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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentLivable cities and rural rights
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View the documentCities of the Third World
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Lagos under stress

by Paul Okunlola

With a present population of some 7.5 million, the new millenium will propel Lagos to megacity status. The United Nations Population Fund predicts that 24 million people will live in the city by 2015, making it the third most populous conurbation on the globe. Whilst the donor community has supported urban projects in the past, tough times mean more reliance on 'bottom up' schemes backed by N60s and community-based groups.

When it began to rain in the small hours of Thursday 18 July 1996, residents of Lagos - Nigeria's largest city and economic nerve centre - merely stirred in their slumber. The gentle, but persistent showers, didn't rank among the heaviest downpours experienced by this coastal city, which gets rain on average for eight months in every year. Nor are Lagosians unfamiliar with spells of rain lasting up to seven days without break.

But by the time of the early morning 'rush hour', the traffic-laden streets of metropolitan Lagos were being swept with rampaging floods. Until well after noon, the city's social and economic life was at a standstill. Already difficult road conditions were rendered impossible for motorists, marooned at the wheel for hours. Exhausted school children eventually made it back home after spending the better part of the day in traffic. Crowds of commuters waited interminably at bus-stops for vehicles that never came.

The economic toll was expected to be heavy, with offices in both government and the private sector remaining empty all day. Commercial activities were put on hold as shops remained shuttered until well after noon. The communications network and electricity supply to key areas of the city were shut down for hours, to protect equipment. One state government official commented: 'It has never been so bad.' By the time the water receded and life had returned to normal, both government engineers and private sector consultants were in agreement: the main reasons for the flooding were illegal development along the natural courses of inner-city waterways, and the reduced drainage capacity of the overdeveloped metropolitan area.

Exploding metropolis

Both the flood itself, and the acknowledgement of the human limitations of the city officials, illustrate the frustrations that have attended the management of this exploding metropolis over the last three decades. In the months leading up to the July flooding, a major controversy erupted over plans to landfill the inland Kuramo lake in the highbrow Victoria Island district and develop it as a housing estate. This pitted state government officials and a firm of developers on the one hand, against a motley band of citizens groups, non-governmental organisations and concerned environmentalists on the other.

The unusual strength of local feeling against the project reflects growing fears that the island itself could be submerged. Five years ago, this was thought to be a remote prospect but today it is seen as a real threat, given the increasing frequency of flooding incidents and ocean surges along the coastal area.

More and more people are arguing that there is a correlation between the growing frequency of flooding incidents and the massive sandfilling activity that has taken place over the years. The Kuramo issue remains contentious but it is just one example of the wider dilemma facing the city's development planners. They have the daunting task of providing for legions of migrants to Lagos - whose swelling numbers are placing great stress on the failing infrastructure. The problem may be particularly acute in the Nigeria's largest city, but it reflects a wider trend of urbanisation in the country over the past half century, as the overall population has increased.

In 1921, Nigeria had just 18.7 million inhabitants. Current estimates put the population in the region of 103.5 million. And the growth in the proportion of urban dwellers has been equally dramatic. In 1931, fewer than 7% of the people lived in urban centres. The figure had risen to 10% by 1952,19% by 1963, 33% by 1984, and 42% at the last count, in 1991. Current figures suggest that there are now seven Nigerian cities with more than a million inhabitants and no fewer than 78 whose population exceeds 100 000.

The changing structure of the country's human settlement profile has been linked to broader economic and social changes. The situation has been exacerbated by the economic depression of the last two decades. Analysts have noted a trend of declining primary production in such areas as agriculture, mining, quarrying and exploitation of natural resources. This has resulted in greater attention being paid to secondary and tertiary economic activities - which are generally city-based. The figures illustrate the dramatic nature of the change that has taken place. In 1952, the ratio of primary to secondary/ tertiary economic activity, as measured in Nigeria's GDP, was 68:32. Four decades later, the ratio was 38:62.

According to World Bank consultant, Prof. Akin Mabogunje, the trend is exemplified by the expansion of a whole range of activities located in urban centres - large, medium and small-scale enterprises in manufacturing and construction, utilities, transport and communications systems, wholesale and retail outlets, hotels, restaurants, finance and insurance companies, and estate agencies. Then there is the whole range of government activity. Until 1991, Nigeria's huge federal bureaucracy was located in Lagos, operating alongside a state administration and some 15 local authorities. Add to this the major docks and airports of Lagos, and you get an urbanisation phenomenon which has, to say the least, been intimidating.

Lagos, which only occupies 0.4% of the country's land area, gains an extra 300 000 inhabitants every year on top of its natural growth rate. That the city is a 'pole of attraction' is hardly surprising. It is clearly the economic nucleus of the country, reputed to account for about 57% of total value added in manufacturing and about 40% of the nation's most highly skilled manpower.

Urban toll

The costs have also been high. Professor Poju Onibokun, a human settlements expert, enumerates these: grossly inadequate housing and infrastructure with millions dwelling in slums; social amenities under enormous pressure with a shortage of schools and poor health facilities; endemic crime and juvenile delinquency; the breakdown of traditional values, family cohesiveness and community spirit. The capacity of law enforcement institutions is also increasingly hampered by technological and resource limitations.

Of these ills, the shortage of housing and lack of infrastructure are seen as the most acute. This is borne out by a recent World Bank study which notes that:

- the quality of life and living conditions have deteriorated;
- economic production has plunged;
- the inadequate provision of infrastructural services has negatively affected the operations of most private sector investors, who now need to spend between 22% and 25% of their capital outlay on providing their own infrastructure.

Over 90% of the city's housing is provided by the private sector. But this has been handicapped in recent times by spiralling development costs and a general shortage of funds. New private housing has consisted largely of thousands of individual units, built mainly in areas of existing large scale developments. The authorities have made their own efforts to plug the gap and over the last 15 years, no fewer than 6000 hectares of marshland have been sandfilled and reclaimed in six separate development schemes (some of which have proved controversial). The Land Use Act of 1978 vested all urban land in the state authorities, although the administration of the legislation has not always proved satisfactory.

Public transport is another problem for Lagos residents. There is no integrated system of mass transport and the sector is essentially made up of hundreds of privately operated buses and a dwindling taxi fleet. Massive currency devaluations have meant that the purchase price of new vehicles has rocketed. Maintenance costs for the increasingly dilapidated fleet have also spiralled. As a result, the system is stretched to beyond its capacity and it is the commuters who bear the brunt.

Public sector spending obviously has an important part to play in maintaining urban structures. The downturn in international aid flows has, therefore, had a visible impact with decline in infrastructure provision and maintenance, leading to a less favourable operating environment for private investors.

In the past, Lagos has been a notable beneficiary of urban support programmes with multi-million dollar schemes for water supply, storm water drainage, and infrastructure. Most of these have been World Bank-led but the support of the European Union and its Member States in this area is also considered crucial.

On the positive side, adversity has proved a catalyst for greater community-based and NGO activity in environmental and human settlement issues over the last decade. This is a fresh approach, based on 'bottom-up' strategies, which should open up muchneeded new avenues to urban management in Nigeria more generally and in Lagos in particular.