In Lagos, a megacity with a population estimated at 21 million, the state government has been building a satellite city, known as Eko Atlantic. At the same time is has been destroying informal settlements, where as much as 60%-70% of Lagos’s population may live.
Makoko, a community on the mainland of Lagos, is one of the places threatened with demolition. Its residents, who originated from coastal communities in the Niger Delta, Benin, Togo and Ghana, claim to have occupied the area since the early 1900s. Half of the population resides in houses constructed on stilts over the Lagos Lagoon. Makoko faces significant challenges, including a lack of infrastructure like roads and water supply. In 2012, the state government served an eviction notice to Makoko residents, claiming that the area represented a security risk and interfered with its planning agenda.
However, the struggles between residents of low-income areas and government planners are not new in Lagos. They are embedded in the city’s history. These historical instances, as well as the current fight around Eko Atlantic, raise questions about what type of city the government wants to create and whose visions will determine the planning policies.
Lagos State launched the Eko Atlantic City project in 2013 to reclaim about 10 million square metres of land from the sea to build a 21st-century skyline. The construction proceeded after the removal of 80,000 people living alongside Victoria Island and the Bar Beach area. The creation of Eko Atlantic and the eviction facing Makoko people reflect the exclusionary planning that has shaped Lagos urban development.
Resistance to Lagos demolitions
As a social historian, I conducted a study of how a loose coalition of residents resisted the demolition of Central Lagos in the 1950s. The coalition included female traders, homeowners and tenants. At the time, Lagos Island was colonised and governed by the British, who were devolving power to Nigerians.
My research showed how ordinary urban residents – whose voices are often drowned out by elite politicians – experienced the end of colonial rule and proposed alternative laws to make the city more liveable. I demonstrated how their agitation forced the planners to amend their original plan but not to permanently suspend the destruction of Central Lagos. Instead, the planners made slum clearance part of urban planning in postcolonial Nigeria.
To foreground residents’ voices and show the different phases of protest, I reviewed hundreds of letters to the editor of three daily newspapers from 1951 to 1956. I also examined official correspondence in Nigerian and British archives. These sources recorded Lagosians’ voices from diverse class, gender, and ethnic backgrounds. I argue that these competing civilian voices should be considered “popular planners” because their interests centred on transforming the state’s vision for Lagos.
In 1951, the British planning agency announced the rebuilding of 28 hectares of land inhabited by an estimated 25,000 people over six years. Before the demolition commenced, the planners intended to resettle the displaced in Surulere, a newly developed residential area, 8km north-west of the island on the Lagos mainland. Although considered a “slum,” Central Lagos had been occupied for generations. Residential areas were nestled among schools, businesses, mosques and churches. The area’s destruction raised questions about whether indigenous, Yoruba-speaking Lagosians, working-class, and poor residents belonged in the British and Nigerian government’s vision of a modern city.
Scholars have explained how the demolition destroyed the residents’ kinship networks and economic livelihood while fuelling conflicts between nationalist politicians and British administrators. Yet the literature has failed to capture the citizens’ changing responses to the demolition and their alternative visions for the city.
Letters, petitions and demonstrations
One of the most critical voices in the press was Risharat Adepeju Disu. In a May 1951 issue of the Daily Service, a political party newspaper, Disu chided the slum clearance’s supporters, writing:
Lagos of today, unlike that of yesterday, is better than many towns in Nigeria. She has been developed to a certain extent; hence many aliens who happen to be in Lagos have no inclination of going back to their native lands.
Her letter stood out because she condemned the framing of Central Lagos as a slum. She insisted that development was an ongoing process rather than a gift bestowed by colonial officials on Africans.
In addition to writing, the people of Central Lagos petitioned the government and held demonstrations. When these didn’t work, they temporarily blocked the police from paving the way for demolition workers in June 1956. Central Lagosians aimed both to preserve their houses and to demonstrate that their neighbourhoods should be the future of Lagos.
Two years after the standoff with the police, one male tenant, who worked as a carpenter, told a British researcher in an interview later published in a book why many people feared their displacement:
Maybe there are flowers out there in Surulere, maybe the houses are painted, but you can’t live on that. Slum clearance will make me lose my workshop, my customers, and my home.
These protests informed Nigerian politicians and British administrators’ policies. For example, in 1951, the British governor granted loans to property owners to rebuild their houses after the demolition. The governor created the mortgage scheme to win over opponents. However, the organised mass rebellion did not stop the demolition. By 1958, the Nigerian government had displaced 6,000 of the estimated 25,000 residents.
The opposition against the demolition of Central Lagos is instructive. It shows how people disseminated their criticisms, mobilised to defend their homes, and achieved some success in amending officials’ agenda.
In contemporary Lagos, the residents of informal settlements have continued to resist housing evictions. Today, the occupants of Makoko are creating digital maps of their communities to maintain their visibility and generate financial capital. Their alternative proposals for sustaining their livelihood and making the area more liveable deserve to be considered if we want to create more inclusive cities.
Halimat Somotan, Assistant Professor of African Studies, Georgetown University