.
Such epic overcrowding has spawned a host of other difficulties — not only legendary traffic but also unemployment, poor housing, crime and disease. All that has been exacerbated by Nigeria’s notoriously poor government, something that, in turn, has its roots in the country’s large oil reserves. Oil, which accounts for about 85% of revenue, detaches a government from its people. Because it does not depend on them for money, it feels little need to serve them. That disconnection helps explain Lagos’ decline. When oil prices collapsed in the early 1980s and state revenues tumbled, work on Lagos’ infrastructure stopped. But when crude prices recovered, no one thought to resume it.
Within a few years, Lagos was one of the world’s first failing megacities, a victim of what U.N.-Habitat, the international organization’s agency for human settlement, calls overurbanization — a concentration of too many people in too little underdeveloped space. Lagosians tried to adapt. With hours of daily gridlock, businessmen converted their car backseats into offices, complete with phones, laptops and secretaries, while motorbike taxi drivers shaved down their handlebars to stubs, the better to slip through the narrowest of gaps. Offices and factories squeezed into residential apartments. Almost every tree was cut down and every garden built on.
The celebrated Dutch architect and urban-development theorist Rem Koolhaas, who has published several studies of Lagos, eulogizes this chaotic, organic growth and the dynamic adaptability it instills in Lagosians. But the reality of anarchy is often less romantic. As long ago as the 1970s, when the city began to buckle, the federal government abandoned Lagos for a new purpose-built inland capital, Abuja. Foreign investors and tourists stayed clear. As the city crumbled through the 1980s, “area boys,” self-proclaimed vigilante street gangs that ran protection rackets and mugging syndicates, began terrorizing neighborhood turfs. By the time Babatunde Fashola was elected governor in 2007, Lagos was a place, he says, “of very evident despair.”
The Bottom of the Pyramid
Fashola is not your usual politician. Rather than barging his way across town with sirens blaring and lights flashing like other Nigerian leaders, he chooses to endure Lagos’ traffic with his fellow citizens. Also, Fashola reads economic theory for fun. On his bedside table: books by development economists who see potential in poverty, people like the late C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan or Hernando de Soto of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) in Lima. They argue that the poor may lack money as individuals but together, in their tens of millions, they represent a massive untapped resource.
That counterintuitive approach resonates with Fashola. When he looked at Lagos as its new governor, he says, “in everything I saw, I saw opportunity. The infrastructural deficit of Lagos [is also] a chance to relieve its poverty. If there is a bad road, it means we need an engineer and laborers, architects, valuers, land merchants, banks, merchandisers, suppliers of iron rods and cement, and food courts.” So Fashola embarked on a comprehensive overhaul of Lagos’ infrastructure, building new expressways, widening and resurfacing others, stringing streetlights along all the main highways, integrating road with rail, air and even water. The city was too big to transform overnight, but improvements were soon marked. Traffic slackened, garbage dumps were replaced with green parks, the proportion of Lagosians with access to clean water rose (from 30% to 59%) and flood defenses covering 10.8 million people were strengthened. Eventually Fashola created tens of thousands of jobs in construction and municipal projects — 42,015 jobs in environmental and waste management alone. New state skills centers trained an additional 250,000 people in new trades, then offered them microloans to set up their own businesses.
Lagos’ chronic lack of space presented another paradoxical opportunity. Scarcity of anything increases its value, an economic truth reflected in city-center rents in Lagos that were higher than those in London or Manhattan. Lagos, Fashola realized, was a potential real estate gold mine. That insight led to Eko Atlantic, which, because of the profits to be made, will be entirely privately financed. The same calculation underpins Fashola’s new 17,000-hectare Lekki industrial park, being built on marshland northeast of Eko Atlantic.
The most ambitious part of Fashola’s plan is still unfolding. In 2004, when he was working as the chief of staff for the previous governor, Fashola set up the annual Lagos Economic Summit. It was there in 2008 that he met a representative from de Soto’s ILD. De Soto’s work on informal economies — the unregulated and unmapped businesses in which the vast majority of people in the developing world earn a living — makes him a champion of the idea that the poor are an untouched resource. De Soto and the ILD have set up programs in 30 countries designed to correct that, making the informal economy formal so governments can regulate, tax and promote it. “Everything has a potential value you can unlock,” he tells Time. “You just have to figure out how to harness the power that’s already there.”
