The Washington Post

Lagos, Nigeria:

A MEGACITY LIKE NO OTHER

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Set to become the world’s most populous city, Lagos faces all the challenges rapid growth poses, which can be boiled down to one: planning. Can solutions outpace the weight tens of millions of new inhabitant­s will place on a city that is low-slung and dense, situated on polluted lagoons and rivers, and short on public services?

On a new expressway in the city on track to become the world’s most populous, Abolaji Surajuddin lurches his packed minibus forward in traffic. Then he switches off the ignition for the 10th time in 10 minutes. It will take him three hours to travel 15 miles.

He’s driving one of nearly 100,000 decrepit “danfo” buses in Lagos — the main means of public transport — all of them decades-old hand-me-downs from wealthier countries.

Surajuddin’s ancient Volkswagen Transporte­r, its bare wooden benches packed with 20 weary commuters, shudders as he turns it off. Humidity sets in.

Hawkers encircle, selling small plastic packets of water.

Passengers sigh.

“This is every day,” one says, when a reporter turns around and looks at her with a sympatheti­c face. “This. Is. Every. Day,” she repeats.

The traffic is a manifestat­ion of what Lagosians fear most for their city: There is no plan. Lagos will balloon to 30 million, then 50 million, maybe even 100 million people, and meanwhile the government will keep unveiling new visions for the city that never come to fruition. Many doubt even its simplest promises, such as the impending inaugurati­on of a single subway line that was supposed to open a decade ago.

That’s why the small talk in this city isn’t about weather. It’s about traffic. The horror stories aren’t of bad jams; they’re of the times the “go-slow” became a “no-go” and everyone just left their cars in the road, figuring they would fetch them once the day’s obstructio­ns — a flooded patch of road, a brokendown truck — were cleared.

Surajuddin’s daily route down one of Lagos’s most severely clogged arteries reveals the city’s dangerousl­y high blood pressure. On the trip between Ajah — a newly developing suburb on the eastern edge of Lagos — and downtown, he said, he usually witnesses half a dozen fights between drivers unbottling their tempers after hours stuck in place.

“Maybe the government has tried to improve traffic, but we can’t see it,” Surajuddin says. “Because what good is a road if all you do is fight every day for an inch of space on it?”

He kicks the Transporte­r back into gear and focuses on the tasks at hand: maneuver wisely, don’t dent someone, conserve fuel.

“Yes, I am tired. My brain is tired, my hands are tired, my soul is tired. I am tired of this city,” the 39-year-old says. “But I am feeding my family.”

Projecting population growth

When demographe­rs predict a city’s size far into the future, they seek to create growth models that account for variables such as shifting levels of education, family planning, climate change and migration.

In other words, values for political choices can be plugged into population-growth algorithms to change the outcome.

No matter how the values are tweaked, though, Lagos emerges as the world’s most populous city at some point between now and 2100, in study after study. Changing the inputs affects only how soon and by how much.

Lagos is already enormous, but no one is sure how many people live there. City officials say there are at least 20 million residents; the United Nations puts the number at a more modest 15 million — still nearly double New York City’s population.

Every new Lagosian has their own reason for coming here: fleeing poverty, fleeing conflict, fleeing family burdens, perhaps. The birthrate in Nigeria — one of the world’s highest — means the city also grows rapidly on its own.

“There’s no exact science” for determinin­g the city’s population, said Taibat Lawanson, a professor of urban planning at the University of Lagos. She explained that most Nigerians go to ancestral villages for census counts, even though they live in Lagos most of the time. A huge proportion of the city’s residents are itinerant laborers who sleep in different locations from week to week, making census questions about household size irrelevant.

“If anything, Lagos’s population is probably higher than anyone gives it credit for,” she said.

A study published last year in the Lancet forecasts that Nigeria will become more populous than China by the end of the century, as birthrates rapidly shrink in some parts of the world — East Asia, eastern and southern Europe, the Caribbean — and level off in others, such as the United States, which is projected to have a similar population in 2100 as now.

Most of Africa’s population will continue to grow rapidly this century. Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania are all forecast to join

Nigeria among the 10 most populous countries by 2100. North Africa and southern Africa, while continuing to grow, will do so at much lower rates than the rest of the continent.

Unlike China and Vietnam, which have imposed limits on the number of children families could have during periods of rapid growth, no African government­s have attempted large-scale population control, although many do promote family planning.

In three projection­s by the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Institute, Africa accounted for at least 10 of the world’s 20 most populous cities in 2100. Even in the institute’s middle-of-the-road developmen­t scenario, cities that many Americans may seldom read about, such as Niamey, Niger, and Lusaka, Zambia, eclipse New York City in growth.

No real public services

Depictions of Lagos in the news often focus on poverty; the urban landscape is frequently reduced to Makoko, a singular slum that sits on stilts above the city’s huge lagoon, where members of a local fishing community smoke their catch before distributi­ng it.

But Makoko accounts for less than 1 percent of Lagos’s population. More than half the city’s residents live in what Lagosians call “face-me-i-faceyou” housing, where space is so tight that several people sleep in the same room, either back to back or facing one another.

That is what most Lagosians can afford — in part because services such as water and sewage, which in other countries are subsidized by the government,

are controlled in Lagos by private companies that often overcharge for what they provide.

Even public transport is a misnomer: Danfos and motorcycle taxis, known as okadas, are all privately owned. That makes it easier for elites in the government to routinely ban them.

Ayandele Olushola, 39, nearly lost his livelihood when okadas were banned in 2020. Every governor of Lagos in the past two decades has attempted a ban.

“The people who govern this city are brutes, banning this and that left and right,” said Olushola, who, like countless others, pays off police officers to continue working. “We are providing a service that millions of people need 24/7. There is no alternativ­e except to walk, and they ban us.”

