Lagos land law and the ‘return of the native’

Ogunsakin Mustapha
14 Min Read
Dr Olukayode Oyeleye

By Olukayode Oyeleye

Borrowing this title from the legendary Thomas Hardy’s novel here is not intended to justify the action of those who think segregation policy is a virtue that can be justified as being “far from the madding crowd,” borrowing another title of a different novel written by the same old Thomas Hardy. Here, the use of those titles connote different stories in different settings in which reference is to a Nigerian megacity where the words of the title are relevant.

Many major traditional urban centres in the northern Nigeria have old cities and new towns (popularly referred to as Sabongari). They are common in Kano, Zaria, Bauchi, Sokoto, Yola, Maiduguri and many more much smaller, spread all over. One thing stands out in those settlements: the new towns are generally more developed, have more diverse population, promote a lot more of economic activities, generate more wealth and allow more inclusiveness. Thus you find in Gyadi Gyadi, Bompai, Sharada and others in Kano, which — unsurprisingly — are Kano’s industrial and commercial areas and economic nerve centres. In Yola, most population and the greatest economic activities are found in Jimeta.

In Maiduguri, you go to West End, Monday Market, Lamisula, Wulari and the Bulumkutu that became popular in 1982 for the Maitatsine riots. In Bauchi, you will find Wunti and some other commercial areas. The opposite is the case with the old cities, which incidentally remain the seat of power inhabited by the traditional authorities such as in old Kano city, still bound by centuries old relics of walls, with designated gates (or kofa, usually named after somebody) such as are also still found in Zaria, Bauchi and a few others. In the old cities are the traditional, conservative populations, easily identifiable by the styles of houses and closely-knit families such that outsiders can easily be identified and spotted.

If the idea of segregating indigenous people from the so-called strangers was a vogue in the past, modernity tends to repudiate it in contemporary times. The idea of an urban setting has long changed in many exemplary cities of the world. This was even evident, going back to the popular Pharaoh’s time as recorded in the Bible history when Jacob’s children had to relocate to Egypt. The land of Goshen given to them outside the city (to avoid mixing or polluting), as in today’s Sabongari, became more prosperous than the Egyptians had anticipated. Goshen was a fertile and prosperous land situated in ancient Egypt, where the Israelites lived for 430 years before the Exodus. In the end, it became clear that segregation was a mistake as the Israelites had to leave when a Pharaoh “that new not Joseph” ascended the throne and the Israelites began to be discriminated against because their women delivered before midwives could come, and the people waxed stronger. Yet it was difficult for the hardened Pharaoh to let go of Israelites until the supernatural happened. History repeats itself in many varying ways.

But can modern times be different because many things have changed? In those days of Goshen, land was seen as such a critical asset, guarded ever so jealously. The same with the time of creation of Sabongari in the northern Nigeria. In today’s mix of factors of production, financial capital, social capital and intellectual capital count more than land. I dare any economist to challenge this assertion. So, those making such a fuss about land today in any urban community should go and learn from San Francisco in California, US. The success of the information technology industry has insidiously driven many who were born and brought up in San Francisco now to the outside of the city as the new cyber-based economy that powers the city cannot sustain them, but only provides a place for immigrants from elsewhere within and outside the US who have requisite knowledge and skills to work and live there. It is therefore futile and fruitless trying to lay claim to a city in which you don’t have what it takes to participate meaningfully along with the overriding economic drivers — whether people or projects. Legislating entitlement based on tribe into law in a modern urban setting is reprehensible and embarrassing.

The Gauteng City-Region (GCR) in South Africa, which covers the whole of Gauteng province as well as outlying economic centres and also encompasses the centralities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, is an interesting setting. The pervasive inequality in that region shows how an economic disconnect can arise from a deliberate policy of segregation. In this case, the policy that led to Gauteng’s predicament was that of apartheid-induced displaced urbanisation, the whites segregating from the blacks, including but not limited to land ownership. The economic imprint still remains 30 years after the end of apartheid rule in South Africa as Gauteng’s neighbourhood is sharply divided into two extremes of poverty and prosperity. On the contrary, chaotic urbanisation in Lusaka, Zambia, was policy-induced and the current realities there have exposed serious urban management dilemmas.

