Generating Capital in Africa (II)

Destroying Makoko

One of Africa’s oldest and best-known slums is being dismantled

Aug 18th 2012 | LAGOS 

This story from The Economist brings together two issues I have written about, the problems posed by rapid urbanization in Lagos (see posts Nigerian Urbanization I and II) and most recently, the necessity of official property rights for Africans who live and work extralegally.

“PADDLES splash through oily water and propel dugouts along narrow channels separating wooden shacks on stilts far out in the shallow lagoon on which much of Lagos, Nigeria’s business hub, was built. A quarter of a million people live in Makoko, learn to swim before they have walked on land, go to school, buy goods from traders drifting down the main channels, build fishing boats and go to sea. A few narrow bridges connect elevated platforms anchored, like everything else, six feet below the waterline. They say the only thing you won’t find in Makoko is a grave.

Or the government. For more than 120 years the fishing community has been left largely to its own devices. But that changed last month when a hundred officials with chainsaws razed dozens of shacks. Lacking property deeds, residents were given only 72 hours notice to go. One died in a clash with police. Steve Adji, an indignant community chief, says, ‘The government speaks of shanties but these are homes.’

The entire district may soon be gone. The government is eager to reclaim what has become prime waterfront land. It is only half-fair to depict it as heartless and greedy. Built on a swamp, Lagos is fighting for survival. Ceaseless migration is strangling it. City fathers foresee the doubling of the population to 40m within a few decades, which would make it the most populous city in the world. Lagos’s economy is growing so fast that it is bigger than, for instance, the whole of Kenya’s.

Lagos has long been a byword for urban chaos. Traffic is legendarily bad, crime is a perennial sore and public services reach few. Re-elected last year, the city government is striving to change all this. It has commissioned a rail network, tried to control unruly motorbike taxis and invested in roads. The clearing of slums is part of its effort to unclog the city and spur the economy. But all too often it is the poor who pay the price.”

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