Who is stealing the Lagos coast?

Emblematic of the risks of indiscriminate development, the Nigerian metropolis is among the cities examined by the research that ISPI and Domus will present at domusforum 2019.

This article is part of a series of contents that anticipate the themes that will be discussed during the second edition of domusforum - the future of cities, in Milan on October 10, 2019.

In 1975, the Nigerian Afrobeat activist-musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti released the song titled Water No Get Enemy, which literally means “water has no enemy”. The song speaks about the character of water and its indifference to every human situation. The lyrics of the song couldn’t have been truer for anywhere else but Lagos – a city that has had a love-hate relationship with its waters for over a century. From the then flourishing transatlantic slave trade to the 1851 British bombardments and eventual annexation of the city, Lagos has always been defined by its waters. Over the years Lagos has turned its waters to profit, but it has also often been on the receiving end of their wild rage. 

The Lagos Bar Beach – a sand spit on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and the Lagos Lagoon – once encapsulated the aphorism of Lagos as a home for all. It was a favourite rendezvous for revellers, filles de joie, religious spiritualists and animists who daily thronged the beach for their rituals. The beach also had an infamous reputation in the ’70s and ’80s, as the place where convicted armed robbers and failed military coup plotters were publicly executed by the Nigerian military. Once again, the waters of Lagos are triggering another revolution in the city – a new spectacle sprouting up on the site of the Bar Beach. Quite oblivious of its morbid and unsavoury past, it is called Eko Atlantic, a new megacity being built from scratch on a largely reclaimed ten-square-kilometre strip of land. The idiosyncratic private-funded city is touted to become Nigeria’s new financial hub, comparable to Manhattan, and home to at least 250,000 people. The developers of Eko Atlantic and the Lagos state government had primarily marketed it as the solution to the coastal retrogression that has afflicted this entire stretch of shoreline over the past decades, causing it to recede by an estimated minimum of two kilometres. At inception, the developers of the new city constructed the Great Wall of Lagos, a revetment built primarily to protect the surrounding shoreline from ocean surges. Critics of the new city, however, argue that the wall is the antithesis of its supposed function, and that while Eko Atlantic City will be largely safe from ocean surges, the Great Wall renders the rest of the city vulnerable to flooding because it redirects the deluge to the settlements that flank it. This happened in 2012 to the neighbouring Kuramo Beach, where flooding destroyed habitats and livelihoods and claimed at least a dozen lives.

Map taken from the research "African Speculations" by the University of Pennsylvania School of Design

The endless shorelines that encircle the city are strategic to the future of Lagos. They have evolved into a depository of dreams and the launch pad for fantasies of the city’s new tomorrow. Yet they also offer narratives that are socially divisive and inimical to the livelihoods of a large section of its population. Paradoxically, the city’s shoreline is also a battleground where human life faces nature’s most expansive formation – the ocean – and co-habiting with it requires constant negotiation. The shoreline of Lagos is an ecologically fragile area made more vulnerable through the conversion of wetlands to human settlements in low-lying zones, which are prone to the threats of sea-level rise and intense flooding. Residents of several coastal settlements in Lagos are constantly at risk and have resorted to laying sandbags along the shoreline to hold back the ocean surge. But even this is a very cosmetic measure and can barely withstand the momentous invasions of water. For its part, the Lagos state government says it has so far installed groins along at least 14 kilometres of shoreline spanning the city’s coastal communities, but this is hardly enough. Residents have called on the Nigerian federal government to fund more of this shoreline protection from the national ecological fund. Presently, there are also a few manmade activities threatening the future of these settlements. For example, the booming construction industry across the city has created an insatiable demand for construction sand. This has heightened the activities of illegal artisanal dredgers, who daily shovel heaps of sand off the shoreline into wooden canoes for onward delivery at construction sites. Further off-shore, greater damage is being caused by large industrial dredgers pumping several thousand cubic metres of sand every day from the lagoon bed into large barges. This reality is replicated across several riverine communities on the Lagos coast, all irreparably damaging the ocean bed and the entire marine ecosystem therein. These activities have significantly impacted fishing practices and the associated value chains of livelihoods of the riverine communities, which currently eke a living from the water as fishermen and fishmongers. Such dredging has also polluted the surrounding waters, thereby depriving local communities of a source of potable water. 

The Carter bridge over the Lagos lagoon (photo Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images)

While some of these communities contend with the consequences of illegal dredging, their situation is exacerbated by the disposition of the Lagos city authorities which view them as a nuisance. Indeed, the existence of these communities is at variance with the ambitious dreams of building a ritzy new Lagos, one that hides its urban poor from sight. Even worse, there have been instances where law enforcement agencies have accused community members of harbouring kidnappers, pirates and petroleum pipeline vandals, all of whom are causing severe problems along the city’s coast. At present several waterfront communities are in court fighting for their very existence, seeking to avoid the fate of communities such as Otodo-Gbame, which have been demolished or razed to ground by agents of the state to make way for new development. These waterfront communities presently sit on prime real estate, with the result that they constantly live in fear of demolition or eviction at the hands of the state. 

The urban development of the Lekki Free Trade Zone superimposed on a satelite view of the area (© Surbana Jurong)

In another waterfront community in Ibeju-Lekki – the Lekki Free Trade Zone (LFTZ) – an industrial behemoth is presently under construction. Its centrepiece is the Lekki Deep Sea Port. The project is a public-private partnership between Singaporean conglomerate Tolaram Group, China Harbour Engineering, the Nigerian Ports Authority and the Lagos state government. On completion, the port is expected to service all the industries in the new Lekki Free Trade Zone and also significantly reduce pressure on the ports of Apapa. At present, the price of real estate along the Ibeju-Lekki corridor has skyrocketed in anticipation of a property boom there. Luxury real estate developers and local land speculators (Omonile) have positioned themselves to reap bountifully from this impending bazaar, further perishing the possibility of building a socially inclusive neighbourhood there – in a rehash of the current experience across most of downtown Lagos. The surrounding waterfront settlements have all become latent gold mines, and it is only a matter of time before their present occupants are displaced to make way for more “suitable” residents. Experience indicates that these riverine communities are an endangered lot, and the water that was a blessing has also become the bane of their existence. One can argue that the coastline of Lagos is being “stolen” from the existing city due to the developments of Eko Atlantic, the impact of the Lekki Free Trade Zone on property prices in its surrounding area, and both the legal and illegal dredging activities affecting the environment and landscape.

Opening photo: aerial view of the Lekki peninsula in south-east Lagos, where the Lekki Free Trade Zone is under construction (photo George Osodi/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

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