Lagos in NigeriaA Week in the World’s Most Chaotic City
Lagos is poised to become the world’s biggest city. The Nigerian megacity is a massive experiment – unregulated and wild, with endless traffic jams, waterfront slums and an impressively resilient population.By Heiner Hoffmann, Akintunde Akinleye (Fotos) und Bernhard Riedmann (Grafik)30.09.2021
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There is nothing out of the ordinary here about toddlers disappearing into the sea and then reappearing. Indeed, Lagosians, the people of Lagos, consider very little to be out of the ordinary.
Aliate Ajagun and her five children live on a kind of platform about three by five meters in size. It’s built on stilts in the lagoon of Lagos, which some statistics show to be the largest city in Africa. The floor is made of planks. The gaps between the planks reveal the sea water below, a murky, grayish soup.Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
The Makoko district of Lagos is largely built on stilts that have been erected in the lagoon that surrounds the city. The outhouse, which is covered with a gray tarp, is nothing more than a hole through the planks with a screen that blocks the view.
The entire lives of inhabitants unfold on these makeshift wooden platforms. Every now and then, a child falls into the water, only to be pulled back up again.
The children aren’t deterred by the feces or the filth in the water. Indeed, they enjoy swimming in the lagoon.
All travel in Makoko is done by boat, and the homemade vessels are ubiquitous. Long punting poles are used to get around in shallow water. Some boats also have outboard motors.
Vendors also come by boat and travel from platform to platform peddling their wares, household goods in this case.
There’s a certain bitter irony in the fact that Makoko is surrounded by water, but residents have to go to considerable effort to get clean water. They fill their buckets at water points, where they have to pay for it.
Most inhabitants live from fishing, heading out to sea early in the morning or late in the evening. They don’t get rich from it, but for many, it’s at least enough to keep the family fed.
Copious amounts of human feces float in the water below the shacks-on-stilts. The toilet on the platform is merely a hole in the floor, and human waste goes straight into the water – the same water the children swim in. They don’t find it out of the ordinary.
Ajagun loves this life on the sea. “I have a view of the water everyday – what more could you ask for?” she says. Her husband works as a fisherman, like just about everyone else here in Makoko, the name given to this shanty town on the water. In Europe, they might call it a “slum,” but It’s a way of life for the people of Makoko.
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Lagos isn’t really a place that can be understood through the European lens. The city pretty much contradicts any Western urban planning ideal, but it’s not necessarily dysfunctional, either. Things just work differently here.
To many, Lagos is the embodiment of chaos. But that same chaos fosters a lot of creativity. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
Many residents of Makoko have migrated from other West African countries, where they grew up as fisherman. The prospect of a better income is what brough them to the megacity of Lagos. They manifest their maritime culture here in an environment that could not be any more urban.
A multilane bridge built on mighty concrete pillars spans the lagoon and towers over Makoko. It connects the mainland with the islands where Lagos’ commercial life is concentrated. A landscape of skyscrapers fills the horizon, with new ones continually popping up. According to varying sources, between 21 and 24 million people are already living in the greater Lagos metropolitan region, and more than 14 million people live in the more central metropolitan area. Meanwhile, the megacity continues to grow by 3,000 people each day. Experts expect it to become the largest city in the world by the end of the century.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/X0asB/
Lagos is loud. Everything here has its own sound The honking of the endless traffic jams; the relentless, slightly frantic music piping out of the loudspeakers in stores; itinerant merchants offering their services; the wandering tailor with his rattling scissors; the vendors who drum distinct rhythms for each product as they parade through the streets.
There are a lot of codes that are part of this city’s DNA, and they must be learned. It is hot and humid, and the temperatures barely go down at night. Lagos is a city where the rich don’t hide their wealth and the poor can’t cloak their poverty. There’s only one thing that unites them all: the water.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/21QDm/
“We have music about water. We live by, on and with water. Water is the central element of Lagos,” says urban planner Taibat Lawanson. This is a city that loves its water, but is also in a constant state of conflict with it. It is a city whose water could ultimately be its undoing – a megacity whose inhabitants more or less govern themselves. What is it that makes this crazy metropolis tick?
The megacity is located on the shores of a vast lagoon. The Victoria Island business district can be seen behind it. Foto: Akintunde Aklnleye / DER SPIEGEL
Aliate Ajagun’s hovel may have prime water views, but it provides few comforts. She sleeps with her husband on a small mattress on the floor, with the children slumbering on raffia mats next to them. When they leave their platform, they take a small wooden boat and navigate through the endless tangle of small waterways that are a mixture of plastic waste and indistinguishable sludge.ANZEIGE
In some places, that floating layer of trash is so thick that chickens can be seen walking on it. And yet they still call this the “Venice of Africa.” There is no electricity, no running water, not even a television. Instead, there are stories of the sea, of fishing, of high waves. And of the approaching excavators.
One of the primal fears of the people of Makoko is that they will someday be forced out of this area, this alleged slum. They fear that more of the lagoon will be reclaimed to make way for yet another luxury project or for upscale homes.
