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Western Arrival and Departure in Lagos: The Consequences of Modernity

Western Arrival and Departure in Lagos: The Consequences of Modernity

          The city of Lagos Nigeria has been a destination for paradigm jolting and calamitous changes over the course of the twentieth century. As a failed British colonial experiment, the people of Lagos have suffered catastrophic alterations to the structure and integrity of their society. The viability of modernizing Lagos was perceived to be in direct relation to “slum clearance” in particularly desirable areas on the island. Demolition of the “rubbish heap” that existed as housing for the indigenous populations of Lagos and the subsequent relocation of its people has been the driving force behind the increasing wealth gap, unchecked poverty and deadly sanitary conditions that have metastasized throughout the city (Bignon 55). As one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Lagos has been the subject of increasing analysis- used as a tool to gauge the ramifications of urban sprawl.

            “It was as if people conspired with the city to weave a web of silence around its unsavory parts” (Abani 7).

            The city of Lagos was established as the capital of the 3-province nation that made up Nigeria in 1914. It had been the epicenter of British trade in the region since the origin of colonial rule in 1861 when British merchants settled in the region and replaced the trade of slaves for “legitimate” goods (Bignon 52). These colonizers found that although the location for their newfound settlement was strategically placed, the region was lacking amenities considered vital to civilized societies. The British colonialists definition of a “slum” and the negative implications that resound with utterance of the word provided the necessary motivations to alter the landscape of Lagos. The colonizers took issue with the aesthetics of the existing tenements in which the local populations resided. According to Liora Bignon’s article Between Local and Colonial Perceptions: The History of Slum Clearances in Lagos (Nigeria), “the colonizers could not bear the sight of the indigenous compounds… their walls were made of mud, their straw roofs were continuous and the sandy lanes between them were very narrow.” The priorities of the British government and their settlers did not align with improving the quality of life for the local populations, but rather with creating a tolerable environment for the colonists themselves. The primary purpose of British presence in Lagos was resource consolidation and exploitation. The declaration of indigenous communities as “slums” was the result of purely cultural and ideological differences. The British municipalities that had been established in Lagos conducted a series of calculated demolition projects in the 1920’s that left vast numbers of inhabitants displaced, motivated by creating a “proper standard” of living for the wealthy citizens alone (Bignon 55). Colonial slum clearances in Lagos thereby fostered a city of “assymetrical power relations,” marginalizing the impoverished original inhabitants in a cycle that continues to this day (Bignon 72).

            “Half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time?” (Abani 7).

            An aerial view of Lagos at present provides a starkly contrasted image from those described by the early British colonial settlers. Lagos appears stressed and sullen, a grand dichotomy of wealth and poverty innervated by elevated roadways- placards of industrial modernity. Rem Koolhaas’ “Lagos” from Mutations captures the congested roadways and desolate landscape below, juxtaposing modern infrastructure with overwhelming squalor. From an aerial vantage point, the rift between the towering skyscrapers of transplanted western wealth and the flotilla cities of the poor are clear as day; does this drastic contrast represent a consequence of British colonialism and western meddling?


“The plank walkways, which crisscrossed three quarters of the slum, rang out like xylophones… In the mud underneath this suspended city, dogs, pigs, goats and fowl rooted for food” (Abani 24).

            Lagos is a city currently plagued by lop-sided urban sprawl. Growing at a rapid rate due to oil and myriad natural resources of Nigeria. According to The Stimson Center’s case study LAGOS: Growth Without Infrastructure, two-thirds of Lagos’ population dwells in the shadows of the sprawling commercial metropolis (1). Slum neighborhoods “perched on stilts over open water” create high-risk environmental health issues for the inhabitants (“LAGOS” 2). Despite having successful oil economy and being a major transportation hub for West Africa, the influx of western money and infrastructure development in Lagos remain tightly bound to the wealthy class. The money flowing into Lagos cannot even manage to be carelessly flushed down the toilet given that solid waste management systems are “essentially absent” (“LAGOS” 3).

“He spoke of the evils of capitalism… it was a land of vice and depravity, infested with perverse a morality based on commercial value rather than a humanistic one” (Abani 155).

          Chris Abani’s novel Graceland effortlessly describes what Matthew Gandy refers to as “urban apocalypse” in his analysis of Lagos in Learning from Lagos (38). Gandy explores the newest form of western imposition, colonization of land for commercial industries. The further exploration of Lagos’ communities reveals “a metropolitan area (that) has developed independently of the efforts of city planners, in a process that we might call ‘amorphous urbanism” (52). The independent development of infrastructure and economy exists as necessity, a solution for the neglect the inhabitants are faced with.

         The abatement of the colonial stranglehold has left Lagos in a precarious position; this state of uncontrolled urban development has led to widespread poverty and overcrowding within previously demarcated plots of land. Although considered to be rapidly growing as a modern metropolis, Lagos is a living mirror of the atrophied scar tissue created by colonial settlement and concession. The western ideals bestowed upon the indigenous people of Lagos have navigated them into the ocean of modernity without a captain- or the hope for one.








Works Cited

Abani, Chris. GraceLand. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004. Print.

Bigon, Liora. "Between Local and Colonial Perceptions: The History of Slum Clearances in Lagos (Nigeria), 1924-1960." African and Asian Studies 7.1 (2008): 49-76. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Gandy, Matthew. "Planning, Anti-Planning And The Infrastructure Crisis Facing Metropolitan Lagos." Urban Studies 43.2 (2006): 371-396. EconLit with Full Text. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

Koolhaas, Rem, Stefano Boeri, Sanford Kwinter, Nadia Tazi, and Hans Ulrich. Obrist. "Lagos." Mutations: Rem Koolhaas, Harvard Project on the City, Stefano Boeri, Multiplicity, Sanford Kwinter, Nadia Tazi, Hans Ulrich Obrist. Barcelona: ACTAR, 2000. N. pag. Print.

Unknown. "LAGOS: Growth Without Infrastructure." Stimson Global Health Security (n.d.): n. pag. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.



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