Lagos - A walk along the 2km of light rail that Lagos authorities have managed to build in three years gives a sense of how hard it is to impose order on one of Africa’s most chaotic cities.
From either side of the concrete structure – no track has yet been laid – the crowded slums and highways of the country’s lagoon-side commercial hub teem with activity.
Its trademark yellow buses overtake, undertake and force their way down impossibly narrow side streets, where women stir pots next to canals clogged with rubbish.
With between 15 million and 21 million people – the upper estimate is the official one, though no one really knows – and generating a third of gross domestic product (GDP) for Africa’s second-biggest economy, Lagos has become almost as alluring to yield-hungry investors as it is to the 4 000 or so economic migrants who turn up each day.
Violent crime, mushrooming slums, police extortion and widespread fraud have often held investment back, but in the past decade, authorities have started trying to tackle some of the obstacles, especially maddening traffic bottlenecks.
“Just keeping Lagos roads moving without rail, pushing that kind of tonnage just through our road network, now that’s the eighth wonder of the world,” says Babtunde Fashola, the governor of Lagos state.
Fashola and his predecessor, Bola Tinubu, have tried to turn the city from a byword for squalor into a glitzy business hub. Their success will rest on projects like the light rail, which has involved massive and controversial slum clearance.
If they manage, it could become an investment hub in Africa and a model for fast-urbanising African nations. If not, it might face a dystopian crime-ridden future not unlike its past.
If Lagos were a country its GDP would make it Africa’s seventh-biggest economy – more than twice the size of Kenya’s. Its large consumer market is already well established for firms like Unilever, Heineken and Nestlé.
One of Africa’s biggest stock markets sits here, as does its second-biggest market in government bonds. Industry is hampered by poor power generation, although the service sector is booming.
But Lagos faces a daily challenge just trying to keep up with the pace of population growth, much of it on the edge of water. Nigeria, already pushing 170 million people, will be home to 400 million by 2050, making it the fourth-most populous country, according to the global Population Reference Bureau. Lagos will have doubled in size by then, Fashola and demographers agree.
The biggest headache, however, is travel. The transport authority says there are 9 million road trips a day in the city.
The $2.5 billion (R24.5bn) light rail project is behind schedule because there is barely a stretch of land that is not inhabited.
Thousands of illegal settlements have been destroyed this year. No one has been compensated. Fashola’s defenders say slums must be removed for projects like the light rail, but critics say the heavy-handed approach shows a lack of sensitivity to the poor. – Reuters