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Unequal measures: the right to the city in Lagos and Addis Ababa

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In African cities – as in cities all over the world – ‘building as development’ is depriving people of their right to the city, exacerbating inequality rather than diminishing it

On 30 March, Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, accompanied by the Lagos State Governor and the supermodel Naomi Campbell, cut the ribbon to inaugurate Eko Atlantic, a real-estate megaproject on Victoria Island off the coast of Africa’s largest metropolis, Lagos. Eko Atlantic is envisaged to become Lagos’s new coastal city, ‘planned to perfection’ as the official website of the project claims, with seven distinctive districts including, among others, a business district, a marina for yachts and ‘dazzling architecture’, a vibrant ‘downtown’, and an oceanfront ‘with breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean’. 

The Eko Atlantic project was initiated in 2009 with tons of sand deposited in the Atlantic Ocean to reclaim 10 square kilometres of land. By January 2017, due to the broader crisis in the Nigerian economy and a concomitant decline in construction activities, Eko Atlantic remained just a ‘vastness of sand interrupted by two forlorn contemporary skyscrapers and a couple of roads lined with young palm trees’. A year later, in February 2018, the first phase kicked off with the construction of the Azuri Peninsula, consisting of ‘12 super-luxury simplexes, two villas and 120 luxury apartments including another seven townhouses’. 



The waterfront community of Otodo-Gbame in Lagos littered with demolition debris. Source: AFP / Getty Images

The place of this development in both government and corporate narratives about urban futures reveals something rather disconcerting about the way ‘building’ has been sold and embraced as a solution for development on the African continent and beyond. Eko Atlantic is not simply a real-estate project targeting the super-rich of Nigeria and Africa; it has been presented and advertised as ‘a solution to many problems’, addressing both sea erosion and the deficit in housing and infrastructure that is burdening Lagos’s potential for growth and expansion. 

The developmentalist narrative of Eko Atlantic did not emerge from nowhere. It is embedded in a widely shared narrative of ‘development as building’ that populates the public discourse on urban change in Lagos, as in many other cities across the continent. The housing deficit in Lagos is estimated at around 2.6 million a year, and more than 17 million in Nigeria as a whole. This, experts have argued, requires the construction of 187,500 new houses in Lagos and 700,000 new houses across the country every year. But the Nigerian chief executive of the Federal Housing Authority questioned the authenticity of the ‘famous 17 million housing deficit’ calculation, claiming it lacked scientific basis. 

‘Architecture is at risk of losing further meaning and relevance in the fight against inequality and injustice in cities across Africa and beyond’

While the validity of these calculations has often been questioned, narratives of gaps, backlogs and deficits continue to pervade imaginations of the development of African cities, mainly because by proposing an idea of quantifiable progress, in terms of houses and malls built, politicians, government and real-estate developers alike can refer to tangible achievements. Within this framework, projects such as Eko Atlantic in Lagos, the mammoth $800 million Two Rivers Mall and the $200 million Pinnacle Tower in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, and even the more modest yet pervasive blossoming of real-estate projects and shopping malls in central and suburban Nairobi, Lagos and Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, are seen as fulfilling a developmental or quasi-moral role in the collective effort to address gaps and deficits in Africa’s built environments.

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Dji 0361a

Eko Atlantic under construction, Lagos’s new coastal city ‘planned to perfection’, regardless of human cost. Source: Eko Atlantic

Yet, embracing an idea of building as development and development as building is part of the problem, not a solution; it could be argued that the sense of moral urgency around building housing and malls has had significant negative impacts on African cities. Waves of evictions have targeted poor communities in Lagos and Addis Ababa among others, to make room for projects that, while embodying visions of a better designed built environment, target buyers and customers from these cities’ upper classes. 

