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Negotiating Lagos: Viewing Lagos Wide & Close Peter M. Lewis SAIS Review, Volume 29, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2009, pp. 115-120 (Review)

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Review vol. XXIII, 2 (Summer–Fall 2003) Viewing agos Wide & Close 2009) SAISSAIS Review vol. L XXIX no. 1no. (Winter–Spring 115

Negotiating Lagos: Viewing Lagos Wide & Close Peter M. Lewis Lagos Wide & Close: An Interactive Journey into an Exploding City. Rem Koolhaas and Bregtje van der Haak (The Netherlands, Submarine DVD, 2006).


agos, Nigeria, has been described in vivid terms, yet the city’s teeming squalor is poorly captured by words. The commercial (and former political) capital of Africa’s most populous country, Lagos is a sprawling urban concentration now encompassing some 15 million people, and growing rapidly. The city has few traffic lights or sidewalks, a faltering electricity grid that collapses for weeks at a stretch, little potable water, tenuous order, and a “public” transportation system cobbled together from private networks of locally-crafted buses and vans. Shanty settlements and cinderblock apartments give way to a patchwork of affluent estates. Violent crime is barely contained. A corrupt bureaucracy and venal police create daily travails for residents. Nonetheless, amid hardships and disarray, a strong current of vitality runs though this metropolis. Nigeria’s financial, professional, business, media, and cultural worlds are centered in Lagos, with links across West Africa and as far south as Cape Town. Contentious local politics resonate across the country. Nigeria’s myriad ethnic and religious identities are found throughout the city’s neighborhoods, usually managing to coexist, though periodically sparking tensions. Churches, mega-churches, mosques, and Pentecostal sanctuaries are ubiquitous. A raucous spirit of entrepreneurship is apparent: industrial outfits, small businesses, workshops, markets and stalls fill every available space (and many that would seem unavailable). Alongside such prosaic activities, a shadowy layer of trafficking, drugs, money-laundering, and organized violence is also a major part of life in Lagos. The scale and dysfunction of Lagos have been greatly aggravated by oil. Lagos was a bustling if manageable colonial capital of a few hundred thousand people in 1960, when Nigeria attained independence from Britain. Migration

Peter M. Lewis is an associate professor and the director of the African Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. His publications include several books:  Growing Apart: Oil, Politics and Economic Change in Indonesia and Nigeria (2006); Deregulation and the Banking Crisis in Nigeria: A Comparative Study, co-editor (2002); Down to Earth: Changes in Attitudes Toward Democracy and Markets in Nigeria, co-author (2001); Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa, co-author (1999); Stabilizing Nigeria: Sanctions, Incentives and Support for Civil Society, co-author (1998); and Africa: Dilemmas of Development and Change, editor (1998). © 2009 by The Johns Hopkins University Press



SAIS Review Winter–Spring 2009

from the rural areas swelled the urban population in the first decade after independence, but the petroleum boom of the 1970s created truly explosive growth, as state employment expanded, large-scale public works projects proliferated, the newly rich elite constructed grandiose houses, and industrial estates ringed the city. The lure of jobs, services, and opportunity attracted migrants from across the country and the region. Untrammeled growth overwhelmed urban infrastructure as traffic became increasingly congested, electricity failed, neighborhoods sprawled without direction or limit, waste went uncollected and uncontained, crime increased, and corruption spread. It is tempting to regard Lagos as a stationary crisis, a chaotic mixture of poverty, decay, violence, and self-dealing. Certainly the impressions of dysfunction and stagnation are evident in the lives of millions of Lagosians who struggle in abysmal conditions for marginal livelihoods. Yet it is also possible to view Lagos as an alternate expression of modernity, combining elements of market dynamism, consumer culture, and global linkages, filtered through local improvisations and social routines. Lagos, along with other “megacities” like Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Kinshasa, Jakarta, and Mumbai, is largely selfordering and improvised, weakly governed though not entirely anarchic, and capable of substantial innovation and resilience. Seen in this light, Lagos is functional, adaptive, and new. The blight contains seeds of a more vital and capable city. Rem Koolhaas, the noted architect who leads the Harvard Project on the City, articulates the latter view, offering a provocative interpretation of urban processes in the developing world. Koolhaas and several collaborators have undertaken an ambitious project to document and conceptualize Lagos. They share a fascination with the unique qualities of Lagos, a vast urban concatenation largely not seen outside West Africa, though they also take pains to situate the city within the broader themes of urban development and globalization. Their first available effort can be seen in an interactive DVD, Lagos Wide & Close (LWC in shorthand), created in conjunction with Dutch filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak.1 LWC is a remarkable effort that succeeds in many ways, though its shortcomings raise useful questions not only about Koolhaas’s methods, but also his ideas about urbanism on the margins of the modern world. The filmmakers have organized their work into alternative visual and sound elements that the viewer can combine in different ways. Selected from a central menu, the “Wide” option includes images of the city from middle- to long-distance, including sweeping aerial shots and ground-level scenes, some stationary and others taken from a moving vehicle. The “Close” option includes hand-held camera work, focusing on interiors or tight shots of people and activities. The soundtrack offers three selections, the first being a narrative drawn from Rem Koolhaas’s conversations and remarks, a second track comprised of commentary by various Lagosians interviewed during the course of the project, and the third simply offering ambient sounds from the city. The opening and closing credits are built on an intricate photo-collage of Lagos, moving from abstraction to focus as the camera zooms on the image. The main film, running 60 minutes, is deliberately paced, simply photographed, and without a musical background.


