Reimagining Lagos after the Apocalypse



Tatalo Alamu

 

Lagos has taken a bad beat, as they put it boxing parlance. Three weeks after the uprising, its infrastructure remains shattered and its populace stricken and wary. There is anxiety in the air. Having burnt their bridges—or more appropriately their buses- sullen crowds of forlorn commuters loiter endlessly in designated stops waiting for buses that will never come.

Stranded among this lot, the approach of dusk brings no joy. You never know when you will bump into hoodlums or when hoodlums will bump into you. Everyone is on edge. The city of a thousand musicians has gone eerily quiet. Up till mid-week, the police have largely refused to heed the call of their topmost cop to return to their abandoned post.

Obviously, the thought that a superior force of intimidation and coercion could suddenly materialize to overwhelm and humiliate arms-bearing state actors is proving salutary and a historic game-changer. Meanwhile, the authorities, while waving an olive flag, have reverted to their authoritarian default mode as they ratchet up a systematic harassment of the leadership of the EndSARS movement. The atmosphere is pregnant with unfinished business.

The Lagos Question combines subsisting ethnic politics with the question of mass poverty and underdevelopment in the emerging post-colonial conurbation.  It is not a happy combination. This urban demographic of human squalor and deprivation existing side by side with magical opulence and spellbinding  riches is perhaps the unique contribution of the postcolonial urbana to the global megalopolis. The joke is that Africans don’t do big cities or the modern nation-state either.

A recent European observer has dismissed a prominent Nigerian city as the biggest continuous stretch of slum he has ever since anywhere in the world. He was probably making a sly dig at the chaotic and irresponsible urban planning combined with the logic of demographic penetration which allows slums and shanties to proliferate even in so called Government Reservation Areas.

Recent African experience has shown that unless there is conscious and concerted weeding the tendency is for the slums to eventually overwhelm the entire Reservation, rather than the elite paradise beautifying the slums. This will happen as long as more people are delinked from the national wealth grid.

Victoria Island has already fallen. Next could be Ikoyi and the Lekki Peninsula with its much storied Banana Island. Surulere has since been transformed into a vast emporium of supermarkets and fancy stalls hosting suppurating slums. The original owners are dead and their children have cashed out and fled.

In ancient Africa before the logic of modern capitalist development and European city-planning suborned the continent, the rich lived side by side with the poor as one huge community. As attested to by early European visitors to the continent, this did not affect the structure or grandeur of their cities.

A foreign visitor to Ilesha in the fifteenth century spoke of a town with neat houses and paved roads while eighteenth century Benin boasted of wide traditionally lit boulevards and solid architecture. As usual, the palaces of the local monarchs were centrally located in the heart of the town to enable the rulers monitor the pulse of their people.

It is obvious that something of the ancient African psyche survives in turbulent modernity despite the economic, material and political superannuation of their original enablement. But such is the logic of current differentiations of society into adversarial classes that if a rich person decides to build his grand mansion in a slum just to show that he has arrived, he will be lucky to escape with his life when the people decide to show that they have also arrived.

To be sure, poverty and squalor also exist in virtually all the cities of developing nations. But a sanitary cordon is thrown around all these cities which prevent the hard-pressed countryside and outlying communities from emptying their economic cast-away and desperate population on the urban conglomeration. Thus a postcolonial megalopolis like Lagos is the ultimate nightmare of this collision of contrary forces.

Yet it has not always been like this. Even the colonial masters who helped to develop modern Lagos showed better common sense. After them, gone forever is the visionary impetus of the founding fathers which produced the aptly named Surulere as a strategy of urban containment, Apapa and the Ikeja industrial hub.

The displaced denizens of Maroko etc simply bade their time to take their revenge. Those who laid Lagos to waste recently were not invading barbarians but domesticated city miscreants from every conceivable corner of the country powered along by indigenous riffraff spawned by unremitting urban poverty which is far more dangerous than rural want.

A principal complaint of the surviving honchos of ancient Isale Eko was that the open thoroughfare where a Musendiku Adeniji-Adele or an Adeyinka Oyekan could be seen playing the local Ayo game with sundry commoners in those halcyon days has now been converted to a walled-in swimming people for the magically well-off that the original habitants have no truck with. Surely, modern development has its unique discontents.

