I remember a moment in church as a teenager in the God’s Kingdom Society here in Lagos, and Pa Adedokun was presiding and visiting the city from Warri, where he then domiciled. A feisty and hoary preacher with biting anecdotes and Yoruba proverbs, he was once the station minister of GKS Lagos decades earlier.
This moment was in the 1980’s, and he mused on the transformation of the city. In the 1960’s, he said, you walked the streets of Lagos alone and when someone appeared on the horizon, you adjusted until he or she came within touching distance. But everything had changed in the 1980’s, the streets bustled and people milled and bumped into and jostled past each other. Melee had replaced a tranquil street.
That was a Lagos where Aboru or Iyana Ipaja or Abule-Egba sounded like Madagascar, far in the Milky Way, and outside the ken of familiar chatter. Lekki was alien and roosted as neighbour to an asylum. The late Chief Hope Harriman, the real estate mogul, once reflected on how he compelled his friends to obtain properties in Ikeja, now a highbrow part of the city.
Yet, when Cyprian Ekwensi wrote his debut novel, People of the City, many thought he painted the quintessential Lagos. Yet he wrote of the 1950’s, the one that Pa Adedokun knew and never romanticised. Yet, harlots, thieves, brigands, hustlers, bigots, opportunists, money changers inhabited Ekwensi’s Lagos. It was the big, bright Babylon.
By today’s standards though, Pa Adedokun’s and Ekwensi’s Lagos are coy. They are a shrunken tree compared to today’s overfed wrestler. But Lagos was not the only city on the rise. Port Harcourt was daubed the “garden city,” because its roads and bridges nestled by a dazzle of plants and flowers and arboreal appeal. Kano was growing out of its feudal rut into a commercial hulk. Calabar, though in decline on account of Lagos’ ascendancy, still streamed with culture. Ibadan was where Awo tenanted his genius. Enugu was, like Constantinople of the 19th century, the star of the East. Even Kaduna clucked with political hauteur.
Each of these cities held a special appeal to the Nigerian soul. I recall an essay by role model Roger Rosenblatt. In the essay he wrote for Time, he pondered the world’s iconic cities. He urged young ones to travel because each city is an instance of the human range. So, he mused on “the logic of Greece, the fortitude of London, the grace of Paris, a city for every facet of the mind.”
But over the years, Nigeria is looking like a country running out of cities. The failure of the Naira, the plunder by our political elite, the years of locusts of bad governance are taking a toll on the cities. If Ekwensi wrote about a time when we had rural-to-urban migration, the migration of today is both urban to urban as well as rural to urban. The people are not flowing to all the cities, not Kano, or Calabar, or Port Harcourt, but principally Lagos.
Statistics show that Lagos, which is turning 50, is third in the ranking of world cities receiving throngs of people daily. The reason is simple. It is the only vibrant state in the federation. But that glory is potentially a burden. If other states are not working, Nigeria’s alpha governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, is unknowingly becoming the Nigerian rescuer.
Lagos is the state generating much money, embarking on disruptive infrastructure work, illumining the night streets across the state, embarking on a large-scale employment programme, reinvigorating the rural reaches while facing a homeless horde and increasing army of restless youths. The roads bear the weight of tankers and endless streams of automobile. From Oshodi to Abule-Egba to Lekki, the city is humming with work.
With a little over a year in office, Governor Ambode has had to face the reality of a country in doldrums, and he presides over an island of relative prosperity. Like metal to magnet, people will move to Lagos and seek not only shelter but also treasure.
In an age where most states wait, bowl in hand, for federal allocation, Lagos is generating its own money, is swirling with ideas, partnering with industry and international agencies, spurring its staff to industry and imagination, challenging the federal government to rise to the brilliance of one of its parts. Just as New York or California is a major world economic power in its own right, Lagos is a power in Africa.
In a less dramatic way, Lagos is Nigeria’s Europe where people are fleeing their misery to take shelter. In the case of Lagos, no one is drowning in oceans from capsized rafts, nor are they facing visa requirements or xenophobic hysteria or referendums over whether to accept or reject them. Nigeria’s alpha governor’s success has even helped to mitigate the crisis in the nation. If a naïve and incompetent man mounted the saddle, the challenge would have escalated today’s economic crisis. What if Ambode failed to tackle early surge of crime with calculated deployment of men, resources and strategy, what if he has not tackled the traffic mayhem with imaginative tinkering with nodal points and bottlenecks in the city, what if streets crawl in darkness and criminals bloomed with bloodshed and robbery! Thanks to him, Lagos is the Cinderella of today’s governance.
But the story of Lagos and its evolving staying power show that cities are about imagination. Big cities make great countries. New York came from a coastal settlement like Lagos and lifted the United States. Like Ekwensi’s Lagos, London was a grubby city once and full of slime, crime and grime. Charles Dickens created Oliver Twist in his novel of the 1830’s. The then Prime minister, Lord Melbourne, hated Dickens’ London of underworld crime and he complained to the queen. It is a different London today. Paris rose from a rural fiefdom, the rumble of revolution, Napoleonic swagger, a series of republics, and the shaping of the hands and dreams of architects. It tempered Hitler who could not destroy such a beauty. When Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway lived there, he wrote an all-time classic on the city, and called the book, The Movable Feast. Hear him: “If you are lucky enough to visit Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.”
Lagos beckons and it is always a work in progress, and it has been the steadiest in all of the federation since 1999. It must remain so, but the federal government must understand that it needs Lagos to succeed. It should work to support it by giving it a special status not only in budget but other aspects of national planning. When George Bush Sr. was president, he gave a special status to China. He saw the future, and it is today’s burgeoning super power. If Lagos fails, Nigeria wobbles.
Hence we must give kudos to the work so far done by Ambode. The work ahead is still enormous. Caesar Augustus once said, “I found Rome brick. I left it marble.” The road to a marble Lagos appears long, but with the sort of work and assiduity today, a marathon can be managed. One governor or one president, does not El Dorado make. But when they do well, their impact cannot be forgotten.