GOVERNOR Akinwunmi Ambode’s urban renewal policy is fundamentally flawed. For one, it strives to recast a Nigerian city in Parisian or Washingtonian mold. Secondly, it fails to realise that Lagos does not have to look like Paris, New York or Washington DC to be a beautiful, functional and livable city. A city is not just an agglomeration of buildings, streets and public spaces cobbled together by architectural, engineering and urban planning standards. A city captures, encapsulates and expresses the totality of a people’s way of life. Not surprisingly, Western European cities have a similar character, a character that is different from (for example) Asian cities. Asian cities are as different from European cities as the Asian culture, society and concept of beauty are different from the European. In West Africa, the general character of cities in the former French colonies is different from that of cities in the former British colonies. The aesthetic and structural differences between them are reflections of, among other things, the different colonial and post-colonial policies of the two former colonial powers in the region.
“France” the 19th Century German philosopher, Fredrick Hegel, wrote, “had the consciousness of its intellectual superiority in a refinement of culture surpassing anything of which the rest of Europe could boast”. And, as a city is a composite product of the totality of a people’s way of life, the French “intellectual superiority in a refinement of culture” that exceeded that of the rest of Europe, invariably, found expression in French cities, especially, its capital city, Paris; it became the most beautiful city in Europe. Lagos is a vibrant city with enormous potentials. It can be beautiful and livable without aping the looks of London, New York or Washington, DC. The urban renewal shenanigan of the Lagos State government aimed at getting Lagos to look like a Western city and its underpinning belief that to be an attractive and efficient mega-city Lagos must look Parisian is Michael Jackson Syndrome.
Michael Jackson was an exceptionally gifted and talented man. He was an outstanding singer, composer and dancer. He was, at a point, reputably, the world most successful and renowned entertainer. Unfortunately, he was deeply insecure. In his insecurity and confusion, he erroneously believed that to be worthy, and thus, appreciated and loved, he had to look White. He refused to realise that with his black skin, flat nose and thick lips, he was handsome and admirable. In his desperation to be White, he bleached his skin and with repeated plastic surgeries, to acquire the Whiteman’s facial features, ruined his looks. He distorted his Blackness and still, failed to become White. He ended up a weird-looking crank. The attempt to recast Lagos in Parisian elegance is a charade that will erode the essence of Lagos –its Nigerianness, vibrancy and rough-edge splendor – and still fail to give it a Parisian look.
Lagos is inescapably expressing the Nigerian reality. The evil mix of a corrupt and irresponsible political class and a spineless and passive citizenry is a salient element of the Nigeria reality. It was the avarice, thievery and bungled governance of a grasping political class that reduced Nigeria to, in the words of a onetime American Secretary of State, Warran Christopher, “the poorest oil rich country in the world”. What an oxymoron – oil rich and poor? The Nigerian reality includes an unconscionable economic system that encourages the unwarranted affluence of an elite few at the economic misery of the masses of people. So, while the political elite and their business cronies maintain lifestyles that awe-struck the richest and famous of the wealthiest countries of the world, the Nigerian masses waste away in desperate poverty. As such, many Nigerians are forced to eke out a living under the most insufferable circumstances.
They, including women with babies strapped to their backs, throng the streets of Lagos, and under the blazing sun and in the rain, dart through slow moving vehicular traffic, hawking bananas, groundnuts, water, soft drinks, CDs, etc. to motorists and pedestrians. The urban planning policy of the Lagos State government, as it strives to create an efficient and comfortable city, must, in its respect for the Nigerian reality, accommodate this disheartening factor of Nigerian life. The Akinwunmi Ambode administration urban renewal policy must factor in that Nigeria is teeming with the unemployed, and that some of these unemployed have been able to eat, feed their families, pay their rents and pay their children’s school fees by hawking and trading on the streets of Lagos. The attempt to herd them off the streets of Lagos by the enactment of draconic laws that severely punish both the street hawkers and those who buy from them is Michael Jackson Syndrome – frantic endeavour to cloak a black man’s (Nigerian) reality with a white man’s (European) façade.
The former Kick Against Indiscipline , KAI, Marshal General, Danjuma Maigeri, once said that the presence of street hawkers in the streets of Lagos dissuade prospective foreign investors from investing in Lagos. Actually, the presence of these indomitable and indefatigable men and women, struggling to earn an honest living under the most excruciating circumstances, does not turn- off foreign investors. They are actually impressed by it for it is capitalism in its most rugged and resilient form. Prospective investors and many visitors to Nigeria are thrilled by the Nigerian robust, effervescent and irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit evinced in many aspects of Nigerian life, including street hawking. No wonder, one writer in the Washington Post called Nigeria, “the bastion of African capitalism”. And another writer, David Lamb, obviously awed by that unfaltering, unyielding Nigerian spirit that finds expression in the Nigerian ingenuity and resourcefulness, in his book, The Africans, wrote that, “if Africa is going anywhere, Nigeria will get there first”.
On the other hand, foreign investors are discouraged from investing in Nigeria by the sleaze, greed and thievery of the Nigerian power elite. They are disappointed by the Michael Jackson syndrome of our leaders .
– their insecurity, lack of pride in things Nigerian and penchant for copying and mimicking everything European or American. They are taken aback by the unreasonable and inhumane laws made by the Lagos government in its obsession with making Lagos look like a Western city and the brutality of government agents in the enforcement of these laws.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.