How Africa's New Urban Centers Are Shifting Its Old Colonial Boundaries

The arrival here a decade ago of increasingly effective, development-minded local government has already delivered a profound jolt to the country's system, shifting much of the action in national politics from the hopelessly corrupt and ineffectual federal level to Nigeria's 36 states.

Lagos has achieved this by providing what its incumbent two-term governor, Babatunde Fashola, a hard-driving, 50-year-old lawyer and latecomer to politics has called a social contract, which is something the national government has clearly never delivered, nor scarcely even hinted at.

At its simplest, it amounts to the promise that if citizens and businesses will pay their taxes, the local government will guarantee them services. What is more, Fashola, and his Action Congress predecessor, Bola Tinubu, have won a string of elections by urging voters to judge them on this basis.

Fashola, who previously served as Tinubu's chief of staff, told me that when the tax collection efforts began, in 1999, the city was officially taking in a paltry $4 million a month. "Today, we are doing 15-16 billion naira ($101 million), and the incredible thing is that haven't raised taxes. We are still a long way off, though, because we estimate modestly that 8 million people are employed here, and only 3 million are in our tax net."

In a region full of states rendered unaccountable to their citizens by the so-called resource curse, which allows elites -- in Nigeria, the so-called top million -- to live off of their production of raw materials, this stands out as a surprisingly radical idea.

To wit, the city's approach to politics and governance are being emulated in other states, especially elsewhere in the country's south, and as dependence on the center and on oil revenue steadily weakens, many now say, so inevitably will the rational for Nigeria as we know it.

The first of two lengthy conversations I had with Fashola, came at end of a news conference at his sprawling state government complex. When the assembled local press began to break up and his aides introduced me, the governor asked me what he could do for me, to which I requested that he sit down for an interview.

Fashola's aides had previously described him to me as restless, impatient and endlessly demanding. "He looks around us constantly and feels this is not good enough," one of them had told me. "We have the resources, we have the materials, we have the people, and our lives could be much better."

Now they looked on aghast when he responded by immediately inviting me into his office and speaking in impassioned, rapid-fire fashion about his ambitions for the city.

These included building a series of new satellite towns around central Lagos in order to accommodate its mushrooming population. He spoke about the need to revive the civil service by attracting talented people from the private sector. He spoke about ongoing efforts to improve education by involving parents more in their children's schooling.

"One of the new reforms we have initiated is that parents must attend a minimum 90 percent of the parents-teachers association meetings for their kids to move on to the next class," he said, adding that, "if the parents take school seriously, the children will naturally do so."

Fashola spoke of being inspired by visits to other cities that have emerged rapidly in other underdeveloped parts of the world, beginning with Singapore. "I met with Lee Kwan Yew, and the people who worked with him. I knew from what they did that we could do it too, and I came back very angry. I went to Dubai on the same trip, and what they are doing there is absolutely audacious. It put rockets in my shoes."

Early one morning, I set out in another driving rain to the governor's official residence, from which I would follow Fashola's motorcade for an inspection tour of new housing projects being built by the Lagos state government.

As my hired car approached Tafawa Balewa Square in the heart of the city, amid heavy traffic, a motorbike rider squeezed into the space between us and the car just ahead. On the frame of his license plate were printed the words, "Trust No One," which to me seemed to capture the old spirit of the city I had known since the late-1970s.

That grudging old Lagos was a place of constant police shakedowns and of endless aggression. It was a place where the bodies of people hit by cars were uncollected and became flattened into thin pulp instead from being run over countless times.

Arriving at the residence, officers in the governor's security detail instructed me to ditch my car and climb aboard one of the vans containing the state house press corps. Nigeria's press has long been one of the most competitive and hard-bitten on the continent, and together with a couple dozen of its members, I waited under an elevated expressway that runs along the waterfront opposite the city's busy port.

There, on Marina Road, the traffic was heavy and slow, but never reached a full standstill. More remarkably, the whole time we waited, public buses zipped by in special lanes introduced by Tinubu, and greatly expanded since, in a bid to combat the city's notorious traffic.

The expansion was signature Fashola, applying public policy tools to everyday problems, and it had dramatically eased the commuting times for millions of residents. This, of course, contributed to the wild popularity of the measure, but there was something else at work in the enthusiastic public response. Nigerians had long been simply unaccustomed to their government doing anything to make their lives easier.

Waiting for the governor's motorcade to take off, I asked one of the State House reporters if life had been improving in the city, and he gave me a befuddled look, the kind one can get in response to a stupid question.

"There are too many things to name," the reporter replied. "You don't even need to ask. It's everywhere: traffic, service delivery, health care, the courts..." His voice trailed off.

