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Infrastructure Development and Urban Facilities in Lagos, 1861-2000

Ayodeji Olukoju


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1A consistent feature of the entire period under study was the steady growth of the population till it reached near-breaking point in the 1980s and 1990s. The transfer of the federal capital to Abuja in 1991 and the subsequent relocation of government offices and staff have failed to check the growth of the population and the spatial spread of the city. In effect, since the conclusion of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, there has been a steady movement of people into the city from the other parts of the country. This has affected the provision and usage of infrastructure.

  • 1 An account of Marwa’s stewardship is in Bolawole, Bola (ed.), State Administration and the Challen (...)

2This study has shown continuity and change in the evolution of infrastructure policies in the city of Lagos and its immediate environs between 1861 and 2000. In general, all the three facilities examined in this study have proved inadequate to cope with the surging demand for them. By 2000, none of the three could be said to be serving more than sixty per cent of the population with any degree of regularity and efficiency. Hence, power continues to be rationed by means of load-shedding; consumers still default in paying electricity bills and, therefore, suffer disconnection. As in colonial times, attempts have been made to penalize defaulters, though the option of litigation is no longer pursued. However, harsh or even punitive methods of disconnection, as well as prolonged outages, have become more rampant. Officials have also become less efficient and more corrupt in the discharge of their legitimate duties. It would appear that connecting Lagos to the national grid has not made any positive impact but has prevented the invention of an effective local solution to the perennial power supply problems in the city. This might be attributed to the distortion of the federal system of government by the command structure of the military during the years of military rule (1966-79, 1984-99). Lagos suffered in this regard because the unrepresentative and arbitrary de facto unitary system of government did not permit the allocation of sufficient resources and attention to the peculiar problems of Lagos. Whereas the civilian government of Lateef Jakande proposed to provide passenger train services (the now abandoned “metroline project”), the scheme was aborted by the military government of Muhammadu Buhari which toppled the civilian government in December 1983. But it must be conceded that there were striking exceptions. The military government of Buba Marwa (1996-99) is credited with some achievements in infrastructure development which the civilian administration of Bola Tinubu (1999 to date) has barely been able to match, though the circumstances under which they operated differed.1

3Not unexpectedly, private initiative in power generation, water supply and urban transport has become increasingly important. Private sector operators, particularly in urban transport and water supply, have become major stakeholders. Indeed, since the 1960s, government-owned transport services have played an insignificant role in urban mass transit. Their vehicles (buses) are not only fewer compared to the buses owned by private operators (such as the ponderous “molue” and the smaller commuter buses, known as “danfo,”) but are run at a loss by corrupt and inept officials. The profit motive and the personal commitment of private operators account for their immense commercial success:

4However, it could be argued that the state-owned transport enterprises failed only in the economic sense. In the social sense, they achieved some (admittedly debatable) success in generating employment in a labour-surplus economy, in servicing routes that private operators considered uneconomic, and in giving special rates (or, even, free rides) to the underprivileged, such as school children. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Lagos State government inaugurated a graduate drivers’ scheme which employed university graduates and trained them as LSTC bus drivers. It offered some employment opportunities to several unemployed graduates; but this was only a temporary solution to a fundamental problem. Many such graduate drivers have since left for other jobs.

5Private water suppliers who rely on their private boreholes or other sources have been critical to the sustenance of supplies to various parts of Lagos. Although more areas of the metropolis have been connected to the mains, with the development of mini-waterworks since the early 1980s, supply has tended to be sporadic. It was this gap that water tanker operators filled, especially in the middle or upper class neighbourhoods or even in the high-density areas, during the dry season (October to March). In these respective places, the more affluent constructed their private boreholes while the less privileged sank wells. But because of the poor maintenance of environmental standards by industrial and private establishments - with regard to the disposal of industrial and domestic solid and liquid waste - groundwater supplies in Lagos have become increasingly contaminated. The result is that shallow wells and boreholes yield impure water, which poses a threat to health even after it is boiled.

6Private sector initiative in the energy sector in Lagos still plays a minor role as the national energy supplier - NEPAaccounts for almost the entire public supply. However, in view of the unreliability of supplies, importers of various brands and capacities of generators have had a field day since the 1980s. As Lagos alone consumes more than half the power generated in Nigeria, the city is also the largest market for electricity generators in the country, a trend that also dates since the 1970s. It is worth noting that though importers are licensed to engage in the business, users are no longer subjected to strict controls as in the late colonial period.

7The foregoing presents a dismal picture of the state of infrastructure and urban facilities in Lagos. Yet, as inadequate as they have been, these facilities have had a significant social and economic impact on the city and its inhabitants. It has been demonstrated in this and some earlier studies that rail and motor transport played a decisive role in the spatial expansion of Lagos from the island nucleus to the mainland suburbs. From the second half of the last century, a consistent feature of the urban landscape has been the generally unregulated development of the outlying areas with the city experiencing constantly shifting frontiers. As the maps show (see Chapter One), the movement has been in a general northward direction spilling over into the southern parts of Ogun State.

