Lagos: The city that won’t stop growing


A thick layer of acrid, blue smoke hovers just above the waterfront slums that skirt Lagos lagoon, filtering out sunrise and sunset.

This man-made mist that clings to the rusted shack rooftops comes from the countless fish-smoking cabins that drive the slum economy.

There’s an uninterrupted view of the city’s dramatic sprawl of poverty from the road bridges that carry daily commuters between the islands and the mainland.

Fishing and sand-dredging boats drift to work, heading deep into the lagoon.

Many of the slums’ wooden huts are on stilts, others are just basic shacks shoddily built on the unstable ground of trodden-down rubbish dumps.

Nobody knows exactly how many people live in Lagos, but they all agree on one thing – Nigeria’s biggest city is growing at a terrifying rate.

The UN says 14 million. The Lagos State government thinks it’s nearer 21 million, as rural Nigerians are drawn by the hope of a better life to one of Africa’s few mega-cities.

By 2050 Nigeria will have twice the population it has today, more than half will live in cities, and about 60% of them will be under 25.

In an overcrowded neighbourhood on mainland Lagos, Muktar Abdulhamid, 36, is pressing shirts with a heavy, old-fashioned iron filled with charcoals.

Abdulhamid is from a rural village in the northern state of Kano, and he’s left his wife and one-year-old child at home and come here to try to make money.

Muktar Abdulhamid: Just one of many rural Nigerians drawn to Lagos
Muktar Abdulhamid: Just one of many rural Nigerians drawn to Lagos
“This isn’t what I intended to be doing. I want to do business – to buy and sell,” he says. “It’s not easy to leave your wife, your child, it’s lonely, but I have no choice – it’s for the future of the family.”

There are few good jobs and housing is in high demand, but at least there are opportunities.

Every week tens of thousands of people arrive in Lagos, heading to neighbourhoods where friends and relatives have come before – many end up in the slums.


But Lagos State is planning tower blocks and transformation, reclaiming land from the sea for ambitious new developments.

In a rush to transform the city, the waterfront slums are being cleared, court rulings are being ignored, and luxury apartment blocks are springing up.


Can Lagos persuade wealthy investors to buy into a futuristic vision, while helping pull the poorest people out of poverty?

In about 30 years Nigeria will overtake the US to become the world’s third most populated country behind China and India.

It vies with South Africa for the status of the continent’s biggest economy, but it’s now in recession – beset by a drop in oil prices, and having to fund the fight against both Boko Haram Islamists and separatists targeting oil pipelines in the Niger Delta.


Like everywhere else in Africa trying to break out of poverty, Nigeria hopes fast population growth will bring it a “demographic dividend” – a young workforce that can drive economic growth. If they can all be put to work.

Already there’s migration north to Libya and on to Europe, and the young who are left idle and without much hope are easily radicalised by Boko Haram.

It’s going to take great management, smart politics and increasing security and stability to turn rapid population growth into a positive and avoid the potential for disaster.