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

The continent's booming new economic zones are outstripping the ability of weak central governments to retain their hold on them.
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Heavy traffic on a bridge in the Ikoyi neighbourhood in Lagos on March 27, 2012. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

Twice as populous today as the next biggest African country, Nigeria, which was cobbled together as a colony 100 years ago, has always stood out on its continent as the most ambitious and in many ways fanciful creation of British imperialism.

First, it was given its name in 1897 by Flora Shaw, a journalist for the London Times, and then run by her eventual husband, Lord Lugard, a former army officer and civil servant who recognized from the outset, even as he unified what had been a hodgepodge collection of protectorates, that its disparate regions had almost nothing common.

Almost from the moment of its independence in 1960, Britain's fractious, artificial concoction has been falling apart, haunted by the twin specters of state failure and breakup.

In the country's first decade, it was riven by the Biafran War, a vicious, ethnically driven bid for secession by its southeasterners that killed 2 million people and still ranks as one of the continent's deadliest civil conflicts.

An oil boom in the 1970s briefly seemed to promise widespread prosperity. Instead, it brought a long period of runaway corruption, military coups, and abysmal misrule that have left 60 percent of the population living under the poverty line.

Civilian government and democracy were restored to Nigeria in 1999, but this has not meant the arrival of competent national leadership, nor to a halt in the procession of crises.

This decade has been marked by the alarming spread of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in the overwhelmingly Muslim northern half of the country, and by the rampant piracy of oil, Nigeria's main source of revenue, in the southeast.

But from the perspective of a fast-arriving future, even threats like these to the authority of Nigeria's federal government may soon pale alongside a far more fundamental challenge to national cohesion: Nigeria's phenomenal population growth.

Presently, almost all of sub-Saharan Africa is growing at sustained rates unmatched in modern history. In this regard, Mali, Nigeria's resource-poor and largely desertified West African neighbor, is fairly typical. The United Nations projects that the country, one of the world's ten poorest nations, will see its population rise to nearly 50 million by mid-century from its present base of about 16 million.

Nigeria, a rambunctiously energetic country with roughly twice the area of California, may be on a slightly slower growth path, but its already huge size makes its trajectory far more dramatic. The country's headcount is expected to double from a shade under 200 million today to 400 million by 2050, and by century's end will reach an almost unimaginable 750 million -- more than half the size of China -- according to the UN's cautious median projections.

Given the disastrous nature of so much news from Africa, one could easily expect this to be a story about hellish population bombs. It is not. Rather, it is a look at how booming demographics are fueling economic growth in many parts of Africa, while at the same time radically stressing the continent's political geography.

More specifically, it is a glimpse at how urban centers led by Lagos, Africa's biggest city, are positioning themselves to accomplish what any number of rebel groups and secessionists movements have failed to achieve since the continent's independence era commenced in the late 1950s: redraw a remarkably static political map of Africa, imposed by European imperialists over a century ago.

Here and there already, the continent's biggest cities are spawning enormous urban corridors that are spilling over borders and creating vigorous new economic zones that are outstripping the ability of weak and plodding central governments to manage or even retain their hold on them.

Lagos, which sits in the southwestern corner of Nigeria, sprawled over a collection of islands and swampy coastlands, occupies the leading edge of this phenomenon. Today, its extraordinary growth is driving sweeping changes in a five-country region that stretches 500 miles westward along a band of palm-shaded seaboard all the way to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a mushrooming city of perhaps six million people that has long been this region's other major economic and cultural pole.

In between them, in one of the busiest staging areas of the historic Atlantic slave trade, West Africa is laying the foundations of one of the world's biggest megalopolises, and in Lagos itself, the start of a potentially powerful new city-state.

With an estimated 18 million people (no one knows for sure) Lagos has grown in size nearly 40-fold since independence, and its expansion is still accelerating. Nigerian demographers estimate that as many as 5,000 newcomers migrate here every day, putting Lagos on track to easily double in size again before mid-century, when it will be a top contender for the title of the world's largest city.

