Blog Post

Urbanizing Lagos: At What Cost?

“Elvis had read a newspaper editorial that stated, rather proudly, that Nigeria had a higher percentage of millionaires-in dollars, not local currency, than nearly any other country in the world, and most of them lived and conducted their business in Lagos. The editorial failed to mention that their wealth had been made over the years with the help of crooked politicians, criminal soldiers, bent contractors, and greedy oil-company executives. Or that Nigeria also had a higher percentage of poor people than nearly any other country in the world. What was it that his father had said about statistics?” (Abani 8).

   Lagos is the largest city in Nigeria,  and it earns “hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue” (Kaplan 1). Despite the large flow of oil, it is a “slum-ridden and largely impoverished metropolis” (Kaplan 1). With an estimated growing population of 21 million people in the city alone, a majority live on less than 1.25 US dollars a day (Kaplan 1). How can a city that both receives large inflows of revenue, and is rich in natural resources be home to some of the poorest people in the world? According to Seth D. Kaplan, a lecturer in John Hopkins University and the author of two books widely recognized by policymakers for analyzing structural issues in fragile states, the prospects for the future look bleak. As the Nigerian population is expected to “mushroom to 400 million by next century”, the inequality among the citizens in the most populous cities is sure to worsen (Kaplan 1).

   Lagos is described in Abani’s novel as a city of startling contrasts (Merle 1). Despite the positive growth of wealth, the quality of life in Lagos suffers. The growth in wealth leads to the growth of urban spaces as individuals move to more densely populated areas. These areas become the urban spaces, like cities, that are common in any developed Western country. However, urbanization coupled with a poor wealth distribution fosters the growth of urban spaces that are worlds away from the metropolises we see in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. An article from the Washington Post examines the poor wealth distribution in Nigeria and other countries that face economic inequality, ”These countries have been seeing economic growth over the past few decades, but much of the wealth ends up funneling into the top stratospheres of society. This problem tends to be self-reinforcing: The rich are able to secure better education and political access, making it easier for them to stay rich and tougher for everyone else to get a share of the pie” (Fisher 1). In the article, Nigeria is categorized as one of the countries with a far poorer wealth distribution compared to the United States.  These urban spaces that emerge in Nigera, called slums, are expanding along with the increasing rate in urbanization in Lagos, “The African situation, of course, is even more extreme. Africa's slums are growing at twice the speed of the continent's exploding cities” (Davis 15). The difference between the common perception of the result of urbanization and the real result is often overlooked, Thus, the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, sur­rounded by pollution, excrement, and decay. Indeed, the one billion city-dwellers who inhabit post modern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Catal Hiiyiik in Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life nine thousand years ago” (Davis 19).


In the novel Graceland, author Chris Abani offers us a glimpse of life in a Lagos slum:

“...Nothing prepared you for Moroko. Half the town was built of a confused mix of clapboard, wood, cement and zinc sheets, raised above a swamp by means of stilts and wooden walkways. The other half, built on solid ground reclaimed from the  sea, seemed to be clawing its way out of the primordial swamp… a man squatted on a plank walkway outside his house, defecating into the swamp below, where a dog lapped up the feces before they hit the ground” (48).

The imagery from this scene supports Davis’ description of the poverty and barely inhabitable conditions that are found in slums. Such conditions contrast greatly from the skyscrapers and paved cement roads of traditional urban spaces.


    A slum is the polar opposite of the commonly accepted idea of the kinds of spaces urbanization creates in a country. Instead of the idyllic skyscrapers surrounded by streetlights and hurried people, Nigeria is littered with clusters of lean-tos, shacks, and impoverished families. The living conditions in the slums are appalling, as seen in Abani’s description of the Moroko slums.People live in unhygienic conditions because they survive on income that is well below the poverty line. Slum residents struggle to make a living and to find enough money to support their families while the number of migrants to the slums continue to increase. According to Ashley Dawson “...Millions of people move to the slums of mega-cities in the global South every year hoping to better their fortunes, only to be faced with the grim struggle to survive. So massive is this tide of striving humanity that more than half the world’s population will live in cities by the end of this decade according to United Nations demographers; humanity will, as a result, be an urban species for the first time in our history” (17). The massive growth in the slum population magnifies and worsens the issue of wealth distribution. Slums especially feel the burden of economic recessions like the one that occured during the 1980’s, which is the era in which Abani’s Graceland takes place. Despite the recession, Lagos’ population grew twice as quickly as the population of Nigeria as a whole. As a result, the poverty rate of Nigeria jumped from 28 percent in 1980 to 66 percent in 1996 (Dawson 17). Great use of evidence throughout this paragraph.

    In theory, urbanization is a good practice because fantasies of positive outcomes, such as skyscrapers and shopping centers, tempt individuals into sharing that opinion.However, what sounds good in theory does not necessarily translate perfectly when put into practice. Urbanization leads to growth in a country, but the kind of growth is often not closely examined. The growth in population and productivity are positive kinds of growth from an economic perspective because they are factors that aid economic growth.  However, the byproduct of such growth, which is extreme economic inequality, overshadows the seemingly positive statistics. Should researchers and individuals continue to focus on the prospect of the future growth in Nigeria’s wealth, or should they focus on its distribution? Are increased income for a few and urbanization worth pursuing at the cost of the standard of living of the country’s people?


Works Cited

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

Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Dawson, Ashley. "Surplus City: Structural Adjustment, Self-Fashioning, and Urban Insurrection in Chris Abani’s Graceland.” Interventions 11.1 (2009): 16-34. Web.

Egbunike, Nwachukwu. "Nigeria: Fury as Lagos State Government Demolishes #Makoko Slum · Global Voices." Global Voices Overall RSS 20. Global Voices, 17 July 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <

Fisher, Max. “Map: How the World’s Countries Compre on Income Inequality (the U.S. Ranks below Nigeria).” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.

Kaplan, Seth D. "What Makes Lagos a Model City." The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Rubin, Merle. "'Graceland' Is a Study in Nigeria's Many Contrasts." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 05 Apr. 2004. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.


1 comment

Your post answered the one question that came to my mind when I was sitting in my economics class in my senior year of highschool and when I was watching the news over the years. Often, I hear economists stating that "The country saw x percentage overall growth in economy," and I always thought "Does that mean that the living standard for the people increased?" Nice to know that it is not always the case. Also, nice to know that the concept of urbanization may not always look good as it seems.