Poverty and population in Lagos

Posted: 24 June 2002

Author: Paul Okunlola

Author Info: Paul Okunlola is Assistant Editor of The Guardian newspaper, Lagos, and a writer on human settlements and environment issues.

Earlier this year (2002) the Nigerian city of Lagos suffered the worst urban disaster in the nation's history when ammunition, stored in the city's largest army barracks, blew up killing around 1,000 people. Here, Nigerian journalist Paul Okunlola explores the background to this event, in an article specially commissioned by People & the Planet.

Fate could not have dealt a crueler blow to a man whose every effort centred on providing his children with those basic things life had denied him. However, even until just before dusk in the evening of January 27, 2002, there had been little to suggest the day would present anything by way of surprises for Mr Hyacinth Nwosu.

For this middle-aged trader and his family of eight, that Sunday had run its course very much like any other. Even the early morning rush to church had not diminished the rare moments of order and tranquility which residents of Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's most populous city, can boast of only on those days people throng into the city's numerous houses of worship.

But all that was to change overnight, when, after a stampede that followed some four hours of ordnance explosions in the city's largest military barracks, three of Hyacinth's six children were nowhere to be found. As it was, they were later listed among the estimated 1000 persons that perished in the chaos triggered off by the disaster.

Indeed, to most observers, living conditions in Lagos, as in other Nigerian cities, had long contained the seeds of an environmental disaster simply waiting to happen.

Population boom

The possibilities are numerous. For instance, there is the issue of the sheer burden of numbers. Over the past century, Nigeria has seen its population boom.While the total population for the regions that were to make up he Nigerian nation was put at 18.72 million in 1921, the figure rose within three decades to 30.4 million in 1951, rising again to 55.67 just over a decade later in 1963.

By 1991, official census figures gave the national population as 88.5 million. Today however, only two decades on, the estimate has been revised higher by more than 30 million, putting the current figure in the region of about 120 million people.

In essence, while over the last 80 years, Nigeria's population has recorded a six-fold increase at the least, demographic realignments occurring over the last four decades have also significantly transformed the social and cultural character of a substantial proportion of the Nigerian populace. With an urban population growing at an estimated 5.5 per cent yearly - or about double the 2.9 per cent national population growth rate - the way Nigerians live has also been undergoing substantial transformations over the years.

Oil era

Traditionally an agrarian society, the elevation of rude oil to the status of the nation's principal revenue earner in the years following the end of the civil war in 1970, is widely regarded as a turning oint in the life of the Nigerian State.There was money aplenty in the land and fortunes were made cheaply. Both young and old deserted the farms. agriculture, long the mainstay of the economic lives of the people, took on the toga of a taboo.

Simultaneously, political restructuring programmes soon saw the creation of hundreds of new local administration territories that had to be serviced with the requisite infrastructure. This, coupled with a clear bias in the pattern of public investments, the spread of industries, as well as the provision of basic amenities and opportunities for personal improvement, decidedly favoured the urban centres to the near neglect of the rural countryside.

Consequently, even though by independence on October 1 1960, barely 14.5 per cent of Nigerians lived in urban centres, the situation has since changed. In the following years, the proportion of urban dwellers has risen steadily to 20 per cent in 1970; 35 per cent in 1990; and 43 per cent by the year 2000.

Migrant force

This migrant force comprised in the main, the likes of Hyacinth Nwosu, thousands of whom streamed daily into the newly emerging "centres of opportunity" that they saw in the urban areas. In Lagos for instance, it was estimated that as far back as in 1980, population influx into the city was in the region of some 300,000 people yearly or about 34 persons per hour.

The rate today, is believed to be considerably higher. But the scourge of economic mismanagement and corruption in public life was soon to take its toll,and by the decade of the 1990s, life for most was no longer the party it had been thought to be.

Many, like Hyacinth, are uneducated and basically ill prepared for the challenges that the "big city" presents in times of distress. With no jobs, no homes and no support from "big brother" in the city halls, the norm rather than the exception is the survival of the smartest.

Being smart, for Hyacinth and his ilk, for instance, involves learning to raise a typically large family on a daily income of less than one United States dollar daily - the widely accepted poverty line. It also involves surviving at the expense of a social system that offers him little by way of help.

Poverty line

In Nigeria today, no fewer than 60 per cent of the total population and up to 70 per cent of city dwellers live beneath this internationally demarcated line of income poverty.

When Hyacinth moved into Lagos just over 19 years ago, he came at the instance of a distant cousin, with whom he squatted for four years while he learnt the ropes of his motor spare parts trade. In his cousin's "bedroom and parlour" home, all three of his apprentices shared the cramped apartment with the young couple and their two children.

Naturally, they paid no taxes, except those levies forced off them by local council officials at the trading shop. Water was also not paid for, though it could only be obtained from the public tap down in the yard. As for electricity, although staff of the utility company occasionally came around to disconnect defaulters, the connections were soon re- established by tenants who knew how to bridge the connections as soon a the officials left. But that became necessary only on the few occasions when the officials could not be "encouraged" to overlook the outstanding bills and let them be, at least until they had to make the rounds again.

Decaying fabric

Managing situations such as these have become for administrators of Nigeria's cities, nothing short of a nightmare. And because, like Hyacinth, up to 70 per cent of the nation's workforce are employed in the informal sector, financial benefits by way of taxes that would have accrued for re-investment in the provision of infrastructure and services are simply non-existent.

The consequences: widespread deterioration in housing conditions; grossly inadequate infrastructure; persistently failing services; general environmental decay; human and societal poverty; and, declining quality of life. With insecurity of life and property being the reality that many contend with daily, the collective panic which drove hundreds to their death in the swamps of Lagos as the bombs exploded at dusk last January, has been traced to the extent of decay in the city fabric.

Many have blamed the situation on the absence of efficient governance structures that are generally acceptable to the people. Others have argued that the long period of military rule, which eroded the participatory culture in the decision making process, could be held responsible for the deplorable state of affairs. Still, some have laid the blame on the scourge of corruption and the lack of accountability in public life, attributes which have in the last decade dragged the perception of the Nigerian nation in the mud.

Cities campaign

But there is yet some light at the end of the dark tunnel. With the nation tottering through the trail of a new democratic dispensation, the launching of the Global Campaign on Urban Governance by President Olusegun Obasanjo in April 2001, is one anchor upon which many hope the new urban Nigeria will be built.

Already, the event has yielded some promising new dividends. Over the past year, fresh blueprints have been drawn up for the nation's housing and urban development policies. A dedicated Federal Ministry for housing and Urban Development has also been created. And at the local level, there is now a new awareness in the need for some measure of preparedness to cope with disasters at any level.

Unfortunately, though, none of these will raise the three young Nwosu children who perished in the now infamous New Year disaster. But as their father Hyacinth and the family try to pick up the pieces of their broken lives they may at least hope that this will be one pain others would in the future have no cause to bear.