For decades, Lagos suffered one of the worst images of any city in the world, known widely as a place of thieving politicians, streets that crackled with danger, rotting infrastructure and "go-slows," the monstrous, daily traffic jams in which people melt in their seats in the stifling, humid heat while praying they won't be held up at gunpoint by robbers. The city's most famous native son, the late musician, Fela, even coined a shorthand term for the Lagos's litany of hardships: "impossibility-ism."

But with the outside world having almost written it off, Lagos has recently enjoyed a prolonged run of strong economic growth, swelling its GDP to twice the size of Kenya's, the richest and most important nation in East Africa. And while booming like this, Lagos has also begun to quietly develop a reputation for some of the most effective local governments in all of West Africa.

Under the leadership of a succession of ambitious, modernizing governors from the opposition Action Party, Lagos has embarked on an unprecedented construction spree, building freeways, sub-Saharan Africa's first metro system outside of South Africa, and public housing units on a large scale. At the same time, this famously rough place has even added subtler quality of life improvements like the proliferation of public green spaces.

In a torrential afternoon rain one day, I drove to the seafront of Victoria Island, Lagos's main business and financial quarter, to visit one of the city's most ambitious new developments, a vast real estate project known as Eko Atlantic City. It is an entirely new district will house 250,000 people in high-rise apartment buildings, banks in corporate office towers, other businesses and hotels, and an 18-mile tramway.

With physical space for expansion fast running out, to build it, the city is filling in with rocks and sand 9 million square meters of ocean, an area one and a half times larger than Victoria Island itself.

For now, all that one can see is a vast, flat expanse of sand that stretches to the horizon, its southern border defined by a nearly 4.5-mile long seawall of boulders and concrete tetrapods piled high to hold back the ocean.

Ten enormous dump trucks filled with large rocks rumbled by while I climbed atop the seawall. On average, I was told, 300 of them unburden themselves of their 25-30 ton loads every day.

"Land used to exist here," a guide in hardhat told me, as we stood on the newly packed sand. "It took about 100 years for the ocean to reach that point," she said, gesturing toward Victoria Island's Bar Beach in the distance.

If Lagos alone were growing like this, the disruption it would pose to the region's staid political order would be marginal. But along with the world's fastest population growth, over the next several decades Africa will also experience the highest urbanization rates anywhere on the planet. In this decade alone, cities in West Africa will swell by an additional 58 million people, according to the United Nations.

Between 2020 to 2030, an additional 69 million people will fill out the region's bulging cities, and urbanization rates will continue accelerating like this at least until mid-century.

As a result, demographers foresee the emergence of hundreds of new, full-fledged cities born from what are now modest, faceless towns, as well as many others simply created from scratch that will begin popping to life like stars born from gathering dust in the cosmos.

Most existing cities, meanwhile, will undergo enormous expansion, swelling beyond recognition from what they have looked like only recently. Here and there, new urban corridors will spring up, along the lines of the 50-million strong 400-mile stretch of eastern seaboard between Boston and Washington, D.C., only far more populous.

And this is where Africa's new political geography comes in. A simple tally of the projections for the three principal cities in this corridor, Lagos, Abidjan, and Accra, adds up to a mid-century population of 54 million.

To this, however, one must add places like Ibadan, Nigeria (presently 2 million people), only 80 miles from Lagos, Takoradi, Ghana (500,000 people), and the capitals of what are today sovereign countries, Lomé, Togo (1.5 million) and Cotonou, Benin (1.2 million). Throw in the countless other towns and cities along the way that will be swelling or springing to life, and the foreseeable result is a dense and nearly unbroken urban zone from end to end.

While I was in Abidjan on a recent visit, ground was broken on a multilane highway project that will run eastward along the coast, to Ghana, replacing the familiar old, potholed carriage road that for decades has rambled through brine-swept palm oil plantations.

A few weeks later in Nigeria, I visited an immense new Chinese industrial zone being built on the far eastern outskirts of Lagos, the Lekki Free Zone, a 60-40 joint venture between a Chinese consortium and the Lagos State government that is being promoted as West Africa's answer to Dubai.

Even if that seems like a stretch, global energy firms and Chinese manufacturers of everything from furniture and palm oil products, to solar panels and automobiles, have already become early, enthusiastic investors. A Singaporean company, meanwhile, is at work building a deep-water port, which is due to begin operations in 2015, and to the immediate northwest of the zone, a new international airport is also under construction.

