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Lagos: A Model for the 21st Century City

From Lagos to Medellín, the generative energy of dense cities could drive the development of their fragile parent states, reports Seth Kaplan

A lot of the developing world isn’t developing, or at least not in a positive direction. Instead of nurturing prosperity, democracy and security, many parts of the developing world are cultivating poverty, anarchy and instability. These are the fragile countries, such as Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan and the DR Congo, where governments face impotence, illegitimacy and irrelevance.

Fragile states have a rising number of the world’s poor (half of the world’s people who live on less than $1.25 a day will be in fragile states by 2015, according to the OECD). They are riddled with cronyism and corruption. Slum networks mushroom in the urban peripheries; drug lords, militias and terrorists infest their ungoverned spaces. Fragile states are a major focus of international aid efforts, but it is difficult to improve governance there.

If the international community and their own governments won’t or can’t save them, who will? The answer might be: their cities and citizens. If enough power were devolved to urban areas from corrupt and over-centralised national governments, fragile states might succeed. At least in democracies, the cities have more potential as elected politicians face more pressure to get results than national leaders.

Take Nigeria. It is arguably the worst run of the world’s seven most populous countries. Despite earning hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue in the past decade, it will soon have the second-most destitute people in the world after India. Average life expectancy for its 174 million people is 52 years. Transparency International ranks it 144th of 177 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Nigeria has more than 250 different ethnic groups and a history of sectarian strife. It has pirates and armed militant groups fighting the state in its south, sectarian conflict across its ‘middle belt’, and an Islamist insurgency in its north.

But its largest city, Lagos, until recently one of the world’s most difficult to govern, seems to have turned a corner. Although still a slum-ridden and impoverished metropolis, with a population estimated at 21 million, it has seen steady improvement in its governance for over a decade. The government has enhanced public transport, cleaned up streets, upgraded the business environment, and bettered the lives of its inhabitants.

The new mood is reflected in a real-estate boom and a surge of home-grown architectural invention. In its first 20 years as an independent state, the government built prestige buildings in Lagos in the heavily European-inflected style of Tropical Modernism, and developed housing estates that mimicked British models, often failing to take into account the needs of citizens in the process. While the city today suffers from a plethora of mundane structures and the relics of property scams, there are encouraging signs that some architects and their clients want to make a creative splash. According to Papa Omotayo, a Lagosian architect, although ‘badly planned, repetitive generic building types’ dominate the sprawl, each week sees the appearance of another ‘building that exemplifies the architecture of a modern African international city: innovative, creative, sexy and full of imagination’.

The turnaround in Lagos can be traced to 1999, when Nigeria returned to democracy and the city began holding regular elections. For the first time since independence, Lagos was able to re-elect its own leaders, or dismiss them. And while national elections became a mud fight between elites to control the state’s oil wealth, local contests forced candidates to show pragmatism and competence.

The compact space of a city changes the incentives facing politicians in important ways. In an ethnically and religiously diverse metropolis like Lagos, politicians could not afford to pit ethnic and religious groups against one another, a problem that has long bedevilled the country. Simple geography also helped the city administration. The powerful and wealthy are more likely to insist on better governance when their own neighbourhoods are affected.

Unlike national politicians, local leaders know that the better they perform, the more money the city nets. The better its schools, business environment and roads, the more likely companies are to pay taxes, and individuals to buy goods and services, which also contribute to the tax base. At the national level, by contrast, the great majority of the central government’s income has little to do with its performance, since about 75 per cent of the national budget comes from the $50 billion a year that Nigeria collects in oil revenue.

And citizens in densely populated cities like Lagos find it easier to organise themselves and so are better able to hold their elected leaders accountable. Elected politicians face pressure to deliver specific services to their constituents. In central government, which is more remote, there is too much power and wealth to be grabbed by dysfunctional politicians and their cronies, and too little direct accountability.

Can Lagos save Nigeria? Alone, it’s unlikely − the country’s population is expected to grow to 400 million by mid-century − but Lagos can now be the model for transferring more authority to other cities, such as Ibadan, Kano and Benin City. And they, in turn, could help to shift the polarised national politics that produce the same cadre of unaccountable elites year after year.

For example, if local politicians were better able to raise and regulate local taxes, they would be more accountable to the population. And they would presumably establish a more welcoming environment for business to flourish, and perhaps start a nationwide chain reaction unleashing the country’s famous entrepreneurialism. If income levels rose, education and a rising middle class might follow. Greater affluence and aspiration would eventually influence national politics and the trajectory of the whole country.

Other cities in the developing world offer a similar lesson. In Medellín, Colombia, the city government outshone the national government in the late ’90s by setting up business support centres, investing in transport and security, and with cash grants for the poor. Cities such as Chennai and Hyderabad have also outperformed India’s national government in promoting growth, education and reducing crime and poverty.

Lagos is not an urban paradise. It still has over 200 slums; roads clogged with traffic; pollution; most still living below the poverty line. But these problems underline why it could be a model for other parts of the developing world. Fragile states aren’t likely to suddenly turn into economic dynamos like China and boast ultra-modern cities such as Shanghai. But Lagos is a model other poor cities could emulate.

The DR Congo, Pakistan and Kenya all suffer from weak dysfunctional governments, but have cities that could be the basis for similar development. Regular local elections could spur great changes in Kinshasa, Karachi and Nairobi, respectively, if the cities had more autonomy and the tax base was broadened to make government more dependent on local citizens and companies.

Almost half of the developing world’s population lives in cities, and rapid urbanisation is expected to increase to two- thirds in a few decades. The city is now the main driver of growth across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

As Lagos shows, the city may also be a way for fragile states to become stronger states. Entire countries begin to work better when their cities are well governed and thriving. National salvation depends on municipal innovation and inspiration.

About the Author

Seth Kaplan is a lecturer and an adviser to organisations working on transition, governance, Middle East issues, and poverty reduction

Illustration by Charlie Davis

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