In May 2009, at Fashola’s invitation, de Soto went to work for Lagos. Almost immediately, he discovered the mother of all informal economies. A preliminary study revealed that 93.7% of the city’s businesses, with assets worth a collective $50 billion, functioned outside the law. That handily beat annual foreign aid to Nigeria ($11.4 billion) and dwarfed foreign investment ($5.4 billion) and, if it could be channeled, would deliver an unprecedented boost to the city’s prosperity. It also indicated there was so much about his city that Fashola didn’t know or control, de Soto told the governor, that many of his reforms would likely misfire. “If you have that many people outside, it doesn’t matter what you say to them,” he says. “They’re already following rules other than those set by the government.”How to get Lagosians into the system? Property rights, said de Soto. Because of the chaotic way the city had grown, most land and buildings there were untitled, making them difficult to buy, sell or borrow against. But if Fashola were to set clear property rights, that massive asset could be tapped. What’s more, since they would benefit, residents and businessmen would line up to have their property counted. They would volunteer to become part of the system. “Since the Domesday Book, people have been linked to their assets and identified themselves through them,” says de Soto. “Property rights are the key to finding out how many citizens you’ve got and who they are and what they’re doing. Once you have that, then you can reform the city.”
An Ownership Society
For the past 18 months, Fashola has dispatched teams of surveyors across Lagos to determine who owns what. Once they finish, millions of Lagos’ citizens will have a stake — legal and enforceable — in their city’s future. The transformation will not be immediate, cautions de Soto. “This is what Europe was doing from the 15th to the 19th centuries,” he says. “Even at the end of that period, you had these Dickensian cities.” But, he says, “once they got that rule of law in place, they became productive.”
For Fashola, the law is key. The changes he is overseeing improve infrastructure, create jobs, make money, even build him a soaring political career. But ultimately, the aim is to end the anarchy, he says. A city that does not function “creates desperate conditions for people and reduces their ability to resist temptation.” Lapses can be minor, like driving on sidewalks or into oncoming traffic, or major, like violent crime. Fashola sees both as symptoms of Lagos’ dysfunction, and he is tackling them by, in one approach, setting up a series of driver-improvement schools as well as, in another tack, employing area boys as cleaners and gardeners to beautify their neighborhoods. It’s working. Orderly lanes are becoming the norm on the roads. And crime is down. From 2007 to 2008, armed robberies in Lagos fell 89%. From 2008 to 2009, car theft fell 54%. And murder more than halved, from 221 cases in 2007 to 94 in 2010. This rising sense of citizenship is revealing itself in another surprising way. Astonished then delighted by the transformation their new governor was effecting, Lagosians were happy to pay for it. By 2010 the governor was raising 70% of the state’s income locally from taxes. By diminishing the importance of oil money handed out by the federal government and raising the role of local tax, Fashola has reconnected the state to its people. He takes that as a stamp of approval for his efforts to reverse lawlessness in government as well as across the city. “The capacity of a government to attract taxes is a very strong measure of its legitimacy,” he says.
And slowly, like a rousing giant, Lagos is emerging from its Dickensian squalor and rediscovering its soul. The city that produced Kuti and Afrobeat and a host of writers like Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka is witnessing the birth of a hip urban scene. New bars and cafés, boutique hotels and restaurants suddenly abound. Kuti, it turns out, was right. Something as simple as freeing up the roads can free the spirit. “We set out to demonstrate that we can transform ourselves … that there is nothing wrong with us as a people,” says Fashola. “At the beginning, there was uncertainty about whether or not any of this was even possible. [But what we did] was suggest in very practical terms — in ways that are touchable and can be seen — that things can be changed, no matter how bad they are. We restored hope. We restored belief.” Lagos, city of hope. How’s that for vision?