Aliate Ajagun’s (left) greatest fear is having to leave Makoko. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
“This city has no place for the poor, only for the rich,” Ajagun complains. And it is true that the local government is constantly working on plans to relocate the residents of Makoko. “But what are we supposed to do in an apartment on the mainland? We wouldn’t know where to start,” the resident says. Almost every family here lives from fishing, right in the middle of the city.
“Makoko is typical of Lagos,” says city planner Lawanson. “In the absence of effective urban management residents create their own solutions.” And that applies to the consequences of climate change, too. The local government believes that sea levels will rise by up to 2.4 meters (7 feet and 10 inches) by 2090. It is toying with the idea of using pumps to remove the water in the future. So far, though, there has been quite a lot of talk and very little action.
But low-lying areas of the city are already frequently inundated by floods caused by increasingly heavy rainfall. Parts of the city – which hugs the shores of the lagoon and the coastline – are in danger of simply sinking.
Parts of Lagos are already located below sea level. Forecasts predict that more and more urban areas will be inundated by water in the coming decades.
Even the government admits that Lagos is one of Nigeria’s “sinking cities.”
In the worst-case scenario, large parts of the city could become uninhabitable by 2100.
But low-lying areas of the city are already frequently inundated by floods caused by increasingly heavy rainfall. Parts of the city – which hugs the shores of the lagoon and the coastline – are in danger of simply sinking
Parts of Lagos flood regularly after heavy rainfall.
“If the water rises, we’ll just build the stilts higher,” says Makoko resident Ajagun. They are more worried about having to leave their dwellings on the water than they are of rising water levels.
The government, meanwhile, prefers to dream of a kind of Dubai-lite, a financial and business metropolis with glittering new buildings. It is planning mega endeavors like Eko Atlantic, one of the largest infrastructure projects on the African continent. More than 500,000 people are expected to live or work in the development in the future.
The land to be used for it has been reclaimed, literally wrested from the sea, with sand dredged from the bottom of the ocean used to create landfill. A handful of skyscrapers have already been built. The underground garages are full of Range Rovers, Mercedes SUVs and Porsches. A heavily armed guard is stationed at the front of the elevator. An Olympic-sized swimming pool is located in the courtyard.
A swimming pool for the city’s wealthy. If you want to live on Eko Island, you’ll have to shell out a monthly rent as high as 6,000 U.S. dollars. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
Bar Beach, the last public beach in town, used to be located where the luxury vehicles enter the gated community today. It’s still marked on road signs, but beach life here has long since disappeared. This too is a symbol of the new Lagos – a city where no space is provided for people who want to go to the beach without having to pay for it.
“The beach washed away a long time before we started building here,” David Adeleke says in defense of the development. He’s the spokesman for the massive project and has the task of shuttling journalists around – and parrying criticism of the project. There is plenty of it.
The officials behind Eko Island say it is one of the largest infrastructure projects currently taking shape on the African continent. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
The bones of contention are. among other things, the concrete blocks comprising the “Great Wall of Lagos.” There are 100,000 of them, each weighing five tons, interlocked and piled up as a protective wall against flood surges from the Atlantic. The waves break mightily against them, throwing spray several meters up into the air.
“The wall doesn’t just protect Eko Atlantic from rising sea levels, but also the Victoria Island business district,” says Adeleke. For the past several years, erosion has been eating ever deeper into the land in this part of West Africa, washing away entire stretches of coastline. The massive concrete blocks now protect the luxury project.
The “Great Wall of Lagos” is comprised of 100,000 concrete blocks, each of which weighs five tons. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
Only a few kilometers down the beach, the situation looks different. Alpha Beach was once notorious for its nighttime parties and debauchery. It was another aspect of the unregulated, wild megacity. But there’s not much left of the partying or the beach. The authorities targeted the former, while the water took the latter.
“We’ve had to move three times in the past few years,” says Afolabi Animashaun. He and his father run a bar at Alpha Beach, a pay beach on the east side of town that is at least semi-affordable. But they are slowly running out of patience. The water has already washed their business away three times – in 2009, 2010 and 2020. Each time, they rebuilt, a few meters further away from the shoreline. The water overtook the road along the waterfront years ago, and what little is left of the sandy beach is disappearing.
At Alpha Beach, homes are sinking and the water is slowly consuming everything. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
Experts worry that the wall built to protect the rich may have shifted ocean currents to areas like Alpha Beach – toward the people who can’t afford to pay $6,000 a month in rent. Lagos can be a ruthless place. The Eko Atlantic spokesman counters that erosion has always been a fact of life on that part of the coast.
The government has now erected a stone wall here as well, though quite a bit smaller. The commissioner for the environment in Lagos says the city is aware of the danger and wants to further expand the protective walls. “But it came too late for us,” bar owner Animashaun says.
