Friday, November 17, 2006

Lagos: somewhere between the law of the jungle and civilization

Is it possible that the sixth largest city on Earth could be considered "superfluous" in the grand scheme of world affairs? George Parker hints that this might be so in his November 13th New Yorker story on the Nigerian city of Lagos. He paints a picture of a sprawling slum where an informal economy based on "collective adaptation" and "survivalist entrepreneurship" rules. It is also the destination of six hundred thousand West African refugees every year -- a major factor that has contributed to the city's physical deterioration. Following are excerpts from Parker's article. (GW)

The Megacity
by George Packer
New Yorker
November 13, 2006

In 1950, fewer than 300,000 people lived in Lagos. In the second half of the twentieth century, the city grew at more than six per cent annually. It is currently the sixth largest city in the world, and it is growing faster than any of the the world's other megacities (the term used by the United Nations Center for Human Settlements for "urban agglomerations" with more than ten million people). By 2015, it is projected, Lagos will rank third, behind Tokyo and Bombay, with twenty-three million inhabitants.

Unlike other megacities, Lagos has no distinct satellite areas where the destitute live. The whole city suffers from misuse...It is a city where only 0.4 percent of the inhabitants have a toilet connected to a water system.

The hustle never stops in Lagos. Informal transactions make up at least sixty per cent of the economic activity; at stoplights and on highways, crowds of boys as young as eight hawk everything from cell phones to fire extinguishers. Begging is rare...In Lagos everyone is a striver.

Stephen Omojoro, a fifty-two-year-old taxi-driver and father of four, with broad horizontal shoulders and vertical tribal scars carved into both cheeks, took me around Lagos in an aging Mercedes...In his view, Lagos has been deteriorating since shortly after his arrival (when he was seventeen) owing to a general moral collapse brought on by the oil boom of the seventies. What he remembered as a city of enterprising family men like himself is now overrun with corrupt soldiers, politicians, and police and with a mass of young people willing to do anything for money except honest work.

There was once a master plan for Lagos...The plan, jointly drawn up in the seventies by the firm of Wilbur Smith and Associates, the United Nations Development Program, and the Lagos state government, was intended to guide the growth of the city in the last two decades of the twentieth century. There were to be thirty-five self-sufficient district centers, each with commercial, industrial and residential zones, to prevent congestion on Lagos Island.

On New Year's Eve, 1983, a bloodless coup overthrew civilian rule, and for the next sixteen years a series of military dictators from northern Nigeria treated Lagos. the country's center of democratic activism, as a source of personal enrichment...The government that came to power in the democratic elections of 1999 has begun to revive the old master plan for Lagos.

[Today] what looks like anarchic activity in Lagos is actually governed by a set of informal but ironclad rules. Although the vast majority of people in the city are small-time entrepreneurs, almost no one works for himself. Everyone occupies a place in an economic hierarchy and owes fealty, as well as cash, to the person above him--known as an oga or master--who, in turn, provides help or protection...Every group of workers has a union that amounts to an extortion racket.

The most widely available commodity in Lagos is garbage. It is an engine of growth in the underworld of the city's informal economy, a vast sector with an astonishing volume of supply. In the recycling business, most of the suppliers are "dropouts, miscreants"---scavenger boys who scour the gutters and streets and municipal dumps, filling up sacks or carts and sell what they can to their oga, who has twenty or so boys working for him, in a kind of dependency that resembles that of Fagin an the pickpockets of "Oliver Twist." The oga, in turn sells the refuse to a grinder who then sells the ground bits to a exporter of recycled plastics. A thousand pickers live down in the pit (the dump), among flocks of white cowbirds.

"It is somewhere between the law of the jungle and civilization."


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