It is within this context of urban psychosis, a peculiar affliction of nearly all of Nigeria’s city dwellers, that the Lagos Question must now be posed. The conundrum of a truly African megalopolis against the background of excruciating poverty and widespread social disaffection has once again crept upon the national consciousness as an integral part of the National Question.

It ought to be remembered that there is no other African metropolis like Lagos. Lagos seethes and roils with an authentic African spirit. Unlike the colonial and racial medleys of Cairo and Johannesburg, Lagos is a truly African combo which bursts with the anarchic energy and indomitable zeal of the Black person in his natural habitué.  The only other African cities that come close in comparison are Kinshasa and Abidjan.

This is why the mind must boggle at the scale of the physical, economic and infrastructural devastation of Nigeria’s premier city in the wake of the last social upheaval. But what is also downplayed is the extent of the cultural atrocity unleashed on the city by the furious mob: the torching and thrashing of historic monuments, the royal palace, iconic buildings, landmark courts, rare archival materials, pictorial panorama of Victorian and Edwardian Lagos and epoch-making judgements delivered by unforgettable legal heroes of colonial Nigeria.

A notable Lagos High Court judge due to retire next year and whose own father was an outstanding jurist of the Nigerian bench had his office thrashed and the priceless documents therein incinerated. He reportedly told a female colleague that he felt like being stripped naked for the whole world to see.

Personal losses can be recouped and razed buildings can be restored to their original perfection but such substantial loss of legal arcana can never be replaced. It is the equivalent of obliterating the legal memory of a nation.  The legal memory of the nation is the hard drive which powers its people in the race to civilization and civility. When it is trashed, the nation is like a wandering amnesiac in the crypt of time.

Lagos is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the same female judge whose own judicial chamber was eviscerated, it is in the coming months that the nation will realize just what has hit it. In their unhurried demolition, the hoodlums even remembered to drink her priceless tea and biscuits before majestically strolling away decked in her official robe.

To address the physical despoliation, Lagos will need national and international help. It is heart -warming to note that some banks have already volunteered to rebuild the police stations torched by the miscreants. This is the way to go. This government and private sector partnership is the surest bet particularly when the nation is hobbled by fiscal stress. But this must not prevent the federal government from being alive to its responsibility.

A Special Federal Subvention for Disasters is needed for Lagos. The good people of Lagos did not create the disaster that befell them. For years, we have been warning that the Lagos metropolis was buckling under the demographic strain imposed by rapidly expanding population. The entire country came to view the metropolis as the ultimate Noah’s Ark as biblical poverty and threat of extinction overtook a land that ought to be flowing with milk and honey.

This epic migration of afflicted citizenry absconding from the concrete hell of the inner country owes a lot no doubt to the conducive and congenial environment of Lagos and its cultured and welcoming people. But this has in time proved a veritable formula for urban chaos and anarchy as hapless refugees and economic destitute began to outnumber legitimate residents. It has turned out a ticking time bomb.

Many have argued for a Special Status for Lagos to enable it to absorb the impact of a rapidly expanding population. But this will not make a difference in the longer run. Lagos needs to face the problems of its infrastructural deficit very squarely. A modern megalopolis without a functioning metro system is an urban joke taken too far.

Yet it must be remembered that the first time a visionary civilian government attempted to give Lagos a befitting metro hub, the project was promptly scuttled upon the return of the military apostles of unitarist uniformity and conformity in underdevelopment.

Matters have hardly been helped by a faction of the indigenous elite of Lagos and their occasionally strident calls for a separate status for Lagos. This separatist obsession which often oscillates between splendid isolationism and a Lagos exceptionalism harks back to the colonial legacy of the acquisition of Lagos as a British Crown Protectorate in March, 1862 years after the naval bombardment of the city.

Early Lagos exceptionalism is well and truly well- earned given the colony’s cultural, political and economic pace-setting. But whatever the subsequent legal hair splitting and erudite irrelevancies, that colonial legacy had already evaporated under Lord Lugard’s imperial sledgehammer which forcibly incorporated all the colonial territories under the rubric of the new Nigerian nation.

Lugard’s extant polemic against the Lagos elite and unremitting hostility towards them showed that crown acquisition was just an administrative convenience. Colonialism had no special favour to bestow on the colonised. It has since been left to the more driven emergent hinterland elite to provide the more pragmatic template for cohabitation in a multi-ethnic nation.

Consequently and in the light of the national cry for true federalism championed by the west, it will amount to a logical and political contradiction to argue for a special status for any part of the nation. All federating units must be treated as equal and without any special affection for any of the constituting units.

As a compromise, it has been suggested that autonomous zones of development should be created with major Nigerian cities serving as developmental hubs. This will encourage a more rigorous and serious creation of wealth and suburban growth which will absorb the excess population of our desperate urban conglomerations. If it is not another fancy policy pronouncement, the resolve of the federal authorities to resuscitate the old farm settlements is a step in the right direction.

In the end, Lagos will have to lift itself up by the bootstraps.  Luckily as it has been demonstrated in post-military Nigeria, Lagos has all that it takes once the resources are judiciously and prudently managed. Now that the chips are down in the wake of the recent apocalyptic meltdown, the government must eschew wasteful spending and elephant projects in order to free resources for infrastructural upgrading and urban decongestion.

The Lagos state authorities must pursue a simultaneous policy of urban renewal and decay reversal. To facilitate urban renewal and demographic reconfiguration, all the spare parts congeries, computer “villages” and electronic trading inlets must be removed from their inner city redoubts where they contribute to the urban nightmare and relocated to the outer precincts of the city.

The satellite towns of Ikorodu, Epe and Badagry which have served Lagos eminently well as population shock absorbers must now be rewarded through a massive infrastructural revamping and new housing estates together with special skills centres that serve as rehabilitation magnets for the so called hoodlums spawned by an uncaring society.

A sanitary and sanitizing cordon is imperative for any aspiring megalopolis. This is not just a governmental necessity but a function of enlightened self-interest for the elites. As we must have learnt from the recent upheaval if a society does not take care of its hoodlums, the hoodlums will eventually take care of the society.

 

 

 

Snooper mourns the premature departure of our younger friend and junior colleague in the pen-pushing fraternity, Leke Salaudeen, until recently an Assistant Editor with this newspaper. It is not easy for an older person to be publicly grieving over the passing of a younger man. Yours sincerely has been in denial. But it was Tunji Adegboyega’s moving tribute to his friend—a totally different person— in this paper last Sunday that finally jolted one out of pained inertia.

Leke departed in sad circumstances, in an atmosphere of puzzling national uncertainties and amidst the protracted Covid-19 sledgehammer. When the news began circulating, yours sincerely was so distressed that one dismissed the possibility as another instance of the fake news pandemic which has caused so much global pandemonium in recent times. It took, Victor Ifijeh, the Nation’s Managing Director, to confirm the details and the horrid circumstances.

Leke was as self-effacing and unobtrusive as they come, a polite, well-mannered gentleman journalist. He was a man of profound Islamic faith which he carried with grace and sedate equanimity. He did not appear to care very much about worldly distinctions and the pomp and pageantry that accompany professional self-importance. He was content with his humble lot.

Several times yours sincerely would espy him in the vast newsroom completely absorbed in his work and oblivious of his surroundings. He was a hard slogger and a meticulous master of close marking, the hallmark of all great sub-editors. Often, it would take a gentle pat to jolt him out of his immersion in his work and ant-like assiduity.

But he was not without a boyish sense of humour, even when he tended to avoid the loud and the boisterous. There were times Leke would sidle up to yours sincerely and quickly dump into snooper’s increasingly voluminous side pockets, the local medicinal nuts we both shared and enjoyed together when the occasion permitted. Before you could say Jack Robinson, Leke would have vanished into the shadow from whence he materialized.

There were other times when Leke would slip into my office to engage yours sincerely in meditative contemplation about the vagaries of life and the vanity of it all. Profoundly dissatisfied about the state of the country, he was also not one to start shouting from the rooftop. Not for once in a decade of association did he seek to exploit our closeness. He never complained about anything and never spoke ill of anybody.

Leke took this complete self-mastery with him to the grave. Snooper would have wanted to learn more about the stoic indifference to earthly fame and worldly fortunes. But this was not to be. May Allah take his noble soul into a blissful repose.

 

 

Source: Latest Nigeria News, Nigerian Newspapers, Politics

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