For a few years before the drop in oil prices in mid-2014, Nigeria was posting economic growth figures of around 6%. In contrast, very few economies in the West were close to growth rates of 3%. Those growth figures resulted in Nigeria “rebasing” its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and claiming it was now the biggest economy in Africa.
Despite question marks about the “magic accounting”, there seemed to be a boom going on in Nigeria at least until the collapse in oil prices and failure to diversify the economy led to a recession last year. During that boom and before the bust, many Nigerians waxed lyrical about opportunities in the country and nowhere epitomised this “land of opportunity” more than the country’s commercial capital, Lagos, with its over 10m inhabitants.
I spent four days in Lagos, after last visiting six years ago and was keen to see how much things had changed and whether they were for the better. The city has definitely been transformed in many ways since my last visit. You can now request an Uber to get you from A to B and it is a lot easier to find B because the driver can get Google Map directions off his smartphone. No need to get an “okada man” (motorbike taxi) to lead the way as you drove behind – as we used to do back in the day.
Uber is also a lot cheaper than regular taxis. A regular taxi from Lekki Phase 1 to Victoria Garden City (VGC) – about 20 minutes away – cost me 5,000 naira (about £10), while via Uber it was 1,500 naira (£3). The Ubers were relatively new cars, with air-conditioning and quite reliable.
This growth in public transport was slightly matched by the growth in new roads and bridges. But it wasn’t quite clear whether this growth in infrastructure matched demand in terms of number of cars on the roads. The only way to get from A to B was still by car and any car journey, depending on time of day, was a leap into the unknown in terms of how long it would take to get there.
The caterer at a function I attended in VGC had to come from Yaba and couldn’t get there before all the guests had left because a tanker fell and blocked the road, causing a massive “go slow” (traffic jam). Little seems to have been done about alternative routes or alternative forms of moving goods, services and people. It would be interesting to measure the amount of productive hours Lagosians waste in traffic jams.
A metro rail system with seven lines was planned for the metropolis in 2008, with completion scheduled for 2011. A lot of money has disappeared into it, with nothing to show for it. Such a system would have been a perfect example of growth that would lead to development in terms of improvements in the quality of life. The spin-offs from a metro system with stations would also generate economic activities that are likely to have more significant impact on lower socioeconomic groups.
That said, Lagos has surely grown in the last six years. The place is buzzing with economic activity. There are a multitude of places looking to attract the custom of people with money. Bentleys and other luxury cars are commonplaces in areas such as Lekki, Ikoyi and VGC. But it is economic growth without development. This is because despite the increase in income and output, the majority of Lagosians have not seen an improvement in their lives in terms of living standards and quality of life. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen said: “Human development, as an approach, is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it”.
It is estimated that about two-thirds of Lagosians live in slums. The state government’s answer to this problem is not to provide adequate housing – as required by the Nigerian constitution, but to demolish slums in areas such as Otodo-Gbame, where tens of thousands of people were evicted despite a court order halting the evictions.
Karl Marx said: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. The Lagos State government appears to exist to ensure the well-off are not inconvenienced by the poor. For the past few years, the government has engaged in a land grab or reclaiming land occupied by the poor and dishing it out to property developers catering for the rich.
Visible efforts are made to keep the poor out of sight. Nigerian trade unionists like to call these “anti-poor policies”. Okadas, usually the only form of public transport that the poor can afford, have been banned from many parts of the state and the metropolis. Along the major thoroughfares such as the one leading from Lekki Phase 1 to VGC, you see signs warning that street hawkers will be prosecuted. The signs are usually ignored as hawkers, the majority of school age, risk life and limb, selling their wares, literally a few yards away from the gated community of VGC, with its tree-lined streets, mansions, and families with kids about the same age as the street kids, but in very expensive private schools. Those pampered and sheltered kids in their mansions never get a chance to see how the “other Lagos” lives or even interact with them, perhaps, apart from seeing them trying to sell their parents stuff from wound up car windows in traffic jams.
What was disconcerting was that none of the Lagos dwellers that were riding with me in cars in traffic seemed bothered in the slightest by this form of child abuse involving child labour. If the voters are not bothered, who is going to hold the government to account? The Nigerian constitution states in Chapter 2, section 17(3): “The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring that (f) children, young persons are protected against any exploitation whatsoever, and against moral and material neglect.”
The standard well-off Lagosian response to these issues is that “there is poverty anywhere in the world”. But the level of inequality in Lagos is immense. The differences in terms of access to services in health, education, water supply, etc between a VGC dweller and fellow Lagosians on the wrong side of the tracks is vast. I saw wheelie rubbish bins outside houses in VGC waiting for collection. Down the road in Lekki Phase 1, some gutter drains were blocked with rubbish – despite the very expensive buildings lining the streets. There was not a bad road in sight in VGC. But once you drove off the main thoroughfares in even upmarket areas like Ikoyi and Lekki, potholes, puddles, flooding after rain would make it a very slow and unpleasant journey.
The type of growth that Lagos has experienced in the past six years, where the proceeds seem to have been cornered by a very small and wealthy elite, is not sustainable. The secluded and gated communities of VGC, with their police station, guards at the gate screening vehicles before entry, working street lights and so on, have bought for themselves an oasis in a desert of low living standards for the majority. Those residents can provide for their own education, their own power and water supply, their own healthcare and other social services. They don’t even have to go to the same churches as the poor.
The trouble is that where there is such vast inequality, the poor also want those good things in life. But they have been abandoned by successive governments, who, through the provision of decent and free public education, could have used such a public service as a vehicle to lift the majority out of poverty and into high-level jobs and well-paying careers. When opportunities for social advancement through legit means are limited for the majority, crime becomes an increasingly viable option.
Tony Blair’s mantra used to be “fight crime and fight the causes of crime”. Inequality is a significant factor in increasing crime rates. The Lagos State government is not helping its wealthy residents by continuing to deny the benefits of economic growth to the majority of Lagosians. Sen also argued: “Economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable – and unethical”. It is more than that in the Lagos and Nigerian context. It is not conducive for community safety and it is unconstitutional.