Viewing Lagos Wide & Close


Viewers will want to spend at least a couple of hours with Lagos Wide and Close, as different menu choices reveal different vantages on the city, its people, and the project itself. The wide shots offer a good introduction to the physical space and visual style of Lagos. Readers of the SAIS Review have broad international experience, but still, few have seen anything quite like Lagos. Not simply the contrasts between rich and poor, or modern and “traditional,” the scale and intensity of Lagos’s contradictions are striking. The buildings, commercial centers, transportation, and clothing evoke many parts of West Africa, but the unregulated layout of Lagos, and the city’s ramshackle, jumbled infrastructure, present a scene of disarray with few parallels. Markets, transport depots, and neighborhoods form a dense, seemingly random sprawl across the city. The presence of imposingly “modern” elements such as highway flyovers, new skyscrapers, and late-model luxury cars contrast with fishing shacks, lumber mills, and trash heaps to create a level of dissonance not found in many other cities. Many of these panoramas are seen in the “Wide” segments of the program. The “Close” mode takes us inside a danfo, the modified VW-style vans that are the backbone of the city’s public transport. We go to transit parks where hundreds of buses and thousands of passengers daily negotiate their way, and move outward along the transit routes, affording a street-level vantage with running commentary from the driver. The use of the van also provides the filmmakers with a clever evasion of the common suspicion against photography in Lagos. Nigerians are not camera-shy, but decades of military rule have instilled caution about photography in public places, especially by foreigners. Inside the danfo, the camera can flow largely unnoticed, capturing streetscapes and local scenes with intimacy and spontaneity. These segments introduce us to the traffic that forms a central feature of life in Lagos. The creators of LWC have included many other locales that offer a fuller portrait of the metropolis. An extended segment of the film focuses on the Alaba International Market, a vast complex of consumer electronics and other merchandise on the city’s western edge. We enter church services at the Winner’s Chapel, a dynamic Pentecostal mega-church with a sanctuary accommodating 55,000 worshipers who hear their charismatic pastor, David Oyedepo, preach a “prosperity gospel.” Several other scenes focus on informal industries that have emerged beneath the freeways traversing the city. In one area, we see dozens of young men who have created workshops for stripping and recycling industrial refuse, including sections for plastics, metals, and other materials. In another scene, sawmills and wood industries are congregated on the water beneath the main thoroughfare on the Lagos mainland. There are also sequences featuring fishing settlements, artisans’ workshops, and the street vendors and beggars plying Lagos’ endless traffic jams, or “go-slows.” The camera takes in the dropping-off line at an elite private school, the passages and cubicles of a slum compound, the interior of a neighborhood police station, and a beach where Lagosians from all backgrounds often congregate on evenings and weekends. Most of these scenes are accompanied by interviews with different residents of the city— danfo driver Olawole Busayo; Bishop Oyedepo; Chief Ubochi, Chairman of the Alaba Market; a policeman; a middle-class professional mother; a recycler; a sawmill manager; and a