Bar owner Afolabi Animashaun says he has had to move three times in the past few years. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
Eko Atlantic is also controversial among urban planners. “The local government is always seeking European and Western solutions,” criticizes Deji Akin, founder of the Rethinking Cities Africa initiative, which aims to develop ideas for more livable cities. “We should instead harness the strengths and the resilience that places like Makoko have created,” he says. “We don’t need bricks and cement – we should preserve and improve innovative grassroots structures.” In other words: Learn from Makoko.
Oluwadamilola Emmanuel agrees. He puts on his life jacket and climbs into a white boat. A little bit later, its two outboard motors are humming, leaving a foamy trail on the water as the boat skims past the glass facades of Victoria Island, past yachts and helipads for the super rich.
Oluwadamilola Emmanuel manages Lagos’ extensive network of ferries. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
“The water is the best means of transportation for a city located on a lagoon,” Emmanuel says. He’s the top manager of Lagos Waterways, the city’s ferry authority. One passenger explains how it takes her three hours to get to work by car – in each direction. The same trip takes only 30 minutes by ferry.
Traffic in Lagos is more than just gridlock. It’s an icon of a city that some statistics identify as the traffic jam capital of the world. It slows peoples’ lives down, making it impossible to have more than one or two appointments per day here.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/n9kyr/
Some studies estimate that the average commuter spends up to 30 hours a week in traffic jams, the better part of a work week. On any given day, as many as 5 million cars are plying the roads of Lagos, carrying 8 million passengers. It’s a continuous concert of horns, fist fights on the side of the road, and every inch of road is a battle. An Armageddon of cars.
Statistically, the average speed in Lagos is 17 kilometers per hour, compared to 44 in Munich. Male drivers usually carry an empty plastic bottle in case they have a bathroom emergency. The bottle often gets thrown out the window after they fill it.
Emmanuel talks about big plans for ridding the city of its congestion problem. Of the 40 piers that could be built and of the dozens more ships that could be deployed to relieve the traffic chaos
Congestion for as far as the eye can see: Commuters in Lagos need a lot of time.
But before it sets about expanding its ferry system, the city has another problem it needs to solve. “We are currently offering swimming lessons at the schools,” the manager explains. “Because the main problem is that a lot of people are afraid of the water.”
The fear is understandable. There have been many tragic accidents in the past and many boats run by the numerous private operators wouldn’t be allowed to carry passengers in many cities of the world. There are rules in place now that every passenger must wear a life jacket, a move aimed at inspiring confidence.
But another problem is the high ferry fares, which are unaffordable for many Lagosians. The local government seems bent on making money from services rather than subsidizing them. Currently, the ferry authority records 2 million passengers per month – not even one-hundredth of all road traffic. As they say in Lagos: There’s a lot of potential.
Everything in Lagos seems to be some kind of business transaction. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
Cities don’t get much more capitalistic than Lagos – even tranquility comes with a price tag, on sealed-off luxury islands where there’s even a bit of greenery growing. Water, especially, is a commodity. “Our water supply isn’t run as a public good, but more like a private entity,” says city planner Taibat Lawanson. The water system has barely been further developed since colonial times.
Experts estimate that 2 billion liters of water are needed in Lagos every day. The city’s waterworks is able to supply 795 million liters. It’s an irony that is so typical of this city: It is surrounded by water, but it doesn’t have enough to fill its own demand. Ultimately, the Lagosians do what they have always done: They take matters into their own hands. And they make money doing so.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/OqRnJ/
Oluwafemi Alowonle runs a water point. It’s not in a slum – it’s located in an area with paved streets and houses and apartments for the lower middle class. His father built a residential block here many years ago, and there has been no water coming out of the taps for about the last 10 years. Instead, he has been drilling for it himself at a depth of 55 meters.
The project became a business for him, with Oluwafemi now selling the water to the neighbors. The pipe is mounted so high that women balancing bowls on their heads can fit underneath it. “Oluwafemi is my government,” says one neighbor as he passes by. “He provides me with what I need. How am I supposed to survive without water?” The water merchant collects the equivalent of two euros for five buckets filled with water. “Business is booming,” he laughs.
Precious Oyem spends 45 minutes each day just fetching water. And that’s after sitting in a traffic jam for two hours. Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / DER SPIEGEL
But with a growing number of private individuals drilling ever deeper to supply themselves with water, the underground water reservoir is slowly threatening to disappear. “Lagos is a disaster waiting to happen,” says Akin of Rethinking Cities. “Sustainable urban planning is almost non-existent, and water is the weakest link.”
Precious Oyem gets worked up when talking about the issue. She just balanced five bowls of water on her head to take them to her apartment, where she poured them into a large barrel. Oyem has to do this every day. “My knees and my legs hurt,” she says. “I spend two hours a day in traffic commuting to work. Then I come home and have to waste another 45 minutes getting water. It’s killing me.”
Lagos is a place that requires you to pay full attention, around the clock.
With additional reporting by Dan Ikpoyi
Categories: Africa, Nigeria, Western Africa
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