When we finally set off, before crossing the seven-mile span of the Third Mainland Bridge, which connects Lagos Island to continental Africa, the governor's motorcade whisked its way up and around a looping overpass that traced the circumference of a large knoll below.

The reporter I'd befriended nudged me to make sure that I had taken in the sight. What once would have been an open expanse of dirt, a favored preserve of toughs lying in wait to ambush motorists, was now planted in manicured grass, replete with tulips and other flowers.

When we reach the mainland, though, it became abundantly clear that Lagos was not yet tamed. The traffic was manic and disordered on the main boulevard we pursued, with cars, battered tro-tros, or taxi-like vans, motorbikes and even daredevil pedestrians all jousting for precious road space.

No one seems to have ever contemplated zoning in this city, and grimy industrial parks, ramshackle high- and low-rise housing, and commerce of all kinds, together with an extraordinary proliferation of churches on nearly every block, were all joined together in a chaotic mix.

Our motorcade finally pulled of the main avenue and entered into a tight grid of streets that was bursting at the seams with people and bustling with petty traders. Without warning, our press vehicle suddenly stopped and the reporters and cameramen run, as if for their lives, dodging massive puddles, to get inside a walled-off construction site before the governor's car made its entrance, so that they could get their shots.

Simultaneously, Fashola's security men, large and unsmiling, also rushed to take up their positions, and then the governor's vehicle, a black SUV, pulled onto the grounds of the site and the governor emerged, tall, smiling and exuding confidence as he buttoned the blue blazer he wore over an open collared shirt and crisp khakis.

With aides and construction company representatives cocooned around him, the governor strode forward toward a collection of nearly completed apartment blocks, firing off a series of detailed questions, and pressing for more minutiae when the answers disappointed him.

When he finished, the governor engaged in a lively give and take with local reporters who scrummed around him, lobbing tough questions.

Noting the relatively modest number of units involved in this project, a Nigerian TV reporter pressed a skeptical question, asking whether the new housing complexes we had seen weren't largely propaganda devices; more symbol than substance for a city flooding with new residents.

Fashola's posture grew more erect as he bristled, but his answer made clear that he relished her challenge. "You know how many projects that have been launched in Nigeria that we don't see again today?" came his reply. Far larger numbers of units would be coming on stream in the future, he added, but unlike other governments, his administration wanted to emphasize work that was being delivered, and not make promises.

"If you [announce]a scheme and there are no houses, it will just be a big advertisement, and we do not do that. If we are committed to something in the state, we deliver it."

Curious local residents had filtered onto the construction site, forming clusters in the shaded wings. They were kept at a distance by the governor's security detail, but could follow the exchange, and with that they applauded.

As Fashola turned on his heels, bringing the press conference to a close, he waved to them. Instead of smiling and saying "thank you," as one might have expected, his parting words were: "Pay your taxes!"

The long-held attitude toward Lagos of Nigeria's federal government and of its leading national politicians, many of whom have hailed from the country's poorer and less developed north, can be summed up in the famous 1975 New York Daily News front page in which then-president Gerald R. Ford supposedly told a near bankrupt New York City to "drop dead." (Historians later established that Ford never quite used those words.)

But the revival of Lagos, and the widening discrepancy between governance there and the steady underperformance of one national government after another, including most recently the hapless administration of the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, has produced an extraordinary reversal of fortunes.

Its strong tax collection efforts and local economic growth have given the city the means to fund 70 percent of its own operations, dramatically reducing dependence on redistributed oil income; meaning only 30 percent of its revenue comes from the national budget.

If such trends continue, as Nigeria's troubles grow, one can imagine a Daily News-style headline that reads: "Lagos to Abuja: Drop Dead."

Nigerians economists say that if the international price for oil dips below $90 a barrel, the government in Abuja will become insolvent. That is based on the country's current population of 167 million people. In a quarter century, when Nigeria will likely have 300 million inhabitants, the game of redistributing oil income will be dramatically less rewarding.Richard Joseph, a Northwestern University political scientist who is a leading scholar on Nigeria, places it in a group of nations that he calls "big, messy countries," where ethnically-based regions -- places like Gujarati India or Kurdish Iraq -- emerge to distinguish themselves by functioning at a substantially higher level than the nations that contain them.

Joseph said the question of whether or not Fashola's models, places like Singapore or Dubai, are within Lagos's striking range, is a matter of distant speculation.

"The question is whether a vibrant, efficient, democratic Lagos can emerge within a more dysfunctional Nigeria," Joseph said. "My sense is that there is a lot of space for them to go forward."

Fashola plays down the doubters, but he acknowledges that Nigeria's grave dysfunctions hinder Lagos. "We have the power to galvanize Nigeria. Lagos can be the locomotive for the Nigerian nation. How far we can travel, though, depends on what happens with Nigeria."

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Howard W. French is the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, and is writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.

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