In Lagos between March 2016 and April 2017, the forced evictions of waterfront communities resulted in 30,000 people without a home. Meanwhile, 23,151 households were evicted between 2009 and 2015 to make room for private investments in Addis Ababa’s inner city. These evictions have had a significant impact on poor citizens’ sense of place in the city. Walking around what remained of Arat Kilo, one of the oldest city neighbourhoods, after the 2012 wave of evictions, one long-term resident with past involvement in both street hustling and construction work told me: ‘They want to get rid of the poor in the city centre.’  

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The Tilu Dimtu complex in Addis Ababa, completed in 2015, houses some 10,000 people. Source: Charlie Rosser

The vision of ‘development’ as achieved and measurable through the tangible experience of a renewed built environment has also affected government efforts to provide ‘affordable housing’ in order to balance out evictions. The term ‘affordable’ evokes a concern with the needs of the lower strata of society. However, just as in London and New York, in Lagos, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, affordable is merely the term used for housing built to be sold below market price. There is no particular guarantee that those who can ‘afford’ it are, in fact, the urban poor. 

Building ‘affordable housing’ has been a central tenet of Addis Ababa urban policy since 2008, with the implementation of the Grand Housing Programme. With more than 230,000 housing units built, the programme has been hailed as a great success in terms of both its output and the synergies it has created with an expanded financial system that now grants long-term mortgages to prospective inhabitants. In Nigeria, both the Federal Government and Lagos State launched similar programmes just over a year ago, building only a few hundred units, but meanwhile creating a system of financing and mortgaging that they believe will unlock opportunities for home ownership for those who had until then been excluded. 

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Gettyimages 91957962

Aerial view of new construction in Addis Ababa. Source: Altrendo Travel / Getty

Although the destinies of mammoth housing programmes that aim to build over 40,000 housing units a year, and their social and economic impacts on the city fabric, remain to be seen, what is evident in Addis Ababa is that these housing developments are affordable for poorer urban dwellers only at heavy cost to their livelihoods – often a third of monthly income – as well as their place in the city. These developments are built on the city’s outer fringes, and their only connection to the centre is via an already overburdened transport infrastructure. 

‘It is not fair’, a woman protests, after being relocated from Arat Kilo and given a house in a new development on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. ‘Yes we live in these new houses, but there is not much improvement.’ Back in Arat Kilo, she was renting one of the government houses – which had also gone with the evictions. ‘[Government] houses were cheap. Now we have to pay thousands for the mortgage. Then, your salary is cut first by taxes and then by transport costs. It is not fair.’ 

Powerful domestic and international consultancy firms, as they design landmark masterplans and high-rise buildings in African cities, embrace and are often complicit in the dominant idea of development through building. Meanwhile, global financial and real-estate institutions celebrate urban Africa’s transformations, arguing that government and business commitments to build would produce dense and productive urban economies.  

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Gettyimages 502167564

In Ethiopia, members of the Oromo ethnic group blocked a road in Wolenkomi in protest against a government plan to integrate Addis Ababa with the surrounding region. Source: AFP / Getty Images

Paradoxically, in this moment of construction frenzy, architects and designers have very limited room to challenge how ‘building’ is both changing African cities and deepening inequalities. Large numbers of local architects, town planners and designers continue to struggle to mediate the interests of powerful corporate and government clients and employ design to make urban spaces slightly more accessible to those excluded. For one architect in Addis Ababa, the strategy was to convince rich clients to include ‘arcades’ in their design, so that street children would have shelter in the rainy season during July and August.  

The potential of these initiatives to bring about change does not lie in the specific built forms that they deliver. To be effective in their attempts to make inclusion and justice paradigms of their practice, architects need to disengage from the idea that architecture and building per se have the potential to unlock and deliver trajectories of empowerment and emancipation for the marginalised. As the architect who sought to sneak ground-floor arcades past developers admitted: ‘architecture has lost meaning for me’.

Architecture is at risk of losing further meaning and relevance in the fight against inequality and injustice in cities across Africa and beyond. Whereas individual building interventions, if designed consciously and ethically, can bring some good, they will fail to provide solutions to inequality unless they are embedded in an overall challenging of the patterns of power and redistribution of resources that are specific to a particular project, area or city. 

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy