Why governing Lagos is Nigeria’s ultimate political prize

Lagos, as West Africa’s commercial hub, is arguably a bigger prize for any politician than Nigeria’s presidency itself. (Reuters)

Lagos, as West Africa’s commercial hub, is arguably a bigger prize for any politician than Nigeria’s presidency itself. (Reuters)

Welcome to Lagos, to the urban jungle. Historically, the city-state served as a major route for carting away slaves in the transatlantic slave trade. Now, it is the economic gateway into West Africa — and, on Saturday, the site of a bitterly-contested gubernatorial election.

The walls of every major street are barely visible for the posters of the two main rival candidates for governor, begging for votes.
The stakes are high: Lagos, as West Africa’s commercial hub, is arguably a bigger prize for any politician than Nigeria’s presidency itself.

Babajide Sanwo-Olu, representing the All Progressives Congress which currently controls both the state and the country, is running a digital-savvy campaign targeting the youth vote: social media adverts run daily, and he has appeared at youth-centred events like Social Media Week Lagos. Offline, he has focused on winning over the older demographic by sponsoring surgeries in state hospitals.

The opposition People’s Democratic Party’s Jimi Agbaje is working hard too, pressing flesh and holding rallies all over the state.

Both candidates have continued the time-honoured tradition of ‘food sharing’: distributing food items with their faces on it, like bags of rice, in poorer areas.

Economic powerhouse

Lagos — or Eko as it is known in Yoruba — is worth the fight. Although Lagos state is Nigeria’s smallest by land area, Lagos city is Africa’s largest, a densely-packed megalopolis that is home to an estimated 21 million people.

Nigeria’s economic nerve centre, Lagos alone is responsible for around 30% of the country’s GDP. If Lagos were a country, its economy — worth $136-billion in 2018 and rising fast - would be the seventh largest in Africa, ahead of Cote D’Ivoire and Kenya.

Lagos’ wealth can partly be attributed to its strategic location along the Atlantic coast. It is host to Nigeria’s two busiest ports — the Port of Lagos and Tin Can Island Port — and extensive (albeit congested) air and road connections.

“As a result (of its positioning) the city is able to attract multinationals and skilled manpower,” says Mukhtar Jimoh, a financial consultant with the Lagos-based Financial Derivatives Company. “The average household income in Lagos is much more higher than in other parts since there’s a positive relationship between skills and remuneration.”

Lagos’ bustling population provides a ready consumer market: the city is ground zero for piloting regional and international brands, including South African behemoths like MTN, Shoprite and Mr Price.

Unlike Nigeria itself, Lagos’ own economy is diversified, generating billions from manufacturing, transportation, construction and wholesale and retail trade, enabling the state to run like a well oiled machine without needing to rely on oil allocations from the federal government in Abuja.

21st century city-state

Some wonder if Lagos needs Abuja at all.

Neglected by the federal government after the capital was moved in Abuja in 1991, past Lagos administrations have sometimes been forced to fend for themselves. This was especially true when Lagos governors were from a different party to the president, meaning the state received only erratic support from the federal government.

At times, Lagos was lawless. “People were being murdered. Armed robbery was rampant. Dead bodies were picked on the street on average 10-15 times every week. There was no control of any kind,” former governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu told The Economist, recalling the situation he inherited in 1999.

Things have changed since then — and, for better or worse, Tinubu has played a key role. Even though he has not been governor since 2007, he is known as the godfather of Lagos politics, and is thought to pull the strings from his stately residence on Bourdillon street in Lagos Island. Tinubu is often hailed as the Lion of Bourdillon or Jagaban — the leader of warriors.

Tinubu handpicked his successor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, whose grit and no-nonsense attitude transformed the city, making it considerably more orderly.  His administration strengthened the state’s traffic and waste management agencies and claims to have created an estimated 20 000 jobs from multiple infrastructure projects.

Tinubu’s rulership in Lagos is not unquestioned: aside from numerous corruption allegations, many believe that he has been the power behind the throne in Lagos for long enough. That said, his influence is still being felt in the current election: the reason that incumbent governor Akinwunmi Ambode is not seeking a second term is because Tinubu would not endorse him.

