By Olu Fasan
DAVID Pilling, Africa Editor of the Financial Times, sent a text to me last November. The newspaper was doing a special report on Nigeria, and he wanted to speak with me about the infrastructure crisis in Lagos. “Has Lagos stopped working?” he asked. We spoke the next day, and I gave him my views. “The Lagos State government is overwhelmed and daunted by the infrastructure crisis,” I said, before going into detail. He later wrote a piece entitled: “Lagos life overwhelmed by Nigeria infrastructure crisis” in the report, quoting me.
Of course, Pilling’s question,”Has Lagos stopped working?”presumed that Lagos was once working. Indeed, it once worked. But that was aeons ago. That was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when traffics worked in Lagos, when you could wait for a bus almost in front of your house and expect it to arrive timely, when night life was hassle-free and when basic amenities were available. It was a period when, to quote a British writer, Lagos was a “litany of platonic ideals of human happiness!”
However, we must put those halcyon days in context. In 1960, Lagos had just 762,000 people, the population reached 1.4 million in 1970; today, in 2020, it is 20 million. One study says the population might reach 30 million by 2040.
More scarily, the Global Cities Institute projects that Lagos would have a population of 88 million by 2100, making it the world’s most populous city. So, it’s easy to see why the Lagos of even the 1970s is different from the Lagos of today. But the stark truth remains that Lagos isn’t working any more!
From the litany of platonic ideals of human happiness, we now have a dystopian reality; a litany of human woes: endless blackouts, lack of decent houses for the vast majority, crippling traffic jams, dangerous roads, shocking sewage and waste conditions, not to mention insecurity, joblessness and a multitude of other joy-sapping problems. Every day, several people die needlessly in Lagos because of public hazards, such as open gutters. Recently, someone told the story of an 80-year-old woman who was trying to take an Okada but was pushed by a young man. She fell into a gutter and died – instantly!
Let’s leave aside the moral perversion that made a young man push an 80-year-old woman.
Why is the public transport system so bad that an octogenarian had to take the risk-prone Okada? Why are there open gutters in Lagos, a supposed modern city? Of course, Lagos is a paradox. Here is a state with a GDP of $136 billion, the seventh largest economy in Africa, and a nominal average GDP per capita of $5000, more than double the Nigerian average. Yet, two out of three people in Lagos State live in slums, according to the World Bank. Indeed, a recent Deutsche Bank analysis showed that Lagos had the lowest quality of life among the world’s cities in 2019.
But why is Lagos not working? Well, the proximate cause is the lack of adequate infrastructure to mitigate the exponential population growth. Yet, the real problem is entirely man-made: it’s a failure of governance. Put simply, both the Federal Government and the Lagos State government have failed the state and its people.
Take the Federal Government. Why does it refuse to grant Lagos a special status and federal support? Lagos State is the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria; its GDP is 25 per cent of Nigeria’s, and it’s the highest source of non-oil revenue for the Federal Government.
What’s more, Lagos is Nigeria’s melting pot, endlessly attracting people from all over the country, which, of course, puts enormous pressure on its inadequate infrastructure.
Surely, given the commercial value of Lagos and the burden it carries on behalf of Nigeria as home to countless people from across the country, it behoves the Federal Government to grant the state a special status and federal support.
Yet, in 2016, for the second time in three years, the Senate rejected a bill to grant Lagos a special status!
But this raises the wider issue of restructuring. In 2016, the then Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, launched what he called the Office of Overseas Affairs and Investment, also called “Lagos Global”, to make Lagos “the most desirable investment destination in the world”.
But the idea of a federating unit of Nigeria taking its economic destiny into its hands in that way can only work in a restructured and devolved Nigeria, not under the present centralised polity.
In the late 1950s, when Britain granted the West and the East self-rule, their premiers, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, set up consular offices abroad to attract foreign investors into their respective regions.
Today, a state governor would need Abuja’s approval for a multitude of federal permits. Restructuring would give Nigeria’s federating units the opportunities to chart their paths to economic development.
Yet, federal neglect and centralism are not the only causes of Lagos State’s problems. The state is also badly governed. Lagos is a one-party state, ruled by the All Progressives Congress, APC, since 1999. Yet, in 20 years, the party has done little to fundamentally transform the state.
That’s because its politics is closed; its governance of the state is redolent of medieval feudalism. Every governor is answerable to the godfather or the party’s politburo. Every successive governor has tried to undo the work of his predecessor even though they are from the same party.
The state’s bureaucracy is an extension of the party structure and deeply corrupt. A recent investigation by BusinessDay revealed that much of the revenue collected in Lagos State “goes into private pockets”.
So, Lagos isn’t working; it’s beset by huge infrastructure and governance problems. The Federal Government must grant it a special status and federal support. But the state must also be properly and transparently run to attract much-needed foreign investment.