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Housing crisis places Lagos at crossroads between fragility and resilience

By Maggie Proctor and Pauline H. Baker

April 20, 2017   |   0 comments

Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos is a model of urban resilience but one facing serious threats of fragility – that is, vulnerability to conflict, violence, and human suffering.

These dynamics are clearly displayed in the city’s ongoing efforts to address economic growth, overcrowding and physical expansion. How state and local governments resolve that challenge will have wide-ranging effects not only on Lagos’ pathway toward greater resilience, or deeper fragility, but on Nigeria’s future as well.

Despite being in a recession, Nigeria remains one of the largest economies on the continent. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and Lagos is its largest and richest metropolitan area—a megacity with a population of approximately 21 million people.

Housing disparities heighten tensions

With real estate at a premium the cost of housing has risen to the point that most Lagosians cannot afford their own homes or are being pushed out of the humble ones they live in.

The city is restricted by its physical limits—it centers largely around three main islands and settlers are expanding into the mainland, while the state is dredging into the sea to create Dubai-like luxury estates, such as Eko Atlantic. Meanwhile, there are limited options for affordable housing and a large portion of the city’s poor live in unsanitary floating shanties.

Lagos’ government, however, has begun destroying these waterfront slums in recent months. On Nov. 10, 2016, bulldozers destroyed part of the Otodo Gbame neighborhood. Through a series of clashes, 15 died and approximately 30,000 people were left homeless. A court injunction halted the demolition in January – but despite the ruling more demolitions occurred on March 17 and April 9.

This is not unusual, as Lagos slum dwellers have been cast aside before. What is striking about the recent moves is that they are occurring at the same time that super-rich properties are being built, underscoring the growing gaps between the rich and poor in very stark terms.

Risks of fragility rise

This conflict presents many risk factors that may increase Lagos’ fragility.

Grievances are on the rise; the residents of Otodo Gbame were given no compensation for the destruction of their property, and those who have not been able to rebuild have been left homeless.

Lagos’ government’s approach to slum-clearance risks undermining the state’s political legitimacy in the eyes of dislocated citizens. Elected officials have developed a reputation for relative effectiveness and probity in the last several decades, which has helped them build trust with citizens. While the authorities’ claim that the evictions were a “security measure in the overall interest of all Lagosians,” the governments’ actions appear to prioritize interests of developers over the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents.

In addition, new developments like Eko Atlantic are creating environmental hazards. The sea wall built to protect Eko Atlantic from flooding and erosion may require huge costs to maintain, while at the same time it will increase the risks of flooding in adjacent poor neighborhoods.

With these factors, in addition to the ongoing economic recession, Lagos is increasing the risks of fragility in the name of development.

Leveraging sources of resilience

However, Lagos has considerable assets that its leaders could use to build resilience and mitigate those risk factors.

The government could leverage the trust it has previously built with citizens to collaboratively develop responses to the overcrowding problems with a better balance between the rights of residents and the need to foster economic development. If the government is determined to clear the slums, consulting the residents about relocation and compensation before demolition would considerably reduce citizen grievances.

Lagos could engage some of the city’s many entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions for low-income housing and more reliable and cheaper services, such as clean water, sanitation, and electricity.

Addressing the immediate problems with housing will help Lagos reduce fragility, but becoming resilient – that is, not only returning to the status quo after a crisis, but continuing to improve and strengthen the community – has a longer-term effort.

The key to building greater resilience rests in the political legitimacy of Lagos’ leadership.

The state government can continue to build trust with citizens if it improves public services and the quality of life of its poorest as well as its richest citizens, enforces the rule of law, fosters inclusive economic growth and reduces inequality between rich and poor, while working to fundamentally improve its responsiveness and accountability to all the city’s residents.

The most volatile issue in the mix will be how the government manages the land issue—which land will be developed, for what purpose, and for whom?

Reducing economic inequality will be key to Lagos’ future resilience. Although more multi-millionaires are making their home in Lagos, the majority of the city remains very poor. As the class disparity increases, grievances will grow.

Lagos must also take proactive steps to address ecological and climate issues, particularly the storm surges that traditionally threaten the low-lying coastal areas of the city, made more threatening with the building of the sea wall around the new Eko Atlantic development.

This, too, is likely to exacerbate this ecology of the city as well as feed into group grievances – the sea wall may keep the wealthy residents of Eko Atlantic safe, but put poorer neighborhood at risk for worse flooding.

Land disposition will be a bellwether of whether Lagos fulfills its aspiration to be a model city of the 21st century that serves as a stable anchor of development for its residents and a dynamic engine of growth for the country as a whole, or a or a source of group division, marginalization and possible violence..

It is a community, in short, that contains the seeds of its own success or its own decline. Every effort needs to be made at this critical juncture to use Lagos’ considerable assets to tip the balance in favor of the former.

Maggie Proctor is a Technical Manager in the Governance and Community Resilience Practice Area at Creative Associates International.

Pauline Baker is Senior Governance Advisor at Creative Associates International and President Emeritus of the Fund for Peace.