Lagos bankruptcy?

Reflecting on why project economies and other pragmatic advances in Africa often appear to the world as chaos, starting from Nigeria capital city Lagos.  

In an era when global public relations companies assist in the hijacking of African states and the taste for and fear of fake news causes the giants of the internet to strain their content like whales, Lagos appears among the 27 cities with the worst quality of life – according to Mercer’s criteria.
When Africa’s cities appear on such lists they are usually accompanied by cities that are casualties of invasions and wars. It is easy to forget that almost every African city was a gulag created in the midst of colonial invasion and occupation. In order to plunder resources effectively, invaders simply garrisoned in the traditional settlements nearest to a mine or an oil well, a plantation or a harbour.


Assessing the quality of life in such cities, within a few decades of their self-emancipation from cynical and unapologetic predators is like assessing the progress of Siberia a few decades after Stalin or checking in on the state of mind of all those individuals who until recently filled the pods and powered the energy system of The Matrix. Only the most asinine or naïve commentator would want to compare the growth rate of Chernobyl to that of Helsinki, and so appropriate criteria of recovery, progress and autonomy need to be found, tested and established before anyone can pronounce on Africa’s cities without making themselves look rapacious or simply stupid.

Lagos has attracted more than its fair share of vilification: stigmatised as the world’s most chaotic city and edged out only by Karachi for the bottom place in IESE’s influential and quantitative Cities in Motion Index. It appears consistently as a scapegoat, concentrating within itself all of the full-blown ailments and morbidity that threaten every city in the world. It is as if all cities can continue confidently, sleepwalking into their particular future, as long as they can believe that Lagos’ is a lot worse. Relevant criteria for a good city might begin by looking at what it provides in common: for the use by all.
In this regard rigorously privatised transactional cities such as New York offer little, since the benefits of their economic mainstream, financialization, are constantly privatised while the risks and losses made vivid in the 2008 crisis were instantly socialised as externalities that the tax-paying citizen had to cover though the government bailout of banks. While real wages, access to opportunity and hence social mobility continue to decline in America after the mid-70’s, Lagos offers one of the highest levels of economic participation of all to its citizens. The market facilitating this is certainly not the City of London, Wall Street or Silicon Valley, populated with experts and accessible only after a costly and uncertain education offering perishable skills.
The city of Lagos is an informal market characterised by the absence of institutionalised nodes either regulating or stimulating it. In a literal sense it is a more theoretically perfect Free Market model than the far more complex and layered one institutionally incubated by the Communist party for contemporary China. However the most intriguing feature of the Lagos market is less its informality and accessibility to all, than its functioning in the futuristic mode of a network of networks. Within such pervasive networks, Latour and Boltanski assure us it is possible to launch a project economy at the lowest possible transaction cost.
Since project economies are aware of where global capitalism, seeking to renew itself on the basis of innovation and short-term easily demountable, flexibly redesigned value extractions, is heading, then Lagos is not so much the ‘future of Rome’ as Koolhaas prophesised as it is the future of capitalist metropolises everywhere. At present, it has brought the city into play a few short, subverted decades after its liberation, Lagos has overcome a major part of the exclusion of citizens from economic participation that still mars colonial cities, cities recovering from war and Western cities choked by chronic under-employment and the ‘gig-economy’.
Its defiance of intuitions and regulations in favour of the ubiquitous norm of trade makes it appear as tightly-quilted cooperating associations that replace the unifiers of the State, the National Market and the imagined community of the Nation with the various creative uses of the city held in common, virtually if not legally by its citizens. Of course there are some common issues such as environmental quality and public health that are risks most efficiently managed by centralised institutions but even these common threats are not beyond the scope of either a libertarian or a cooperative, associative society to self-manage.
It would be cynical to claim that any African city, so recently and usually incompletely rid of its former invader, is either a utopia or generally exemplary but unlike most Western or Western-imitating cities that run on the momentum of their past accomplishments, African cities cannot evade the pressures of change, they have few buffer zones and no momentum other than that which they can generate for themselves and preserve as far as possible from the new economic colonisation or the strategy of aid leading inevitably to indebtedness. African cities are thus forced to experiment audaciously and immediately with new ideas and solutions which they are constantly prepared to revise, recall and replace. They often literally survive by their powers of invention and consolidate this through their talents for near instantaneous redesign.
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