The tomatoes, peppers and yams used to fly off the shelves of Grace Emah's small food stand. Then one night this spring, dump trucks came and filled a large stretch of land nearby with sand, blocking the drainage canals that carried rainwater and waste past her shop and into the Atlantic. When the rains came this summer, there was no place else for the water to go, and the stretch of road in front of her shop flooded. "I've been here since 1990, and the water was never like this until this year, when they dumped the sand," says Emah, 60, holding up the hem of her dress as she stands shin-deep in filthy brown water. "Because of the flooding, customers don't even enter the market to buy things."
The sanded plot will be the base of a lucrative new development area, one of hundreds of similar land-reclamation projects that have begun all over the marshlike islands that constitute the wealthy areas of sub-Saharan Africa's largest city.
Lagos is Nigeria's commercial hub, a city that is creating wealth quickly and growing chaotically. Its corruption-corroded infrastructure is losing the race with growth, and its boom areas along the coast could lose their bet with Mother Nature. Once a center for Portuguese slave traders, then a British colony, the city is growing 8% a year. About 6,000 people move to Lagos every day, adding to its already bursting population of 15 million to 18 million people. The U.N. estimates the city will swell to 25 million by 2015. The poor arrive to escape the poverty of rural Nigeria and nearby countries; the wealthier, to escape the violence and kidnappings in the country's oil-rich delta region.
Lagos generates $85 million in revenue a month, according to government officials, and hopes to keep the cash flowing so it will have one of the 20 largest city economies by 2020. Essential to the city's plans are two small spits of land known as the islands, where banking, oil, consulting and telecom companies have their offices and the wealthy and politically powerful keep their lavish homes. "Lagos is like another country for most Nigerians. Some people move to the U.S. or Britain. Others move to Lagos," says Tosin Anatishe, general secretary of the Association of Real Estate Developers in Lagos. "Every politician and big man has to have a home on the islands. Even if they don't sleep here."
But the city's island hubs, at sea level and with no protection from an increasingly violent oceanfront climate, are on a particularly small and vulnerable stretch of land. Lagos is at risk more than other shoreline cities because almost all its ambitious plans are focused on the islands. "This is simply not the place to build a megacity. It was never meant to be. That's the tragedy of Lagos," says Stefan Cramer, the in-country director of the German Green Party's Heinrich Böll Foundation and a marine geologist. "Usually it's the poor people who will suffer first. Here, it's the other way around. It's the rich on the land areas that are most at risk. That's the big irony of urban planning in Lagos. Billions of dollars are invested in that infrastructure there, and I think they'll be the first to go." Government officials insist they have planned for every contingency. Whether true or not, their ability to stave off nature's forces is not on the minds of most Lagosians. As the sand gets dumped, plots are sold, buildings go up, and the money flows. Most people just want to know how they can get their foot in the door.
Doing so has become increasingly difficult, since the valuable land is in the hands of so few. A Western worker for Julius Berger, the largest Nigerian construction company and a subsidiary of Germany's Bilfinger Berger, sees the corruption every day. "There is a real Mafia here," he says, requesting anonymity. "It's controlled by real estate agents and property owners. They meet once a year and set the land prices. Then if no one pays the prices, they'll leave the land unoccupied for a year, even two, until someone pays itand they do pay it."
This has led to skyrocketing land prices on the islands. Rents can exceed $5,000 a month, and tenants must pay at least two or three years' rent in advance. Small homes and plots of land go for millions, and few can be bothered about waterfront vulnerabilities with so much money at stake. "The developers will recover their money before the disaster sets in, and somebody else will sit with the billeither foolish investors or the public," Cramer says.
Rapid growth has added to a deeply rooted system of corruption that penetrates nearly every aspect of society here and hobbles attempts at improving infrastructure. Nigeria has made some steps toward transparency, but if you want to get things done in Lagos, it is often necessary to have a dasha bribeat the ready. A Westerner in Lagos who worked for oil-and-gas-services company Willbros acknowledges that paying bribes is part of the deal. "When I joined, the then divisional manager brought me a statement on noncorruption to sign," he says, requesting anonymity out of fear of alienating business clients. "He told me, 'Just sign it. We both know it's Nigeria.'"
The corruption means billion-dollar electricity projects are left half done, so most of the city runs on expensive diesel-powered generators. It also means new hotel projects are left as empty shells, devoid of activity, so room rates at existing hotels are exorbitant. But business goes on.
At the recent unveiling of one of the city's many new master plans, Francisco Bolaji Abosede, the Physical and Urban Planning Minister, admitted that problems exist. "We are to be the third largest megacity by 2015, but we have hardly any infrastructure to show for it, and this has to change," he said. A few minutes later in his speech, however, it became clear why the change he is advocating might be difficult to realize. "This is the only country, not just the only state, where you can make 25% interest on your investment in one year. Not many countries will give you that."
Next Karachi Dreams Big