Now, Lagos State and the metropolitan Lagos seem caught in serious urban management dilemma. But this dilemma arose from politicians preying on divisive sentiments of tribe and land ownership, although the dilemma is not socially reasonable or economically logical. The story of Warri in Delta State will provide a perspective on what Lagos has chosen to do as the legislature in the state has revealed some troubling facts about land ownership and tribe. While it sounds politically correct or justifiable, it seems more like politically expedient and driven by populism among some vested interests. The modern day urban reality from the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 11 demands that cities and human settlements be inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But the law enacted a year ago by the Lagos State legislature will erode inclusivity and will rob Lagos of a status befitting of a megapolis (or state) that qualifies for a sustainable city. It knocks off Lagos from any merit to SDG 11. Global best practices are benchmarks for many modern activities, governance inclusive. Today, more than half the world’s population live in cities. That is expected to rise to an estimated 7 out of 10 people by 2050. Cities will therefore continue to attract people.

Although Edward Glaeser, an urban economist, has argued that cities are drivers of economic growth, many factors can create negative exceptions. Warri was once a thriving oil city, a tourist destination, a hospitality hub and an economic nerve centre until local tribal politics came in. “Warri no de carrey last” was a popular saying when the going was good for the city. The local politics meant to “empower” indigenes turned to an economic curse that propped up anti-investment hegemons. It actually empowered them as rents, royalties and many indiscreet fees began to be charged by organised indigenous people who live solely on such monies, while the ease of doing business was jeopardised. Think of how many tourist centres, hotels or allied businesses still thrive in Warri today. With Asaba airport now rivalling, how functional is the Osubi airport in Warri today? But the locals have been “empowered” and they are now in charge. Yet the oil big business is suffering setback by the day. Apart from considerations for global warming that is forcing many energy companies to adapt to energy transition, many oil companies have been closing their operations in Nigeria. This has hit Warri very hard and its economy has been thus battered. The owners of the land seem now helpless. Now, one can imagine what happens to local property developers who are indigenes, transporters who are indigenes, hoteliers who are indigenes and so forth. And Lagos is about to have a taste of its own pudding.

It has been observed that, if well-planned and properly managed, urban development can be sustainable and can generate inclusive prosperity. How much of what will be achieved by the Lagos State government through the new law by the legislature that seeks to revoke property titles of non-Yorubas is still a matter of conjecture. Although the picture of how Lagos State will look like after the law is passed is yet to be clear even after I year of its passage, experiences from elsewhere will be useful guides in making helpful prognosis. The metro area population of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2022 was 22,430,000, nearly the same as Lagos population. The GDP of Sao Paulo during pre-COVID in 2019 was estimated at $320.4 billion (as opposed to Lagos having $29 billion). This should be roughly ₦190 trillion equivalent in Nigerian currency then. São Paulo’s GDP was therefore about 11 times bigger than that of Lagos in the past five years). Accurate figures about
Lagos’s GDP are hard to come by as official figures quoted by the state seem to show. The claims to being Africa’s seventh largest economy seems putative as well, going by the rankings by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The ₦41 trillion officially claimed early in 2024, at ₦1,200 to the dollar means $34.17 billion. By comparison, São Paulo’s economy is nine times bigger than that of Lagos of about the same population.

In São Paulo, services sector (excluding public administration) was considered the main contributor to GDP, followed by industry and public administration services. If the city of São Paulo were a country, its economy (nine times that of Lagos) would be the 47th in the world, bigger than Egypt (currently the second largest economy in Africa, about to overtake Nigeria) and Kuwait, for example, and about the same size as Hungary, New Zealand or Israel). Yet, while Sao Paulo is trying hard to establish more racial diversity, Lagos State has elected to do the opposite, in what counts as racism. If Lagos was earlier placed on par with some African countries based on its GDP in naira some five years ago, that rating can no longer be valid in today’s naira value to the dollar as naira value has fallen precipitously from about ₦750 down to as much as ₦1,500 to the dollar. It means Lagos, at $34.17 billion is now equivalent to those of Senegal at $35 billion, ranked the 18th and Zambia at $31, ranked the 19th, using the 2023 updated figures for African economies, based on IMF and another source, the Visual Capitalist.

It is clear that the status claimed by Lagos, Nigeria’s economic hub, on the African continent may not continue to be maintained after the passage of a law that discriminates against tribes. Yet the 2022 Lagos State government sponsored urban development and economic conference tagged “Ehingbeti,” had a theme on ‘Lagos 2022-2052: Charting the Paths to Sustainable Socioeconomic Growth.’ And that of 2021 had the theme ‘For a greater Lagos – setting the tone for the next decade.’ Could the law be part of the tone being set? It is yet unclear how these themes can be transformed into reality in a city (or state) that is jettisoning inclusiveness. Only time will tell.

Dr. Oyeleye is a public analyst and social commentator

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