Jimi Agbaje is putting up a good fight, with promises to “set Lagos free”. But Lagos is an APC stronghold and Tinubu’s influence is all encompassing. “People here don’t even know about Jimi Agbaje,” a pharmacist in the Shomolu Government Hospital says, despite this being Agbaje’s 3rd run. “Sanwo Olu has been giving them free surgeries and medicine and they’ll likely vote for him.” Besides, if the presidential elections in February are anything to go by, where Lagos voted massively in favor of APC, Agbaje may not stand a chance.

Whoever wins at the polls will be looking to fulfill huge expectations from Lagosians. That’ll include implementing the Lagos State Development Plan, Fashola’s blueprint for turning Lagos into ‘Africa’s Model Mega City’ by 2025.

It was Fashola who replaced molues — the rickety buses that commuters would chase after and hang from — with the Bus Rapid Transit Systems that came with dedicated bus lanes and ticketing stations. Bus stops now have screens displaying schedules, and major streets boast a traffic system that uses sensors and cameras to collect and display real time information to commuters. A light railway line connecting the Okokomaiko town to the Marina area is almost complete.

In 2015, after his second term, Fashola passed on the torch to Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, who consolidated the infrastructure, tax, education and health reforms already in place. The strides the city has made in healthcare is probably its most impressive feat. Lagos’ emergency agency, Lasema, has robust facilities and a response unit that fields 100 000 emergency calls a day, according to boss Adesina Tiamuyi.

Also impressive is how Lagos managed its ebola crisis after infected Patrick Sawyer, an American-Liberian, landed at the Lagos airport. Aggressive tracking of possibly infected persons stopped the virus from spreading to millions, halting what would have been a catastrophic outbreak.

Lagos is where fashion trends across West Africa are birthed. It is, of course, the home of Nollywood. The city’s tech ecosystem is expanding with some 400-700 startups: A 2017 startup report estimated the startup economy alone is worth $2-billion, making Lagos the most valuable startup ecosystem on the continent.

Unfinished product

Impressive as its progress may have been, Lagos still has a long way to go. It is the third most stressful city in the world, according to the Zipjet 2017 report, behind Kabul and Baghdad.

Although it generates the most revenue internally compared to other states, the state struggles to provide infrastructure and keep pace with an exploding population. An estimated 1.7 million Lagosians live in poverty. Millions more are homeless, sleeping under bridges.

Aside from the erratic power supply which hurts businesses — as is the case across the country — Lagos is notorious for its traffic jams. Despite successes with the bus rapid transit system, it’s 500-bus fleet barely scratches the surface. Over a million cars ply Lagos roads and some 7 million commuters spend an average of five hours in traffic daily. “It boils down to poor city planning,” says Jimoh. “Other transport modes are largely unexplored and at least 90% of the population depends on the roads.” This is despite a 22% land area covered in water and with a state waterways authority.

The city’s rapid urbanisation tramples mercilessly on the poor: The Lagos State government has been heavily criticised for targeting and demolishing slums, ripping their homes from them to develop waterfront property for the rich.

House rents soar here and environmental degradation contributes to constant flooding during the raining season. Infrastructure deficit rates are high, and its economic performance is not nearly as impressive as it could be, economists say.

Despite the changes that have been wrought in Lagos, some things don’t change. The city never sleeps and business here is never done. To survive here, all senses must be awakened. The air is stale, the car horns too loud and the people always in a hurry. Crowds jostle in the streets, conductors hang from yellow danfo buses going at neck breaking speed and drivers curse each other from car windows.

Yet, this chaotic energy continues to attract thousands who troop here in search of jobs, yearning for a taste of this ‘no man’s land’. Lagos’ population grows by an estimated 600,000 people yearly. And not just Nigerians are keen to make it here, but nationals from neighbouring West African countries too. “There are so many opportunities here,” says Edgard Leroy, a Cameroonian filmmaker living in Lagos. The 25-year-old says the competition in the city means one must be creative to survive. “Lagos is the only place where you’ll start selling stones in front of your house and you’ll get someone to buy them.”

Lagos is not slowing down anytime soon, and as Lagosians love to say, ‘Eko o ni baje’ - Lagos will never spoil. No matter who is in charge.

Tinubu was the first state governor after Nigeria’s democracy was restored, but he was a member of the national opposition. Tinubu is the national leader of the APC, and was instrumental to its formation in 2015 when the party dislodged 16 years of PDP rule.