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Now just a great swath of sand, mega-project Eko Atlantic will house 250,000 people behind a sea wall one day. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)
Now just a great swath of sand, mega-project Eko Atlantic will house 250,000 people behind a sea wall one day. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)

How activists and private enterprise are transforming Lagos Add to ...

Last month, Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan joined former U.S. president Bill Clinton and local dignitaries for the official groundbreaking of a property development so ambitious he calls it “a modern city” rising from the ocean.

Privately financed, Eko Atlantic City is to house 250,000 people and occupy 10 million square metres – a little bigger than Manhattan – of reclaimed land guarded by a towering sea wall that Mr. Clinton declared “an ingenious engineering feat” certain to “brand Lagos all over the world.”

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President Jonathan agreed: “You cannot be hearing only ugly stories” about Nigeria and the city state that drives its economy.

Yet ugly stories about Lagos keep disrupting the “good news narrative” he wants so badly.

Just two days after the presidential rhetoric, 10,000 poor people were left homeless when Lagos authorities bulldozed Badia East, a vast “informal” community next to prime real estate. Then last week, 10 armed men stormed Murtala Muhammed International Airport in a brazen robbery attempt that left two policeman and one bandit dead, and sent travellers scrambling for cover.

So, while Lagos is poised to overtake Cairo as Africa’s biggest city (some say it already has), and oil-rich Nigeria is about to surpass South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy, huge problems remain that cannot be ignored.

The entrepreneurial spirit here is strong – street vendors hawk copies of the Harvard Business Review to drivers stuck in traffic – but even the new Lagos edition of Monopoly (the first devoted to an African city) recognizes that the sprawling metropolis is congested and struggling with poverty.

Just as Park Place has been replaced by Banana Island, the lush playground for Nigerian millionaires, as the game’s most prized property, low-rent Baltic and Mediterranean avenues have given way to Makoko and Agege, two of the city’s more than 100 surviving slums.

Also, despite its grand aspirations and growing wealth, Lagos offers no guarantee of law and order – 15 years after Nigeria emerged from decades of harsh military rule, police corruption and mob violence still make the administration of justice unpredictable.

The city, in some ways, illustrates the harsh life lesson offered by Monopoly – that the mad scramble for fortune has more losers than winners. But with the population estimates as high as 21 million (rising by more than half a million a year), residents are no longer waiting for Nigeria’s petro-wealth to trickle down and improve their lives.

From slum vigilantes to community activists, from creative entrepreneurs to bold capitalists, Lagos’s energetic citizens are now helping to shape what may be Africa’s defining city. Conventional approaches to law enforcement are being upturned and new technologies harnessed to engage and empower the average citizen. At a time when massive urban centres from Mumbai to Mexico City are home to more and more of the global population, how this African megacity tackles its problems truly matters.

“If Lagos is successful, even in some areas, it becomes a compelling model for other cities in the region,” says John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.

But he is far from optimistic, given the Islamist violence in Nigeria’s north and the myriad other difficulties facing Africa’s most populous country. “What are the limits of progress that a particular city can make,” asks Mr. Campbell, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “when the national environment is very different?”

Agege: Vigilante justice turns the tide

At 52, Omodele Morufu is an unlikely vigilante. But sitting in a police station in this slum on the outskirts of Lagos, the municipal garbage collector explains why he ended up patrolling one of West Africa’s more dangerous urban areas by moonlight.

Rape and murder were common in Agege, as was burglary. Even being doused in petrol and set alight, a rogue form of justice here, was not enough to deter petty thieves.

Agege residents come from many regions in Nigeria and neighbouring nations. In 2004, violence between local ethnic Yoruba and Hausa from the north led to street battles waged with spears and guns. The police station, just down the street from a stand that sells gleaming machetes, was almost burned to the ground before the military marched in. “Many died,” Mr. Morufu says. “Many wounded.”

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