The maze of shacks on stilts stretch out across the filthy water’s surface, canoes colliding as they hustle between them in a slum that serves as a warning for the world’s fastest growing continent.
Tens of thousands of people live amid fetid conditions and no public services in this water-top neighbourhood in the Nigerian economic capital of Lagos, already the largest city in Africa’s most populous nation.
“I’m just like the people. I don’t have shelter on the outside,” Friday Gezo, a 25-year-old teacher at a school started through donations, said from his wood-frame classroom when asked why he lived in the slum known as Makoko.
The United Nations (UN) on Monday symbolically marks the birth of the world’s seven-billionth person, and while Asia remains by far the most populated continent, Africa is the fastest growing.
Nigeria is the continent’s largest country when it comes to population, with around 160-million people, and the UN estimates it could grow to around 400-million by 2050.
Lagos, with its ostentatious mansions, overcrowded slums, flickering electricity and maddening traffic, provides an example of what such growth can look like. Its population is estimated in the range of 15-million.
Too many unemployed
The challenges are immense, particularly regarding housing, infrastructure and a lack of jobs for an exploding population of youths, but experts say there is also great potential if managed properly.
If not, unemployed youths could turn to crime or, particularly in the case of Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, extremist movements, observers say.
Nigeria, long held back by corruption, has so far been largely unable to leverage its status as Africa’s largest oil producer into true development.
A recent World Bank study found that as many as 50-million young people in Nigeria could be either unemployed or underemployed.
“That is a time bomb,” said John Litwack, the World Bank’s lead economist for Nigeria. “With too many energetic young people without employment opportunities, it’s very easy for them to move in the wrong direction.”
But the possible advantages can also be seen, and the resiliency of those who live in Makoko, as well as the boundless entrepreneurial energy of Nigerians in general, serve as proof.
Despite the frighteningly poor sanitation in Makoko, some residents talk with pride of how the waterfront climate strengthens them.
Many of the men who live there are fishermen, taking their canoes out into the lagoon in the shadow of the city to cast nets, then handing their catch over to their wives, who sell them.
Spending money they don’t have
A sawmill hums with activity, while boats ferry everything from traditional medicines to food, as pilots — sometimes children — pole them atop water as black as night. Houses are made from thatch, bamboo, scrap wood and burlap sacks.
Many of Makoko’s residents’ families originated from the neighbouring country of Benin, a former French colony. One ramshackle church has a phrase written in French on the outside: “The end times message of Jesus Christ.”
Makoko local chief Jeje Albert Ayede, dressed in a red, green and yellow traditional robe, said residents do not have the option of finding a home elsewhere in Lagos.
“The money they’re going to spend on the outside, they don’t have it,” he said.
Lagos environment commissioner Tunji Bello said the government wants to clear water-top slums such as Makoko.
It is willing to assist in relocation for those with a legitimate claim to businesses or property, but those who built illegally are another matter, he said.
“If you are not careful, that is an environmental disaster waiting to happen,” Bello said.
Regarding Lagos’ wider challenges, Bello said the government is seeking to have more affordable housing built as well as to attract more industry to provide jobs.
He acknowledges that infrastructure has lagged far behind population growth, blaming much of the problem on the federal government, which Bello says has not provided Lagos with nearly enough financing.
While it may not be immediately noticeable to an outsider, Lagos has made progress in recent years, putting gang members to work through jobs programmes, improving tax collection and following through on beautification projects.
It also has grand plans to build a new enclave on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, envisioned as a modern municipality that will attract major investment.
There are huge amounts of work to do to get there, but few doubt Nigeria’s potential. It has seen significant economic growth in recent years, a number of reforms have been undertaken and oil prices — vital for revenue — have been relatively high.
“In some ways, Nigeria has been in crisis for some time, but I think the opportunities have never been greater,” said Litwack of the World Bank. “I think now is a time when Nigeria can move ahead.” — AFP