In an article titled ‘Learning from Lagos’,
The Economist dragged Nigeria’s capital city then patted up
on the back. Below is what they wrote;

For a city that dubs itself the “centre of excellence”,
Lagos has a lousy reputation. The mere mention of
Nigeria’s commercial centre conjures images of crime,
corruption and motionless traffic. The bodies of people
run over in car accidents can be left on the street for
hours and commuters in even the poshest parts of town
are sometimes caught in shoot-outs between robbers and
policemen. Little wonder then that in a ranking of the
“liveability” of 140 cities by the Economist Intelligence
Unit, a sister company of this paper, it sits in the bottom
five.

The besieged Libyan capital Tripoli scores higher, and war-
threatened Damascus only fractionally worse. Its citizens are
also an unruly lot: men urinate on the don’t urinate signs,
people hawk by the don’t hawk signs and loiter by the no
loitering signs.
Yet the city is a lot better now than it was two decades ago.
Bola Tinubu, who became the governor of Lagos State when
civilian rule was restored in 1999, remembers taking over a
“slum”. “The traffic was chaotic. The infrastructure was
disintegrating. There were mountains of refuse all over,” he
recalls. “People were being murdered. Armed robbery was
rampant. Dead bodies were picked on the street on average
10-15 times every week. There was no control of any kind.”
Lagos was rundown in the late 1990s because it was badly
run. Rapid population growth, as rural migrants flocked to the
big city, outstripped its infrastructure. No one really knows
how many people live in Lagos: estimates range from 10m to
21m, but its congested roads and bridges have space for just
a fraction of them.
Under military rule, the city was neglected by the central
government. In 1991 Nigeria’s capital was moved to Abuja,
an orgy of grandiosity built in the middle of the country to
symbolise unity. Public spending followed the politicians
there to pay for wide boulevards and marble-floored palaces.
After the restoration of democracy in 1999 Lagos still found
itself neglected, largely because its citizens had the temerity
to vote for opposition parties, the forerunners of the All
Progressives Congress (APC) that earlier this year unseated
the incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that had run
Nigeria for 16 years.
Mr Tinubu and his successor as governor, Babatunde
Fashola, both say their efforts to reform were often frustrated
by the PDP-led federal government. It failed to upgrade the
main roads in the city that were under federal control,
including one leading to West Africa’s biggest port. It
delayed approval for an important train line that the state
government was willing to pay for. “I don’t want to be
understood as recriminating,” Mr Fashola says, “but I know
things could have been better.”
Instead of relying on Abuja for funds, Lagos learned to
generate its own. It created passable systems to monitor its
own spending and squeeze taxes out of citizens not known
for their eager compliance with such things. Internally
generated revenue has risen to 23 billion naira ($115m) per
month, from almost nothing a few years ago. That still
amounts to only a few tax dollars per person. But the state has
been able to borrow against that income to finance projects
such as a much-needed bridge linking the upmarket areas of
Ikoyi and Lekki. Moreover, its reliance on local tax
collection has forced it to improve its services in order to
attract businesses.
And in this regard it has done well. The state produces about
$90 billion a year in goods and services, making its economy
bigger than that of most African countries, including Ghana
and Kenya. Much of Nigeria’s industry, which once thrived
in the north, can now be found in the suburban manufacturing
estate of Agbara. Cranes hang over the city and land is being
reclaimed from the sea as developers rush to satisfy the vast
appetite for property.
Seth Kaplan of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore argues
that whereas national elections in Nigeria are a squabble over
petrodollars, local elections in Lagos favour candidates who
show competence and pragmatism. The opposition’s success
in managing Lagos played a big role in its sweeping victories
in state and national elections earlier this year.
Now that the APC holds power in Abuja as well as Lagos, the
city has a chance to do better still. Many hope its efforts will
not now constantly be stymied by a ruling party afraid of
being shown up.
It could also teach politicians in the capital a thing or two.
One lesson is that it helps to foster a broad tax base, instead
of just relying on oil (which provides more than two-thirds of
the central government’s revenues).
Better tax collection would make the budget less vulnerable
to wild swings in the oil price. It might also lead to more
accountable governance: people who pay tax tend to demand
better services in return. Another moral is that better
infrastructure boosts economic growth, and if you don’t have
the money to pay for it upfront, you can get private investors
to do so instead: witness Lagos’s toll-roads and bridges.
For badly run countries in other parts of the world, the big
lesson of Lagos is that reforms in one big city can sometimes
kick-start wider change.

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