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fourteen-year who sells drinking water on Lagos streets. Their observations about livelihoods and the character of Lagos give way to ruminations about military rule, democracy, religion, ethnic relationships, entrepreneurship, global market linkages, and daily coping. These elements work well to show the intricacies of the city, including aspects that many Lagosians themselves may not have seen or contemplated. Yet other dimensions are less well rendered. Although the project seeks to theorize architecture and urban structure, the film does little to orient us within Lagos, to map the city spatially or socially. Proceeding from a different agenda than standard documentaries, LWC passes over conventional neighborhood profiles or cartographic descriptions. The photography and commentary offer an impressionistic patchwork, treating geography as a confusion of locales and enclaves. The film’s visual medley serves to highlight the perspective of anarchic urbanization, while neglecting existing structures and relationships. Like other cities, Lagos actually has identifiable districts and neighborhoods, with distinct activities and social makeup. The outlying fringes are expanding at a frenetic rate, and many established areas have seen rapid change, but amid the flux there is also substantial continuity and even stasis. The city is arrayed across three southern islands and a large mainland area. The spine of office towers arrayed along the Marina marks the commercial district, which quickly gives way to a dense network of markets and residential areas on Lagos Island. Ikoyi has long been a wealthy enclave for the elite and the foreign community, while neighboring Victoria Island has morphed in recent years from an affluent residential area to an extension of the financial district. On the mainland, the middle-class neighborhoods of Surulere and Ikeja are close to the working class areas Ebute Metta and Palmgrove, and proximate to the slum areas of Mushin, Ajegunle or Makoko. Each of these districts can be situated within the economic and social relations of the city. Most reflect the stubborn realities of poverty, threadbare infrastructure and sparse amenities. The collaborators in LWC are less interested in the schema of the city than in the surprising improvisations, capricious intersections, and flow of life they encounter. Yet while this is an intriguing view, it is not without its costs. In the end, we lose some perspective on the deeper relationships and structures that sustain the urban system. The film is also remarkably devoid of the elements of Nigerian culture and society that give Lagos is special vibrancy. The music blaring from shops, the riot of covers from “Nollywood” DVDs for sale in the markets, the informal buka cafes and lively clubs, the ubiquitous parties and celebrations that occupy most neighborhoods on the weekends—these features are barely glimpsed. The city is seen as chaotic and menacing, with less of the energy, creativity, and identity that is experienced by many residents and visitors. This reflects a degree of circumspection by Koolhaas and his collaborators, despite their apparent desire to delve into the layers of the city’s workings. Mindful of Lagos’s notorious crime and violence, Koolhaas notes that he was initially afraid to walk around or explore.2 With time and repeated visits, he has come to know many facets of Lagos, and has also become known within circles of architects, scholars, and the media. His initial misgivings have given way to


Viewing Lagos Wide & Close


a more imaginative and affirmative view of Lagos as a city of multitudinous improvisations and remarkable invention. Koolhaas theorizes this megacity as a flexible, multiform organism, where diverse strategies of subsistence and organization preserve a rough equilibrium, in circumstances of rapid population growth and spasmodic change. Rem Koolhaas’s analysis focuses on the central role of informality as an organizing principal of the inhabitants of the metropolis. Without infrastructure, clear governing institutions, or a planning framework to structure growth, Lagos’s burgeoning population has improvised commerce, livelihoods, social norms, and elements of governance. Local organizations and networks help to structure neighborhoods; needed infrastructure is often privately provided; and subsistence is devised on personal and household levels. Markets and transport are managed by independent associations. Outside the banking system, which reaches few poor Lagosians, networks of money changers, lenders, and credit circles meet the city’s financial needs. Policing is often furnished by neighborhood watches, market associations, and periodic mob justice. For those who can afford it, there are private water deliveries and personal generators, while the entire city cooks with privately purchased fuels, from propane to charcoal. Churches and mosques bolster social order, ethnic and village associations affirm cohesion among groups, and an array of institutions assist with economic needs and social welfare. This expansive, layered system has enormous capacity for absorbing migrants, regulating tensions, and sustaining subsistence and social routines. This is both the central virtue and the key shortcoming of Koolhaas’s vision. His imaginative conceptualization takes us well beyond the tired clichés of African cities as impoverished, desperate, and decaying. Lagosians are doubtlessly resourceful, striving, hopeful, and tenacious. Anyone who spends time outside of the city’s luxury hotels and expatriate enclaves will find an infectious energy, diversity, and drive. While many view Lagos as depressingly stagnant, a closer look reveals dynamism and change. Yet this line of analysis, with its celebration of coping and improvisation, has distinct limitations. For the residents of Lagos, such adaptations, however admirable, are weak substitutes for employment, housing, health, and safety. When asked, “How are you doing?” Lagosians often reply, “Struggling to survive,” suggesting how they perceive their condition. The steady flow of people to Lagos is a sign of economic need in a country where two-thirds of the population are estimated to live on a dollar a day, and neighboring states are far poorer than Nigeria’s oil-soaked economy. Even those on the lower rungs of the informal urban sector can often exceed the income available in the villages. While some urbanites do succeed in attaining more stable livelihoods and hopeful circumstances, Lagos is also home to vast numbers of people who toil for subsistence with few prospects for improvement. The absence of planning and governance are not so much opportunities for improvisation as barriers to prosperity and popular welfare. While we can theorize the virtues of autonomy and contrivance, we must also acknowledge the value of institutions and governance in bringing a semblance of livability to the cities of the developing world. This tension is posed in intriguing ways by Lagos Wide &


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Close, but in welcoming contentions on the meaning of the city, we should not elide the hard realities of ungoverned urbanization. Notes A large edited volume, Lagos: How it Works, is anticipated soon, several years past its originally planned release. In this, Koolhaas seems to have adopted the Nigerian penchant for grand plans and open-ended completion. 2  George Packer, writing in The New Yorker, reports that during an initial visit Koolhaas and company actually refused to leave their car, and resorted to viewing the city from the safety of a Presidential helicopter. See George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2006. 1

Lewis 2009 Koolhaas Lagos  

Negotiating Lagos: Viewing Lagos Wide & Close