Investment in the zone represents a bet that if the government can provide land and labor at internationally competitive rates, along with reliable power supply and streamlined immigration and customs formalities, foreign investors will flock to the area. Their aim would not only be to manufacture things for export to faraway markets, but to take advantage of the emerging West African megalopolis's attractive demographics, including high population density and a fast-rising middle class.

Arguably the most important of that city's recent mega-projects is the Badagry Expressway, a newly opened, ten-lane road and rail corridor that will soon push onward to the nearby border with Benin.

Far more than a simple road, the highway is the physical embodiment of the politically transformative integration to come -- think the I-95 of West Africa. At some point before long, it will merge with the highway being built eastward from Ivory Coast, perhaps somewhere in Ghana. But even before that can happen, tiny Benin and Togo, countries whose sliver-thin shapes mark them as conspicuous examples of fanciful European mapmaking, will face a powerful new existential challenge.

The most sacrosanct rule of continental politics in the post-independence era has always been the taboo on tampering with Africa's borders, which almost every state has recognized as arbitrary and irrational, and yet equally essential. The Europeans may have consulted no Africans in drawing them up, but to renounce them now would be to open a gigantic Pandora's box, and a recipe for endless, costly conflict.

But now the massive growth of cities in the region points to ways that borders and the nation states they contain can be overtaken or even rendered irrelevant without war or confrontation.

Like that of Lagos, well-managed, democratic Ghana's resource-driven economy is booming, meaning that for Togo and Benin, the two little backwaters sandwiched in between them, hopes of prosperity will increasingly mean hitching their fortunes to those of their far larger neighbors. This will steadily force French speakers in these countries to opt for English, at a minimum, as the language of business and opportunity. And the switch of colonial languages is likely to be merely the first step toward unprecedented integration.

In fact, many see Lagos's creeping interpenetration of Benin as being already well under way, pointing to a 2003 incident as an important milestone. It involved an armed robber from neighboring Benin who attacked a car owned by a close friend of the sitting Nigerian president's daughter. The bandit fled back to Benin to escape arrest, but Nigeria punitively closed its border, which essentially meant cutting off trade with Lagos, Benin's lifeline. Within 72 hours the suspect was arrested and delivered to Nigerian authorities.

"We already have houses on the border where the sitting room is in Nigeria and the bedroom is in Benin," said F.A.D. Oyekunmi, a demographer at University of Lagos. "I think Benin will remain the Benin Republic, but the string of communities that will spring up along the Badagary Expressway, all the way to the border and beyond, will become the nucleus of one new, giant and integrated urban area -- one economy."

The biggest challenge posed by the growth of Lagos and the consolidation of an enormous, sub-regional economic zone around it, however, is not to the city's minuscule neighbors. Rather, it is to Nigeria's continued existence as a unitary nation.

If present trends continue, in another decade or two, Lagos's economy will surpass the size of the rest of Nigeria.

What has held the country together in the past, however tenuously, is the redistribution of money earned from the country's oil exports. But this is changing fast, as Lagos booms and its dependence on this ever more thinly sliced revenue -- what Nigerian politicians call the "national cake" -- dwindles.

"If [Lagos's] GDP continues to rise the way it is, the federal contribution to [the city] could shrink to 5 percent," Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, the director of a leading independent Nigerian think tank, the Center for Policy Alternatives told me in an interview in his stylish offices. "What you would end up with is a virtual country. All of the parameters, absent an army, police and currency of your own, are there. We are good to go."

Not everyone agrees that Lagos can achieve this kind of autonomy through economic change alone. But as strong as it is, growth may only be the second most important challenge the city poses to the nation.

After decades of drift, Nigeria's own people increasingly see Africa's largest country as broken and fundamentally unworkable, perhaps beyond repair. Nigeria is the world's 11th largest oil producer, and yet it imports all of its gasoline -- it does not have a single working refinery. Just as gallingly for Africa's energy powerhouse, most of its citizens live without electricity from the grid.

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."

Presented by

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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