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Zombiescapes Africa's Megacity Addiction

African cities need to focus less on skyscrapers and more on city halls.

In his 2012 book, Zombie Economics, Australian economist, John Quiggin, talks about ideas that have been disproven or ‘killed’ time and time again but continue to live on in the minds of public policymakers with disastrous results. Quiggin was thinking mainly of the assumptions that led to the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, but I can’t help but recall the concept whenever I hear of the ongoing ‘megacity’ project in Lagos, Eko Atlantic.

Eko Atlantic is a wildly ambitious plan to develop a new city off the coast of Victoria Island on 10 square kilometres of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. If the promotional material is to be believed, the new development will be free of all the urban challenges that plague Lagos, and become a modern, world-class megacity to rival Dubai or Singapore. Cynics will be forgiven for thinking this latest scheme will go the way of past attempts at building a New Lagos; Victoria Island, Ikoyi, and Banana Island were announced with similar fanfare after all.

The Flawed Promise of a New Lagos

Eko Atlantic has already experienced schedule and budget problems. Dredging for the new city started in 2009 and it is difficult to get a realistic account of just how much money has been spent on the project. Even the project’s press releases seem unsure of how much it will cost to build Eko Atlantic, citing unnamed ‘experts’ in setting the cost at $6 billion. Since this estimate, the Nigerian economy has been rocked by recession and declining oil prices. The Lagos State government now estimates the project will be finished in October 2019.

More fundamentally, however, the central promise of Eko Atlantic—that it is possible to ‘start over’ and build an exclusive city within a city—is flawed. The high property values clearly illustrate the class of urban resident the new city hopes to attract. But these urban elites require a huge number of service workers; drivers, cooks, street sweepers, recharge card sellers, barbers, construction workers, mechanics and more to sustain their lifestyles. In cities, everyone wants to live where the jobs are and where the economic buzz is greatest. Even if the urban poor of Lagos are priced out from the fancy new developments of Eko Atlantic, they will find their way to informal settlements and abandoned properties. Based on the share of Lagosians who can realistically afford to live in Eko Atlantic, many of the residential buildings are likely to be empty anyway. Even Victoria Island, Ikoyi and Banana Island already have vacancy rates as high as 30 per cent in their wealthier areas.

In fact, in trying to keep the urban poor at bay, Eko Atlantic will likely exacerbate the problems of Lagos life. If the working class of the city is prevented from living on the new development, they will have to commute in and out suffering even more traffic. For commuting workers, traffic bites twice: first in the opportunity cost of wasted time that could have been spent working, and secondly because of greater expenses on transport. The transportation plan on the Eko Atlantic website mentions buses and road networks, but is silent on trains, light rail or any novel transport ideas that would make commuting easier. If the only option in and out of Eko Atlantic is over a bridge in a car or danfo, traffic becomes inevitable. One need only look at Third Mainland Bridge to glimpse the future of transportation in this new city. In general, gridlocked roads and proliferating slums are recurring features of past attempts to carve elite enclaves out of Lagos.

Besides these typical troubles, there is real danger that Eko Atlantic will create an environmental catastrophe for surrounding parts of Lagos. To build Eko Atlantic, six square miles of land were dredged from the Atlantic Ocean. Lagos is already prone to severe flooding, and there are obvious hazards from building even further into the ocean. To cope with these hazards, developers are building a ‘Great Wall of Lagos’ to defend the city from flooding. Unfortunately, water has a troubling tendency to go around walls, meaning nearby parts of Lagos will pay the price for Eko Atlantic’s protection. This fact, combined with the displacement of communities in the area under the guise of their protection, has fueled criticisms that Eko Atlantic is creating a form of ‘climate apartheid’.

