Making Over Lagos

The governor has a plan: turn one of the world’s worst cities into one of the best. It just might work

TIME June 6, 2011

To see a scale model of Eko Atlantic is to assume you’re looking at Dubai. An artificial island, built just offshore out of sand dredged from the ocean, Eko Atlantic will be 4-3 miles wide, extend about L2 miles out to sea, house 250,000 residents and include offices for 150,000 commuters. There will be giant malls, three marinas, trams, the island’s own power station and a sail-shaped, 55-story skyscraper that will be the new headquarters for a bank. But this is not Oubai, nor is it Singapore or even Brazil. This is Lagos, Nigeria. Eko Atlantic, says David Frame, managing director of the developer, South Energyx Nigeria, is “the new face of Africa,” the centerpiece of a redevelopment plan whose ambition is simple and astonishing: take one of the world’s worst cities and make it one of the best. Says Onno Ruhl, country headforthe World Bank: “It’s an amazing thing. Not least because it actually looks like it will happen.”

It would be hard to pick a tougher city to make overthan Lagos. The place is normally known as a living, breathing definition of anarchy. With IO million to I8 million inhabitants-no one is quite sure- it is the Business 4 biggest city on the world’s poorest continent. It is Lagos’ peculiar blight that in a region with space to spare, it managed to run out of it. It is a megamecca for migrants and a place that has lost almost two-thirds of a mile of coastline to erosion since the I960s. Overcrowding has spawned legendary traffic. sky-high unemployment, poor housing, crime and disease. All that has been exacerbated by poor government. For
30 years from the late I970s, city authorities built almost no new infrastructure,leaving Lagos with precious little running water, electricity, employment or law and order. By the time Babatunde Fashola was elected governor in 2007. Lagos was a place, he says. “of very evident despair.”

Fashola is not your usual politician. Rather than barge his way across town, sirens blaring. he chooses to endure Lagos’ traffic with his fellow citizens. Fashola also reads economic theory for fun. On his bedside table are books by development economists like Hernandode Soto of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILO) in Lima, who argues that the poor may lack money as individuals but together, in their tens of millions, represent an untapped resource. The new governor agreed with that. “In everything I saw, I saw opportunity. If there is a bad road, it means we need an engineer and laborers. architects, valuers, land merchants, banks, merchandisers, suppliers of iron rods and cement, and food courts.”

Fashola began an overhaul of Lagos’ infrastructure, building expressways, stringing streetlights along the main highways, integrating road with rail, air and even water-and, by the by, cutting traffic and crime, creating tens of thousands of jobs and even increasing to 70% the proportion of state income raised locally from Lagosians delighted by the city’s transformation. lagos’ lack of space was another opportunity. Scarcity of anything increases its value. That insight led to Eko Atlantic. which, because of the profits to be made from its real estate, will be entirely privately financed.

The most ambitious part of Fashola’s plan is still unfolding. De Soto and the lID have programs in 30 countries to make formal the informal economy- the unregulated and unmapped businesses in which most of the developing world earns a living- so governments can regulate, tax and promote it. In Lagos, de Soto discovered the mother of all infonnal economies: 93.7% of the city’s businesses, with assets worth a collective $50 billion, functioned outside the law, handily beating foreign aid to Nigeria ($II.4 billion) and foreign investment there ($5.4 billion). If that economy could be channeled, it would deliver an unprecedented boost to the city’s prosperity. Its discovery also indicated there was so much about his city that Fashola didn’t know or control that many of his refonns would likely misfire.

How to get Lagosians into the system? Property rights, said de Soto. Because of the chaotic way the city had grown, most land and buildings there were untitled, making them difficult to buy, sell or borrow against. But ifFashola were to set clear property rights, that massive asset could be tapped. For the past 18 months, Fashola has dispatched teams of surveyors across Lagos to determine who owns what. Once they finish, millions of Lagos’ citizens will have a stake- legal and enforceable in their city’s future. “[What we did] was suggest that things can be changed, no matter how bad they are,” says Fashola. “We restored hope. We restored belief.”

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