Africa's City on a Hill

Lessons from Lagos

School children in Lagos on independence day, October 2009.
School children in Lagos on independence day, October 2009. (Akintunde Akinleye / Courtesy Reuters )

In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, things are looking up. Since civilian rule returned to the country in 1999, the city’s government has improved basic services, updated its infrastructure, and increased public safety. And as investors flock to one of Africa’s biggest economies, business there is booming.

That’s quite an achievement in a country that earns over $50 billion in oil revenue each year but will soon have more people living below the poverty line than China. The average life expectancy for Nigeria’s 174 million people -- just 52 years -- is one of the world’s lowest. Pirates and armed militant groups are prevalent in the south, sectarian conflict troubles the country’s so-called middle belt, and a bloody Islamist insurgency has a foothold in the north. There are 12 confirmed cases of the Ebola virus. Next year’s presidential election will likely bring even more tumult, spurring new attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Yet life in Lagos is improving, and so the city offers a potential lesson for struggling states looking to stage a turnaround. Mayors and city councils are far more likely to embrace positive change than legislatures and presidents -- and more quickly. Local politicians face much greater pressure to serve their constituents and are less likely than politicians in the central governments, who have access to more wealth and more power, to give in to corruption and cronyism.

To be sure, a city-first strategy would not cure all of Nigeria’s woes. Only the central government can address such violent actors as Boko Haram, for example. But empowering and strengthening urban governments would create a host of opportunities for new political leaders to enter the fray. And if other cities can emulate Lagos, entire countries could be transformed.

WHEN POLITICS IS LOCAL

One key to Lagos' recent success has been regular local elections, which the city has been holding since 1999. In contrast with elections at the national level, which are primarily contests for control over oil wealth, local votes force politicians to demonstrate that they can competently solve problems.

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