The African Fantasy of Urban Authoritarianism

Nigeria is hardly the only country lured by the promise of building gleaming new megacities to escape their urban problems. In Egypt, the government wants to build a new 700 square kilometre capital city called New Cairo from scratch at a cost of almost $40 billion. Senegal is spending $2 billion to build Diamniadio Lake City by 2035, a new city to alleviate congestion in Dakar. Kenya has Konza Technology City and Tatu City in Nairobi, while in 2016 South Africa was forced to drastically downsize plans to build a ‘new Manhattan’ in Modderfontein, Johannesburg. In every corner of the continent, governments are looking to utopian metropolises to solve their urban problems. These utopias unfailingly reference cities like Singapore, Dubai and, sometimes, New York City. They style themselves as ultramodern, luxurious and ‘green’; buzzwords that appeal to property developers, western donors and government officials alike.

The popularity of these sorts of projects is not just a curious coincidence. Their language, the examples they refer to, and the process of their development all show an obvious envy for an authoritarian model of development. First, they show a desire to ‘fix’ the city without complaint, negotiation or restraint. Rather than consulting residents on their needs and wants, they adopt a top-down SimCity approach to urban development. The dream of an expert-designed model city-on-a-hill has strong roots in African colonial history. As part of their ‘civilizing mission’, colonizers sought to impose the function and aesthetics of the metropole on their colonial capitals. Unsurprisingly, indigenous voices were not consulted in this process of recreation, just as residents of Lagos or Cairo are not consulted today.

These new cities present visions of a city without its people: gleaming towers, clean streets, picturesque greenspaces all seen from a birds-eye view. When promotional images even deign to depict residents, it is only as computer-generated masses, seen from a distance flitting through glitzy retail environments. The scenes are so generic it is difficult to find any clues from race, attire or aesthetic, that suggest the country in which the project is being built.

Promotional image from Eko Atlantic (Nigeria) website showing a planned ‘largest shopping mall in West Africa’

Promotional image from Diamniado Lake City (Senegal) depicting a planned ‘ultramodern train station’ 

The other way in which these megacities fit an authoritarian fantasy is in their exclusive nature. The vacancy rates of Lagos’ wealthy neighbourhoods clearly show that there is no demand for $1 million apartments. Egypt is demolishing slums situated on the site of New Cairo, paying inhabitants a fraction of their land value and then building expensive residences in their place. By pricing these units so far out of reach of residents, governments are ensuring the type of people who can live there are returned diaspora, foreign expatriates, and elites with strong ties to business or government. They are designed to be enclaves, echoing the segregated Government Reserve Areas the British were so fond of, while the dependence on poor labour from surrounding areas recreates the city-township dynamics of Apartheid South Africa.

The African Reality of Urban Neglect

If African cities don’t need to build a new Dubai, what do they need? The answer, of course, varies from city to city. However, given the rapid rate of urbanization in most African countries, the central problem is providing housing, jobs and infrastructure for a growing city population. In many cities, newcomers are forced to live in conditions that are unsanitary, overcrowded, poorly built and poorly maintained. As demand for housing skyrockets, so do rents. Growing cities also require better transit infrastructure; road networks, buses, trains and more. Without these, large cities suffer from traffic congestion. They need electricity and fuel without which their urban machinery would grind to a halt. They need potable water, waste disposal and modern sewage to stay healthy and habitable for their residents. The residents themselves need opportunities for work and play provided by employers and entertainment amenities.

Keeping pace with this laundry list of needs is expensive, often unglamorous work. African politicians don’t often give speeches about building sewers, procuring waste disposal companies or building low-income housing. The scale of these types of projects are at odds with the lofty rhetoric that strongman politicians traffic in, as well as their instinct to seek out white elephant projects that provide opportunities for corruption. The hard work required to maintain and improve the imperfect is always daunting compared to the fantasy of starting over. Why close your roads for inconvenient but necessary construction work when you can dream of building brand new ones somewhere else?

At best these cities are expensive distractions from real urban challenges. At worst, they are attempts to uproot inhabitants and funnel public funds to the benefit of a compliant elite.

