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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

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."

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Just as Park Place has been replaced by Banana Island, the lush playground for Nigerian millionaires, as the game's most prized property, low-rent Baltic and Mediterranean avenues have given way to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."

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, 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).

As well as appearing on the website, messages – such as one that reads, "Police extortion refusal leads to bus conductor brutalised" – now pop up on a large TV in a central police station, alerting senior officers.

The "CcHUB," as people call it, attracts young programmers for a number of reasons: It has free access to broadband Internet, which is neither cheap nor common in Lagos; uninterrupted power in a city where outages are almost hourly (the hub has its own generators); in-depth training seminars, and a collegial atmosphere. It also has a killer rooftop patio.

Despite their casual surroundings, the programmers have a mission more serious than most in Silicon Valley. "Trying to build a Nigerian Facebook is cool," Mr. Tijani says, "but is that where there's pain in this society?"

Their labours have also produced BudgIT, a website that allows people to slice and dice the federal budget and determine, for example, whether the government really needed to cut subsidies of imported fuel last year (none of the oil the country produces is refined here).

The cuts sparked large-scale protests that soon morphed into a loose movement dubbed Occupy Nigeria and fuelled by another of the hub's apps: Ojise ("message" in a local dialect), which makes using Twitter and uploading files easier on Nigeria's congested mobile networks.

Ojise developer Seun Akinfolarin, 28, predicts more protests as tech-savvy young Nigerians tackle what they consider to be the country's corrupt old order.

"If we can't get the government to help," he says, surrounded by colleagues leaning over laptops, "we'll have to do it ourselves."

Makoko: A slum fights to stay afloat

With each paddle stroke, the canoe lurches slowly through the greasy water, drifting past floating trash and beneath footbridges that connect shacks built on stilts far into Lagos Lagoon. Here, in the middle of Nigeria's largest city and within plain view of commuters, is a floating slum.

The air smells of raw sewage and wood smoke, but it is Sunday in this incredibly religious country, so children walk above the water in gleaming white robes; hymns drift from packed churches.

Half on land, Makoko is one of about 120 slums in the city. It has 150,000 residents, as well as schools, convenience stores, even sawmills, but nearly no services provided by a government that wants badly to get rid of the place.

That is why Djibe Felix has such an expansive view: A fishing boat is all that stands between the platform he shares with three wives and seven children and the towering 12-kilometre Third Mainland Bridge in the distance. But a forest of jagged stumps sticking from the water at his doorstep is a stark reminder of the many shacks authorities destroyed last summer in a week of violence. One shack was his, Mr. Felix says, his temper rising. "When they come again, we will fight them!" he yells, thumping his chest. "Their bullets will turn to water!"

Makoko is a test case for what the stewards of Africa's largest city have in mind. It is one of nine slums meant to be improved by the Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project with a $200-million (U.S.) loan from the World Bank.

The official goal is to improve basic services, but the city of islands in a swampy lagoon is desperate for land to expand.

"As the city expands, access to affordable housing is shrinking," says Felix Morka, a Harvard-educated community activist advising Makoko residents. "Whatever is added, is added to the upper class."

Slums are home to two-thirds of the population, and there is little low-income housing in central Lagos. Costs are so high even the middle class is scattered to distant suburbs.

Few inhabitants of Makoko – many of them originally from down the Nigerian coast or neighbouring countries – own their homes in any legal sense. Most lack education and don't understand property law; they also fish for a living and do not want to move away from the water.

To help them stay, Mr. Morka is bringing in experts and wants to submit redevelopment plans that benefit the people already there.

Since residents held a march to muster support, the city has suspended the demolition plan and apologized for the death of a local chief shot by security forces. It also is meeting with the community, but won't let Mr. Morka or his staff at the Social and Economic Rights Action Center take part.

Publicly, officials say they will resettle residents such as Fokosi Okimigi, but the 49-year-old fisherman bemoans Makoko's precarious state. "Many white men come with cameras, and nothing gets done," he complains. "We just want the government to allow us to stay. We are citizens of Nigeria."

For his part, Mr. Morka is so skeptical of the public-private partnership authorities are proposing – "a plan to give land to their cronies … the new phase of corruption in this country" – that he resigned from the project's steering committee.

"It's just despicable – there's no regret," he says. "That's not how to build a city."

Eko Atlantic: The future on a grand scale

Ahmadu Bello Way runs along the coast past a row of dilapidated seaside hotels and businesses, many now boarded up and abandoned.

Historic maps show that the shoreline once extended almost another three kilometres into the Atlantic, but dredging in the early 1900s removed a crucial, protective sandbar. A few years ago, the erosion finally reached Ahmadu Bello Way, part of which collapsed into the sea.

Pledging to fix the problem, the Lagos governor at the time asked developers for plans and wound up with one of the most remarkable infrastructure projects on the planet: Eko Atlantic. It involves extensive dredging of the ocean floor to add a nine-square-kilometre wedge to Victoria Island (the central part of Lagos facing the Atlantic) for a gleaming city of 250,000.

As well as luxury apartments and a shining forest of corporate headquarters, Eko (the original name for Lagos, in Yoruba) will feature luxuries that most of Lagos currently lacks, such as uninterrupted power, clean drinking water and fibre-optic connections. "It's enormous," project director David Frame says.

After almost five years of work, there is little more than a huge spit of sand. But his vision includes a 60-metre-wide boulevard like the Champs-Élysées, waterways for yachts and a financial centre with ultramodern skyscrapers. A district called Harbour Lights that will look back toward Lagos proper, bustling with activity against a backdrop of five-star hotels, glittering lights and passing ships from around the world. Harbour Lights particularly enthralls Mr. Frame, a surveyor from London who arrived in Lagos in 1981: It is where he plans to live.

"Nigeria is in my blood," he says after delivering an exhaustive technical briefing.

"You can sit on your balcony, sipping a martini, enjoying the view and, with that cool breeze, it's a very attractive concept."

Certainly, it's much more attractive than Makoko, the floating slum the government wants to remove from Lagos Lagoon. But does Eko offer any more relief for a city with a real lack of middle-class housing? It strikes most observers as being purpose-built for the elite.

Sam Nwosu, the ebullient Nigerian-American country director for Nokia Siemens Networks, says building lots in the part of Lagos where he lives cost up to $500,000 U.S., yet he doesn't feel he could afford Eko Atlantic. However, Mr. Nwosu adds, many truly well-off Nigerians are "willing to pay a premium for anything that works."

Even so, Nigeria's President chose Eko's groundbreaking ceremony to unveil a federal plan (backed by $300-million from the World Bank) to boost residential construction and relax mortgage restrictions.

Mr. Frame, meanwhile, insists Eko developers are being encouraged to target middle- as well as high-income earners. His employer, South EnergyX Nigeria Ltd., can dictate what is built, and he says some units will cost about $300,000.

Still, at least one Nigerian sees Eko Atlantic as entirely segregated from the realities of Lagos life. Driving away from the site, along a road so flooded his car leaves a wake, he gestures back at the vast expanse of dirt and dreams.

"That place for big man," he says bitterly. "That place like London – like other country."