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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 ...

In 2009, fed-up residents acted for themselves, forming a vigilante group to stamp out the chaos. Police here are poorly paid, highly susceptible to bribes and often vindictive; local people used to throw beer bottles at anyone in uniform who ventured too far down the narrow lanes that snake beneath Agege’s rusted metal roofs.

At first, the vigilantes were little better than their targets. They harassed anyone who looked suspicious and fights were common. “We would box them,” Mr. Morufu recalls, punching the air. It was impossible to tell if things were getting better. But word of the midnight patrols spread, prompting a non-profit organization dedicated to better policing to get involved.

Wary, the police asked the agency to shut down the vigilantes. “We didn’t do that,” says Innocent Chukwuma, who started the CLEEN Foundation (formerly the Centre for Law Enforcement Education) after being jailed repeatedly by Nigeria’s former military regime as a student activist. “It’s like telling them they have no rights.”

Instead, his group gave the vigilantes rainboots and flashlights, and started a community forum in which the police trained them to write reports on their patrols, some of which stretched all night. Now, instead of throwing bottles, they provide officers with information about the community and its problems. Mr. Morufu, who just finished a night patrol, even has the station chief’s personal mobile number, and not long ago used it at 2 in the morning to call for armed support.

In a country where police regularly beat people and demand bribes, this is real progress. The vigilantes have not recorded a single rape in more than a year, Mr. Morufu says, adding that it’s safe to park a new okada and walk away – the motorcycle will still be there when you return.

The Agege policing model is now being applied across the city and beyond – even in the violent, oil-rich Niger Delta.

“Police can move now anywhere in here,” Mr. Morufu says, gesturing out the window. He calls Agege “one of the most peaceful communities … in all of Nigeria – really!”

Co-Creation Hub: Mobilizing citizens’ rights

Lagos is famous for its traffic, but this morning a torrential downpour, a fuel shortage and the closing of the 12-kilometre Third Mainland Bridge, which ties the city together, have caused complete gridlock – and tension.

Suddenly, for no discernible reason, a policeman rips a man from his car and starts slamming his head on the hood of a nearby Toyota. When the driver complains, he simply shoves his victim to the back of another vehicle.

People here are accustomed to random police brutality and corruption. And the city’s energetic governor, Babatunde Fashola, has moved to impose order on this unruly city. But frustrated younger Nigerians – some recently returned from abroad – are impatient, and now looking to new technologies for solutions.

Although few Nigerians own personal computers, around 100 million in a population of 170 million have cellphones (Canada’s BlackBerry is the brand of choice with about 60 per cent of the market), and more than 600,000 of them have downloaded a mobile version of the nation’s constitution.

Produced at the Co-Creation Hub, a socially progressive tech incubator launched by globetrotting entrepreneur ’Bosun Tijani, the phone app allows people to share parts of the constitution on Facebook and Twitter, with commentary, and to take part in discussion forums on everything from corruption in politics to oil revenue.

“The objective is to empower people, to have them become more knowledgeable about their rights,” co-creator Zubair Abubakar says. “That way, we can be more patriotic.”

His software will not stop a cop’s blow, but Mr. Abubakar has heard of police thinking better of demanding a bribe when, instead of paying up, victims read out their rights from their phones.

And now the battle against corruption has reached a new level with the official launch this month of StopTheBribes.net, a website – built with financial help from the Canadian High Commission – that lets mobile users report police behaving badly via text message, e-mail or Twitter (hashtag #StopTheBribes).

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