A couple of Saturdays ago, I decided to walk to the supermarket and pick up a few weekend essentials – laundry detergent, fabric softener and a week’s supply of tiger nut milk, my daily breakfast. My driver wasn’t around and since it’s only one kilometre away, I could stroll there in 15 minutes or less. I pulled on a t-shirt, jeans and loafers, headed downstairs and slipped through the gate. The guard on duty looked at me curiously, probably wondering why I was leaving on foot. I can understand why.
Walking in Lagos has a way of bringing you down to earth, regardless of your lofty perch in society. I persuade myself to do it regularly, to remind myself of my relative privilege and affluence, in a city where those who walk or take the bus are judged instantly as working class or poor. The only exception is if you happen to be clad in expensive trainers and branded sportswear – then it’s obvious you are walking or running out of choice, not necessity. Even the infrastructure, with its wide roads and narrow to non-existent sidewalks, sends a clear message that ‘trekking’ is the fate of the undeserving poor.
As I set off, the first thing I noticed was the stench rising from the concrete gutters wedged between the road and the sidewalk. The greenish-grey water was completely still, trapped by an impenetrable mass of plastic bottles, takeaway food packaging and ‘nylon’, the Nigerian term for plastic carrier bags. These drains are meant to be covered but most of the concrete slabs were broken or had been removed, and had never been replaced. I joined my fellow pedestrians, walking along the road’s dusty verge, careful not to step into a gaping hole or into the path of a speeding vehicle. Occasionally, a few yards of solid pavement would appear and I would take refuge, grateful for a minute or two of carefree movement.
Along the main road, just 300 metres from the shop, things got worse. Some bright contractor had extracted the waste from the gutter and piled it up along the street, forcing us to walk even closer to the passing traffic. I had seen this mess for over a month, whenever I drove past, but up close it took on a different meaning. It was clear that no one with the authority to improve the situation really cares.
If you live in Lagos, you are familiar with this tale of neglect – one of thousands that could be told. It’s hard to shake the feeling that no one is in charge, or that there are no standards for how any aspect of the city should work. As citizens, our expectations have sunk so low that we celebrate immediately if something basic gets fixed – like traffic lights or streetlights – or when months-old potholes have been filled.
So, why is this story worth telling? I guess it’s because I keep wondering, “Is this the best we can do?”
Lagos is a remarkable mega-city of over 20 million residents, dreaming and hustling, each person focused on becoming one of a growing band of millionaires, advancing steadily in all areas of finance, commerce and technology. Successful companies are filling the skyline with gleaming towers, foreign investors are piling into tech startups, and fancy restaurants are opening up every month, much to the delight of local epicureans. Nigerian music and film, made mostly in Lagos, is slowly conquering the world.
And yet, according to the Global Liveability Index 2022, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Lagos is ranked second to last of the 173 cities evaluated, pipped only by Damascus in Syria, a country ravaged by war over decades, as the worst major city to live in. Once you look at the indices used to create the scores, it’s easy to see why Lagos is so far behind. Infrastructure, environment, education, healthcare and stability are some of the worst aspects of life in the city.
However, for the privileged 5%, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. That’s why I walk. I have to ground myself in the realities of the place where I live, mindful that people like me are insulated by private healthcare, private education, nice homes, 24-hour generators, private security, and vehicles that can navigate the potholes easily and whizz past anything too unpleasant.
Is this the best we can do? Lagosians, like most Nigerians, are masters of individual achievement, and given the right environment, they flourish. In many of the top European and Canadian cities topping the Livability Index, Nigerian professionals are making a solid contribution to their quality of life. Yet, collectively, the story is remarkably different – we achieve very little as a society. I believe this is because the brightest and best shun politics and government, leaving them in the hands of people who would barely survive outside the public sector.
With elections looming in 2023, nothing is likely to change, as the same recycled hacks are coming back, repackaged and relabeled, for another turn at the feeding trough. The people of Lagos and Nigeria will be left to fend for themselves, unless those with wealth and power decide to use their influence to shape the society.
Is this the best we can do? Certainly not. All over the city, neighborhood associations, including the one on my street, are doing a good job of rallying fellow residents for the common good. However, they appear to be swimming against the tide of government apathy and graft. Large companies, trying to be good corporate citizens, create facilities that beautify the city and repair decaying streets. In return, they are harassed by an endless stream of dubious characters collecting a long list of levies, both real and imagined, instead of receiving tax breaks that would encourage further development.
Dubai is a shining example of this pro-business approach and so is Singapore. Both governments identified the barriers to enterprise more than 20 years ago and made a concerted effort to dismantle them through policy changes – and they continue to do so. Lagos can do the same, instead of stifling its entrepreneurs with bureaucracy and corruption.
When I moved to the UK at 18 years old, my first job was in the City of London, a business and financial district that’s nearly 2,000 years old. Each morning, I was fascinated by a sea of thousands of commuters, flooding out of various train stations, surging across London Bridge, along narrow, ancient streets, and streaming into huge office buildings. Clerks and secretaries, supervisors and managers, wealthy stockbrokers and bankers, managing directors and chairmen – they all walked. Now that I think about it, I never once saw uncollected garbage or a broken drain, and the centuries-old sidewalks were wide enough to accommodate us all.
We can do better and we must, in ways large and small. Lagosians have to find ways to hold local and state government agencies responsible for the deplorable state of our streets, even as they try to forge more effective public-private partnerships with appropriate incentives. The only proven way to ensure collective prosperity is for the government to remove the obstacles and make it easier to do business in Lagos.
Lagos can become a liveable city of the future, but only if the government and its citizens make a commitment now to improve the conditions for everyone – in health, education, security, infrastructure and the environment.
Let’s do more than talk – let’s walk.