The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Welcome to Lagos: a documentary that's well overdue

A native of Lagos now conducting research on informal employment in Nigeria, Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed argues that Welcome to Lagos is a long overdue acknowledgement to those people who move to Lagos to make a living; it is not meant to be a tourist guide to the city.

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

Cities: Lagos

Topics: Informal economy, Internal migration, Informal settlements

As someone who was born and brought up in Lagos I, like many others of Nigerian heritage, was ready to be cynical and critical about another documentary on Nigeria.

My apprehension is understandable; portrayals of Nigeria and Nigerians have tended to involve misrepresentation and negativity, all of which I believe to be unfair — District 9 rings a bell, and don't forget Channel 4's Saving Africa's Witch Children.

It is easy to be blinded by the settings of the BBC Two documentary Welcome to Lagos, and in so doing miss completely the more serious message of people who are enterprising, imaginative, hopeful, intelligent, hard-working and resilient. The idea that the documentary is negative denies the productive existence of people with ideas, goals and desires for a better future.

In the first two episodes we saw the lives of people who had come to settle in Lagos, and who, in the absence of government assistance for housing, jobs and infrastructure, have improvised with the insufficient resources available to them to make their lives liveable and bearable.

The final episode revealed how these people find themselves at the mercy of the government who are undertaking a grand project to beautify the city in an attempt to make it the 'next London'. I am not against Lagos' mega-city dream, but building a mega-city does not have to consist solely of the beautifying project the state government is undertaking.

Three-quarters of Lagos' population live in informal settlements and are part of the informal economy. So if the government were to rid itself of these so-called slums, where would these people go? To people who do not live in slums, their demolition seems self-evidently desirable — the slums must be ridden with crime, ill-health and so on.

But eliminating a core part of Lagos — the people, their living and their livelihoods — is dangerous. I say this because the informal economy is a significant part of the wider economy in terms of the labour force involved, the activities performed, and its production and consumption.

In Nigeria, the informal economy accounts for roughly one-third of the country's GDP and as much as 90 per cent of new job creation. In Lagos, estimates are that economic activity accounts for between 50 and 75 per cent of the state economy.

The informal economy, therefore, has an important role in providing employment and income opportunities and in its absence, the intensity of poverty, if not its extent, would be much higher. There are also various direct and indirect linkages between the informal and formal economy, which will cease to exist if these people were removed, threatening much of the formal economy itself.

I go back to the infamous incident of 1990, when up to 300,000 residents of the Maroko slum area of Victoria Island were given seven days to leave their houses. Some were relocated to other parts of Lagos with sub-standard housing. When Maroko was demolished it removed people who were at the heart of Lagos — the bus drivers, the conductors, the electricians, the hawkers, the plumbers, market traders, shopkeepers and so on — people upon whom all Lagosians relied.

Welcome to Lagos portrays the truth of the inequality that exists in Lagos. The people of Makoko, the people of Olusosun, and the beach community of Kuramo are as much a part of Lagos as the 'elites'. The real government responsibility is not to complain about the so-called negative portrayal of Lagos, but to work towards facilitating informal entrepreneurs, improving their welfare and integrating the informal economy into the rest of the Nigerian economy.

Policies and interventions should include: providing credit, providing education and skills training, improving access to physical infrastructure where the informal entrepreneurs live and work, extending social protection, strengthening linkages with the formal economy, and enhancing awareness of the benefits of the informal economy.

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed grew up in Lagos before completing postgraduate studies in urbanisation and development at the London School of Economics. She remains at LSE undertaking doctoral research on gender and informal employment in Nigeria.