© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Ugly Lagos and the Urgent need for Redemption
By Anthony Akaeze
AS is typically the case, United States President, Donald Trump, was again in the news recently for what he wrote about Baltimore, Maryland’s main city. Following Congressman Elijah Cummings’ reprimand of American immigration officials for the living conditions in some of the country’s holding centres for migrants seeking refuge in the US, as reported in electronic and print media, Trump slammed Cummings in a tweet where he questioned the sense of decency of people and residents of Baltimore which Cummings represents in America’s law making body.
“Rep. Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA…,” Trump said, adding “As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded. Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place,” he declared, further stating that “no human being would want to live” in Baltimore.
As shocked or disgusted as many may have been with Trump’s views, coming from a president about his own people, the man was not without his supporters. One of them, replying Trump’s tweet, said “Once again POTUS (President of the United States) is right whether you want to hear it or not. I lived in Baltimore for three years. It’s a series of row houses where if you make one wrong turn for two blocks you’re dead. And God forbid you have to go to Johns Hopkins. It may as well be in the middle of Ramadi.”
A bully himself, Trump’s tweets, to me, are usually neither exciting nor inspiring but this one struck a chord and got me thinking. My first impulse was to google Baltimore, a city I had never visited, to learn more about the place, and as I did, I wondered to what extent – given Trump’s penchant for exaggeration and misinformation, he was right.
Days after my first search, I did a follow up check, and the search revealed something interesting that probably lends credence to Trump’s taunts. It is that some sanitation volunteers from some American states had stormed Baltimore to help clean up the city and make it more appealing.
Thinking about Baltimore thereafter, I did wonder to what extent it compares to Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city and one of the world’s mega centres with an estimated 21 million population. Is Baltimore similar, worse or less than Lagos in filthiness?
I had lived in Lagos since 2005 and during which time I traversed its nooks and crannies as a resident and reporter and became familiar with its landscape. I had often wondered about the city and how many of its residents live but what I saw in my tour of many of the municipalities in Lagos late last year to early this year for a reporting project funded by International Centre for Investigative Reporting and MacArthur Foundation, will live with me forever. Filth, stench and degradation of the worst kind. Nowhere, in all my years of travelling around Nigeria – and I boast substantial knowledge of the country – have I beheld such sight. The only place that comes close is Okpoko area of Onitsha, Anambra State, where, in some parts of the town six I visited years ago, I saw humans and pigs literally competing for space with heaps of refuse and putrid smell from soggy land, in what was supposed to be human habitat. In fact, so massive was one of the refuse heaps in Okpoko that it spilt over and damaged a fence and sections of a primary school close to a market with no one doing anything about it in a state that supposedly had a commissioner for education and active governor in Peter Obi. But Okpoko is just one district compared to countless Lagos municipalities. A ride around Lagos, a city that officials of the state hail as Nigeria’s centre of excellence, could end up troubling one, given the state of the environment. And so, following Trump’s tweet about Baltimore, I wondered what he would say about Lagos were he to visit it today. What would he say about Ketu, Oshodi, Lagos Island, Surulere, Ajegunle, Ebute-Metta, Oworonshoki, Victoria Island, Bariga, Somolu, Ikoyi, Ikeja, Ogba, Yaba, Iyana Ipaja, Agege, Apapa, Mushin – everywhere? What would he say about the many slums in the city, about makeshift structures in waterfront settlements littered with refuse, with no drains and toilet facility for inhabitants; about stagnant drainages all over the city choked with debris, where bulgy rats, rodents, cockroaches, mosquitoes and snakes, to talk of just these, dwell? What would he say about the diseased waters in this aquatic state, from where fishermen make a living and the public get served their products daily? What would he say about unpaved roads all around the city that turn messy during rainy seasons? What would he say about open defecation and excreta that litter the environment? What would he say about a city without a clean, reliable mass transport system for residents?
A 2016 article by the UK Independent newspaper, reveals that Lagos placed third among the 9 worst cities in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit report, which ranks the best and worst cities to live in the world.
According to the report, “The EIU’s Global Liveability Ranking provides scores out of 100 for lifestyle challenges in 140 cities worldwide. It looks at which cities have the best living and worst living conditions. The ranking takes into account healthcare, education, infrastructure, safety, and the threat of terrorism. It then gives an overall mark out of 100.”
Without a doubt, the state of Lagos today is such that would make Sir William Macgregor, Governor of the Lagos colony between 1899 and 1902 to wonder, were the dead able to, what became of his darling city. Macgregor, according to a 2018 book titled, Urban Planning Processes in Lagos, “introduced a number of very significant drainage and sanitation measures” when Lagos “population was around 40, 000.” His effort was evidently not followed through by successive administrations which explains the environmental disaster that the state is today.
The rot didn’t happen overnight but it’s amazing that successive administrations in the state since the return to civil rule in 1999 particularly, consider the state so clean as not to declare an emergency for it. The combined efforts of successive APC governments in Lagos amounts to no more than scratching the surface. Getting people to sweep major roads in the state, as one gets to see here and there without reaching adjoining streets and having a vision of clearing choked drains makes no sense and amounts to nothing.
During my reporting trip last year, ahead of the gubernatorial election in Lagos, I saw campaign posters of Babajide Sanwo-Olu, then governorship aspirant of APC, lavishly displayed in some squalid neighbourhoods in Lagos Island. The man went on to win the election and is now the governor of the state. My question for him then is: what can you do to change the face of Lagos?
What different strategy do you have? What can you do to overhaul the system, a system that has continually failed the people? There’s something about the Lagos system that just won’t deliver a clean environment. Given the extent of rot in the state, it would require huge manpower, a change of attitude by both the government and people to turn things around, and work has to start immediately.
Here’s my modest proposal on how to begin to turn things around: recruit as many willing hands from every Lagos neighbourhood – and this won’t pose a challenge given the high level of joblessness in the state and Nigeria generally – for a monthly fee, to help collect, dispose and manage waste. Prior to the 2016 American election, and as his own strategy to check migration to the US, Trump talked of building a wall along the border with Mexico and get Mexicans to pay for it, an idea that has remained a pipe dream as the man now seems to have run out of ideas on how to realise it, but engaging Lagosians to take charge of their environment is one idea that residents of the state may be willing to pay for if they see and feel government’s sincerity of purpose. It will be different from merely creating jobs for political thugs as top politicians in the state and elsewhere, including governors are renowned for, something that at times makes nonsense of even good intentions. Such initiative as getting people involved in cleaning and safeguarding their environment should be a continuous process that could checkmate the rot and stench avalanche in the state, give it the uplift it deserves and place it among the world’s most liveable cities in no distant time.
Anthony Akaeze is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist