from Africa in Transition

Could Lagos Be a Model for the Developing World?

January 08, 2014

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Elections and Voting



Seth D. Kaplan, writing in the opinion pages of the January 7 New York Times, observes that by 2015, half the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day will reside in fragile states. These poor contribute disproportionately to political instability, even terrorism. Nigeria is a fragile state, and the “worst run of the world’s most populated countries.”

Lagos, the commercial and cultural capital of the country, has a population of more than 17 million. By comparison, New York’s five boroughs numbered 8.337 million in 2012. Most Lagos residents are impoverished and large portions of the city are built in a swamp. Nevertheless, Kaplan suggests that Lagos may be a model for how fragile states might begin to succeed. Kaplan points out that in fragile countries such as Nigeria, central governments are often remote from their citizenry and politics is dominated by elites struggling for a larger piece of the pie. Not so, at least to the same extent, in urban agglomerations like Lagos where more localized elections take place.

Kaplan’s strategy (shared by many) is devolution of power from the corrupt national government to state and local governments and the creation of a local culture that holds governments accountable. Devolved power (under Nigeria’s 1999 constitution) means that the Lagos electorate can and does demand specific services, thereby encouraging candidates to address practical problems. Numerous Nigerian interlocutors have told me that something approaching a civic contract is indeed emerging in Lagos: citizens pay taxes and the city government provides services. Over the past decade public transportation, garbage collection, and street cleaning have dramatically improved. The Lagos state government has also become friendlier to business.

I would also suggest that Lagos has been fortunate in its leadership. The current governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola has vision, native political skills, and an eye for good management. So too did his predecessor, Bola Tinubu. So, one good governor succeeded another, though subsequently they have fallen out with each other. Kaplan also argues that in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city like Lagos, politicians cannot afford to pit ethnic and religious groups against one another. Both Tinubu and Fashola have emphasized what unites Lagos, not what divides it. Finally Lagos has had a long tradition of opposition to whatever government is installed in Abuja. Among other consequences, Lagos has had to meet its costs of government largely through local taxation rather than through oil revenue doled out by the central government. But, the nagging question remains how much of the progress in Lagos is the result of the personalities and skills of the last two governors, rather than a fundamental transformation of its political culture.