A Tale of Two Cities

Unless the incentives for politicians change, luxury cities will continue as a zombie idea in African urban development. An appointed bureaucrat or distant strongman is motivated to please political godfathers and an elite class of investors rather than the residents of the city itself while democratically elected local politicians, depending as they are on local votes alone, are more likely to stand against ideas that are bad for their residents. In Johannesburg, the Modderfontein Project ran afoul of the City’s demands that developers build 5,000 units of affordable housing and integrate the development into the existing public transport networks. Disagreement over these conditions led to the project being dramatically scaled down; a loss for the developer but arguably a win for the city and its residents.

South Africa has famously independent cities, with directly elected mayors and rights to non-interference by provincial governments is enshrined in the constitution. These assets allowed the City of Johannesburg to take the stance it did in 2014. Turning back to Lagos, there are characteristics that make it difficult to imagine the development of Eko Atlantic going the same way. There is no mayor of Lagos and no Lagos city council. Instead, there are 20 local government areas (LGAs) each with their own council and chairperson, none of which has any authority over the reclaimed land on which Eko Atlantic is being built. On top of the federally recognized LGAs, there are 37 Local Community Development Areas (LCDAs), created by fiat of the governor and without federal recognition. Whether they are in LCDAs or LGAs, local councils are largely creatures of the state government. They are not recognized in the Nigerian Constitution and their budgets and priorities are controlled by the governor.

Essentially, the governor of Lagos State does not have the same motives as the mayor of Johannesburg. The money and constituency that puts the Lagos State governor in office comes from a wider circle, less directly interested in how things are progressing in the city. Citizens effected by the new development cannot petition the governor’s mansion as effectively as those in a similar situation could petition the Johannesburg City Council. Finally, the governor of a state like Lagos will almost certainly have aims at entering the federal government as a minister, senator or even president. Commissioning white elephant projects like Eko Atlantic sells well on a national stage. On the other hand, boasting of turning down ill-advised schemes to benefit local business and renters has little appeal to anyone besides the city’s residents. African cities have a wide variety of local government arrangements, but in many cases decisions are ultimately not made by city officials. Cairo’s governor, for example, is directly appointed by the president of Egypt.

Thinking Local

A good start to changing the motives around development in African cities would be increasing the autonomy of their governments. In Nigeria, the National Assembly has repeatedly tried to amend the constitution so that local government funds would go directly to their councils instead of being held by state governments. Predictably, the state governments—two-thirds of which need to approve for such an amendment to become law—have reacted coldly. Nonetheless, giving municipalities control over their own finances is essential for local needs to be addressed. The Nigerian public and civil society organizations would do well to realize that this constitutional amendment is far more vital than the limited press attention suggests.

Moreover, as these groups push for financial autonomy for local government they should also push for greater accountability in local elections. Elections to the governorship and State Houses of Assembly are monitored by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)—the same body that supervises federal elections. LGA elections, however, are monitored by state election commissions. While INEC has faced well-deserved criticism about its effectiveness, the state commissions are arguably worse and far less transparent. Many governors have been refusing to hold LG elections altogether.  In a 2018 study, YIAGA AFRICA’s Centre for Legislative Engagement found that 12 out of 36 states had skipped LGA elections and were either continuing with representatives beyond their mandate or operating with governor-appointed ‘caretakers’. Any attempt to strengthen the powers and resources of local government will be disastrous if they are not made more democratic.

It will likely be a few years before we know the fate of Eko Atlantic, but past experience suggests that the finished product will bear little resemblance to the glitzy promotional images being created. What we know today casts doubt on the idea that this city, even if perfectly executed, can be the solution to the problems of Lagos. If future governments in Lagos or other African cities truly want to improve urban life, they should begin from restructuring the functions and incentives of local government. Elsewhere in the world, municipal governments are increasingly recognized as vital players in development. They are the closest level of government to their residents and are thus uniquely positioned to positively impact their lives. In Africa’s large cities however, developers and governments seem incapable of imagining anything else but the same top-down, authoritarian solutions. Until there is a revolution in how urban decisions are made, the zombie idea of the African megacity will hobble onwards unfazed by past experience or future challenges