John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Could Lagos Be a Model for the Developing World?

by John Campbell
January 8, 2014

People sit and trade under a bridge at the Orile-Iganmu district of Lagos, August 29, 2013. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters)


Seth D. Kaplan, writing in the opinion pages of the January 7 New York Times, observes that by 2015, half the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day will reside in fragile states. These poor contribute disproportionately to political instability, even terrorism. Nigeria is a fragile state, and the “worst run of the world’s most populated countries.”

Lagos, the commercial and cultural capital of the country, has a population of more than 17 million. By comparison, New York’s five boroughs numbered 8.337 million in 2012. Most Lagos residents are impoverished and large portions of the city are built in a swamp. Nevertheless, Kaplan suggests that Lagos may be a model for how fragile states might begin to succeed. Kaplan points out that in fragile countries such as Nigeria, central governments are often remote from their citizenry and politics is dominated by elites struggling for a larger piece of the pie. Not so, at least to the same extent, in urban agglomerations like Lagos where more localized elections take place.

Kaplan’s strategy (shared by many) is devolution of power from the corrupt national government to state and local governments and the creation of a local culture that holds governments accountable. Devolved power (under Nigeria’s 1999 constitution) means that the Lagos electorate can and does demand specific services, thereby encouraging candidates to address practical problems. Numerous Nigerian interlocutors have told me that something approaching a civic contract is indeed emerging in Lagos: citizens pay taxes and the city government provides services. Over the past decade public transportation, garbage collection, and street cleaning have dramatically improved. The Lagos state government has also become friendlier to business.

I would also suggest that Lagos has been fortunate in its leadership. The current governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola has vision, native political skills, and an eye for good management. So too did his predecessor, Bola Tinubu. So, one good governor succeeded another, though subsequently they have fallen out with each other. Kaplan also argues that in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city like Lagos, politicians cannot afford to pit ethnic and religious groups against one another. Both Tinubu and Fashola have emphasized what unites Lagos, not what divides it. Finally Lagos has had a long tradition of opposition to whatever government is installed in Abuja. Among other consequences, Lagos has had to meet its costs of government largely through local taxation rather than through oil revenue doled out by the central government. But, the nagging question remains how much of the progress in Lagos is the result of the personalities and skills of the last two governors, rather than a fundamental transformation of its political culture.

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  • Posted by Sulayman Dauda

    An interesting analysis and that’s the wisdom behind why Bola Tinubu handpick his Chief of Staff to succeed him. All that successive government are lacking is issue of continuity of policies and the maintainance culture. The issue of Tax in Lagos was as a result of necessity when the central government deny the Lagost State it statutory allocation over their wrangling on the local government creation by the State thus, necessary for Lagos to find a better way of generating revenue. This could be argued to be a litmus taste for the Nigerian Nation. Should oil get dried off and or the country decide to split, a better system revenue generation and accountability among the state remain the only option.

  • Posted by Franklin Nnebe

    I think the concept of “growing the pie” is what makes the Lagos state government stand out from the 35 other states in Nigeria that remain firmly subscribed to the idea of Nigerian “feeding bottle federalism”. Its not a wonder that Lagos which accounts for around 12% of the Nigerian economy today generates around 43% of Nigeria’s paltry $3 billion in Internally generated revenue.

    That Lagos dared where others did not and is willing to suffer increased scrutiny and agitation from its teeming taxed citizens supports your view that key to the city’s transformation are individual leaders like Tinubu and Fashola and not any particular change in Nigerian politics.

    Indeed, the pirate characteristic of Nigerian politics looms large like a vulture waiting for Fashola to leave. For there are many politicians ready to revert to the status quo of living off the easy oil money supply and returning Lagos to the chaos and lawlessness that is typical of most poorly governed Nigerian states.

    One hopes that rather than the Lagos experiment fail, instead, that leaders in the mold of Fashola would be at the vanguard of efforts to restructure a Nigeria away from the perverse incentives of easy government oil receipts towards a more accountable taxation system in which the federal and state governments have to work hard to justify their existence and garner revenue primarily through taxing constituents.

    Towards this, Nigeria has to to take hard decisions on how to manage its oil revenue. To me, an independently managed Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) as conceptualized by Dr. Okonjo-Iweala provides a wise starting point for getting oil revenue out of the treasury of government and managing it more judiciously. By investing Nigeria’s oil revenue in profitable private projects and public infrastructural projects the SWF provides a better alternative than the present dispensation of employing a large number of unqualified and idle government workers and building all manner of unprofitable and over-inflated government projects.

    Then, Nigeria federal, state and local governments should transition to a new reality where they pay for their operating costs fully through taxes. It would make all these arms of Nigerian government far more efficient, effective and accountable and force them to do what Lagos has done which is invest in their cities and in productive areas of their states to bolster taxation revenue .

  • Posted by Ayo Adene

    Many people would probably suggest that Lagos has always had good governors, as far back as Marwa (80s) or Mobolaji-Johnson (70s). It’s that kind of city where no one can thrive except they are smart and action-oriented, sort of like New York. There is definitely a different culture and way of thinking in Lagos that sets it apart from the rest of Nigeria, and you can feel it as soon as you drive in to the city.

  • Posted by Jennifer Upton

    No way can Lagos be a role model for anything but how NOT to do things

  • Posted by Chike

    I think this analysis is very simplistic.

    Lagos thrives because it has infrastructure that isn’t found anywhere in Nigeria (apart from Abuja), it has Nigeria’s only really functional seaport & it happens to attract Nigeria’s most talented.

    Lagos was largely built, by Gowon, during the Oil Boom era of the 70s – & since no other coastal city has the same advantages as Lagos, Lagos will continue in its dominant position.

    Those of us who live in Lagos understand what’s behind Lagos success – location & infrastructure. Remove both or replicate the same infrastructure elsewhere & Lagos will start looking a lot less impressive.

    It is true that the local administration in Lagos has done a lot of work on infrastructure, but Lagos still leans heavily on infrastructure built during the 70s – & it has been very difficult for it to complete game-changing infrastructural projects like the Lagos light rail, the Badagry expressway or a 4th Mainland bridge.

    Ibadan, a massive city, has been virtually cut off from Lagos due to Federal Government incompetence – the Lagos/Ibadan expressway has been abandoned by government for close to 20 years. Calabar, another coastal city, put in place impressive infrastructure to attract commerce & investment – but the Federal Government, either through incompetence or political considerations, has consistently refused to dredge Calabar’s port.

    Enugu, the major city in the South East, just got an international airport – it had been denied an international airport since the end of the Civil War as a “punishment for Biafra”.

    So due to a combination of politics and sheer incompetence from the Federal Government, towns that could compete with Lagos are denied that advantage & Lagos’s achievement appear to be so stellar.

    The truth is a bit more complicated.

  • Posted by Chike

    Another important factoid is this: Lagos can barely deal with the crush of humanity migrating daily to it. It is fast running out of space to build property – so it stands at risk of collapsing under its own weight before it “saves Nigeria”.

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