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An exceptional state: Lagos & the 2015 elections

“Lagos, for all its confusion, is full of emotional warmth, often shocking or misdirected, sometimes bleakly humorous, often too tragic for tears, but always full of raw intensity; above all it is a city of people.”

Kaye Whiteman, “Lagos, A Cultural and Historical Companion”, Signal (2010)

Central government was never really at home in Lagos. As a Crown Colony before Nigeria existed, then as the national capital where independence was declared, the governments who occupied Lagos failed to master the unruly – sometimes treacherous – political culture of this Yoruba kingdom and the missionaries, traders, lawyers and academics who turned a former slave port into the country’s largest, wealthiest and most independent city.

Lord Lugard, the creator of Nigeria, was so exasperated by Lagos’s free-spirited political elite and its truculent press that he considered moving his capital to the north. The late military ruler Sani Abacha did just that in the 1990s, leaving Lagos to its own devices as punishment for opposing his despotism. In 1999, with the army back in the barracks, elective civilian rule was restored. The federal government in Abuja carried on carving up Nigeria’s oil wealth, but devolved enough power and cash to the 36 states to allow Lagos to start modernising a moribund, corrupt state bureaucracy.

Under the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which evolved from the party founded by the state’s political boss Bola Tinubu in 1999, Lagos has achieved something rarely seen in the rest of Nigeria: accountable government that collects taxes from a broad base and provides basic services and infrastructure to many of its citizens. This narrow 100-mile strip of sand and marsh on the Atlantic shoreline now has the seventh largest economy in Africa – far larger than that of Kenya – providing gleaming headquarters for the oil, finance and telecommunications industries and slums for an endless flow of rural job-seekers. It is hard to know the population of this sprawling city and its satellite towns: the last national census in 2006 made it 9 million, the state ran a parallel census that put it at over 17 million.

As Lagos developed, so did tensions with the federal government – monopolised by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) since 1999 – which blocked plans by the state to develop power stations and rebuild roads, a federal preserve, and withholding its allocation to Lagos state as a penalty for creating new local councils. Lagos survived the standoff because, unlike other states, it raises most of its own revenue: over 70% of its 2014 budget came from state taxes and other internal sources, while no other state in the country raised more than 30% locally (according to the National Bureau of Statistics). The bankers and professionals drafted into Tinubu’s government transformed its finances, computerising the tax office and issuing commercial bonds. Self-serving business deals between Lagos’s business and political elite, such as the controversial Eko Atlantic City development and the toll roads in Lekki, helped to prop up the party’s finances.

In 2007, Tinubu handed over as governor to his chief of staff, Babatunde Fashola, a former lawyer with less interest in party politics than in creating the infrastructure, environment and services befitting a modern mega-city. Public transport, waste collection, piped water, power generation, crime prevention, primary health and education and even a few open spaces benefit not only the masses but also the wealthy with whom they share this overgrown slum. Fashola, the technocrat, showed what, slowly and sometimes painfully, could be done in the big city. In 2011, he was re-elected with more than 80% of the vote. Meanwhile, Tinubu, the politician, turned the ACN into the dominant Yoruba party, in control of Nigeria’s prosperous south-west. In 2013, he joined a national alliance of opposition parties to create the All Progressives Congress (APC) which will mount the most serious challenge the PDP has faced since 1999 when Nigeria is scheduled to vote in presidential and National Assembly elections on 14th February 2015.

The APC is an uneasy coalition between Tinubu’s commercially-driven Yoruba faction and the autocratic style of its presidential candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. His running mate is a respected former Lagos State attorney general and distinguished lawyer, Yemi Osinbajo. Buhari has a clean reputation and strong support in the Hausa-speaking, mainly Muslim north. His opponent, President Goodluck Jonathan, is regarded by many in the south as incapable of curbing corruption or maintaining security – and he is despised in the north. But Jonathan has strong support in his native Niger delta, backed by the threat of violence if he loses. No incumbent president has lost an election in Nigeria, though some have been toppled by the army. Lagosians have misgivings about both leading candidates.

While the APC bids for power at the centre, it faces a backlash on home turf. Having recently won the governorship in the south-western state of Ekiti, the PDP is targeting Lagos with a strong candidate, former opponent Jimi Agbaje, in state elections due on 28th February. The APC’s choice of candidate for Lagos state governor, former accountant-general Akinwunmi Ambode, was more selected by Tinubu than elected by the party – a process that appears to have angered many in the party, including Fashola. Just as polling dates can be postponed, coalitions in Lagos are as prone to shifting as its ocean shoreline.

Paul Adams is a consultant for Africa Research Institute. He is also Africa adviser at Salamanca Group. Paul is the author of ARI’s “Africa [Debt} Rising” publication, which looks at sovereign bond issuance in Africa. 

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