Lindsay Sawyer, a researcher at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute who has written extensivel­y about Lagos, said many of the city’s problems stem from the fact that nothing is really public.

“Can we accept the reality that there will likely never be those centralize­d services? Why push for metro lines when you can work with the danfo organizati­ons? Why criminaliz­e reliable services instead of formalizin­g them?” Sawyer said in a recent phone call. “They’re not working with urban realities, perhaps because they’re not living in them.”

Olushola and his roommate Samson Odunlami, 30, a baker, share a face-me-i-face-you room with three others in a relatively common arrangemen­t: all men, all paying slightly different rates depending on who sleeps on the room’s single mattress vs. the couch, or the rattan mat on the floor.

The aim is to save up and get out.

“I am very sure about my savings — 5 percent every year. In nine years, I will be able to afford a place with my family in Surulere,” said Odunlami, referring to a relatively better-off neighborho­od where families, instead of groups of men, often take up single rooms.

But won’t Lagos have millions more people in nine years, and won’t it be more expensive — have you factored that in?

His earlier optimism disappeare­d, and he switched into Nigerian Pidgin English, his more comfortabl­e language.

“God no dey promise future,” he said. “If you dey come give am ticket to leave this here country, I will disappear o. I will not even stop home for pick my bag.”

The prevalence of face-me-i-face-you housing means the heads of many Lagosian families live separately in single-sex quarters. It also means children often live outside the city with grandparen­ts, while their parents work to afford an entire room they can share.

“I see my kids every three months,” said Saidat Bunmi Ayanwole, 37, who sells plastic kitchenwar­e on the street in downtown Lagos. She pays roughly $3 a week to sleep in a room nearby. She said her husband never visits the kids, who are with her mother.

Despite the challenges, millions continue to pour into Lagos from the rest of Nigeria.

“You can get started in Lagos with practicall­y nothing if you are willing to live on the street,”

Lawanson said. “Come in on a truck. Buy a broken basket. Use it to transport goods. Use the money to buy a wheelbarro­w — there’s a ready market for that kind of labor.”

But Lawanson and other researcher­s cautioned against believing wholesale in projection­s of 80 million or even 100 million people in greater Lagos. Not because that’s infeasible, but because the city is already so strained, there’s no guarantee that people will continue to find the kind of economic opportunit­y that draws them here now.

“These projection­s are based on people not leaving Lagos as it falls apart,” Lawanson said. Stuck in traffic herself, she canceled an in-person interview and instead spoke by video call from her car, horns blaring and hawkers shouting right outside her window.

Grand plans for new infrastruc­ture

The city’s government assures Lagosians that there is a plan — in fact, multiple “master plans,” “developmen­t plans,” “model plans” and various visions, such as Lagos 2030 and Lagos 2050.

“We are not worried,” said Idris Salako, commission­er of the Urban Developmen­t Ministry for Lagos’s state government.

Salako talks about new jetties being built to make ferry travel across the lagoon easier and gets animated about removing the pesky roundabout junctions built in less-populous times.

But in a city where the first and only major bridge over the lagoon was built decades ago, his assurance that not one but five more are being planned is scoffed at by many Lagosians — as are the four metro lines he says are “in the pipeline.”

“Danfo and okada are menaces, and we will gradually be rid of them,” Salako said of the transport that not only ferries nearly all the city’s millions but employs millions as well.

The unavoidabl­e problem is budget. Nigeria spends 75 percent of its annual budget on civil servant salaries and other costs, leaving little for infrastruc­ture projects. Lagos state has higher tax revenue than any other in Nigeria, but collection is still abysmally low.

Without new infrastruc­ture to keep up with the growth, it now takes longer to cross Lagos from one edge to the other in a danfo than it does to fly to Lagos from Europe. Lyrics written half a century ago by Fela Kuti, the legendary Lagosian king of Afrobeat, still ring true: “Before-before Lagos traffic na special, eh / Number one special all over the world / You go get PHD for driving for Lagos, eh.”

It’s going to take more than master plans to keep Lagos from imploding, Lawanson says. And like Sawyer, she says the solutions already exist in the creative ways Lagosians have adapted to a city where traffic and face-me-i-face-you are facts of life. Rather than restrictin­g those practices, adapting them for rapid growth needs to be at the center of the plan, she says — not an imitative subway system or dredgedup land on which luxury apartments can be built.

“Creative thinking is required, as well as compassion,” Lawanson said. “We cannot be like Dubai, which is a utopian aspiration some of our leaders have. We have to be the best Lagos we can be.”

 ?? ?? Nearly 100,000 bright yellow “danfo” buses, carrying tightly packed passengers, serve as the main means of public transport in the congested streets of Lagos. But “public transport” is actually a misnomer because the danfos are all privately owned; many are decades old and some even need repairs while on the road. Above, people make their way among danfos at Idumota Market on Lagos Island, a commercial district of the city.
Nearly 100,000 bright yellow “danfo” buses, carrying tightly packed passengers, serve as the main means of public transport in the congested streets of Lagos. But “public transport” is actually a misnomer because the danfos are all privately owned; many are decades old and some even need repairs while on the road. Above, people make their way among danfos at Idumota Market on Lagos Island, a commercial district of the city.
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 ?? ?? Lagos is traditiona­lly divided into a “Mainland” and “Island” dichotomy, but overcrowdi­ng in both has driven huge growth along the Lekki Peninsula and in neighborin­g Ogun state.
Structures
Lagos is traditiona­lly divided into a “Mainland” and “Island” dichotomy, but overcrowdi­ng in both has driven huge growth along the Lekki Peninsula and in neighborin­g Ogun state. Structures
 ?? PHOTOS BY ANDREW ESIEBO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY ANDREW ESIEBO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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