8A major implication of the spatial and demographic expansion of Lagos is that facilities have tended to spread as the settlement grew. As demonstrated in earlier passages, water, electricity and transport facilities spread from the island to the mainland as the political boundaries of the city shifted. Another implication of this development, especially since the last few decades, has been the increasing role of the self-help agency in the spread of urban facilities. Much of the expansion of this period was undertaken by the consumers themselves, given the inability of government agencies to match the pace of the growth of the population and the territorial expansion of the city. Consumers have often had to pay for and install electric poles, construct or maintain roads or lay pipes to connect them with the water mains. Artisans such as plumbers, electricians and masons consequently benefited from this development.

9An important dimension of this development has been the multiplier effect of entrepreneurship in the transport sector. First, the transport sector has offered immense employment opportunities to drivers, apprentices, welders, panel beaters, mechanics, vulcanizers and painters. The scale of the ancillary enterprises is considerable, given the number of apprentices and journeymen involved in them. An extension of this is the emergence of transport unions and motor park touts. The National Road Transport Workers Unions (NRTWU) and the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO) are the unions formed by employees and owners respectively. Both unions have engaged in violent clashes, which have subsided in recent years. However, clashes between rival factions of these unions often erupt in consequence of power struggles and other issues. The emergence of motor park touts (“agbero”) is also closely associated with the motor parks and the motor transport business in general. Their activities border on criminality and violence but repeated attempts by the government have failed to dislodge them. The important point is that bosses and officials of the transport unions, as well as the touts, derive their livelihood from the commercial transport business.

  • 2 Interviews with commercial drivers in Lagos.

10Second, private enterprise in urban transport in Lagos has resulted in capital accumulation as savings are re-invested in the sector or supplemented with loans from various sources. Capital so accumulated has been invested in others sectors of the economy, such as real estate. An informant admitted that drivers of buses and taxis, who were ordinarily regarded as never-do-wells, have invested heavily in the massive development of the outlying parts of the metropolis, particularly in the Isolo, Ikotun, Egbe and Ipaja areas. He also attributed the rapid development of undeveloped forested land in the Anthony Village and Ketu areas to the facility provided by bus and taxi commercial service in the 1970s.2

11Yet another dimension to the growth of the transport business in Lagos, as in the rest of Nigeria, is its linkage with the country’s external trade. First, allusion has been made to the “tokunbo” vehicle import business which has attained a mammoth proportion since the 1980s. It could be argued that this development was the saving grace in the face of the virtual collapse of the public transport service and the excruciating suffering of commuters in the city. Second, taking a long-term look at the automobile import profile since the 1930s, one can discern changes in the make and provenance of vehicles acquired by commercial operators. At the initial stages, in the inter-World War years, American Ford buses were dominant and it was only in the intervening period that British, French, German and Japanese vehicles (trucks, buses and cars) and motorcycles completely dominated the Nigerian market. German Mercedes Benz trucks and Volkswagen buses, French Peugeot cars, and Japanese Toyota, Nissan (formerly, Datsun) and Mitsubishi cars and buses are favourites because of their ruggedness or low fuel consumption. Third, a huge vehicle spare-parts industry based mainly in the Ladipo (Mushin) second-hand automobile parts market (dominated by enterprising Igbo traders) has emerged around these brands of vehicles. This too has generated employment, with the usual complement of apprentices and ancillary artisans.

12The Lagos State Government has also benefited from the growth of the urban transport sector in the metropolis. A considerable sum of money accrues to it from the annual licensing fees paid by private and commercial vehicle users. Local governments also earn revenue from the rates and taxes paid by employees of the various ancillary artisanal industries to which reference has been made above.

13With regard to electricity, it may be stated that in spite of its unreliability, it has had a tremendous impact on the city and its suburbs. Electricity has been the most evenly spread of the three facilities and this has acted as a pull factor in drawing a steady stream of in-migrants from the Nigerian hinterland. It has been crucial to the development of the famous Lagos nightlife. Music and recreational facilities, such as bars and hotels, have sprung up in all parts of the metropolis during the entire period of this study as electricity has provided the enabling environment for them to flourish. By extension, the social life engendered by this nightlife has also affected youth culture and identity formation in the urban milieu. Night markets and free movement into the early hours of the day have facilitated economic activities.

14Water supply is the least efficient of these services. This is in part because the sheer size of the population overwhelms supplies and also because of poor distribution. In addition, the poor maintenance culture of post-independence Nigeria has meant that leaking pipes are left unattended to, resulting in the wastage and contamination of the limited supplies. High population density neighbourhoods are still disadvantaged and have continued to rely on wells, water tankers and “pure water”. This tends to reinforce residential segregation. This means that the planned, medium and low-density neighbourhoods, where the affluent and influential live, have more reliable supplies. As has been stressed above, the booming sales by water vendors of all categories (in tankers, tins and sachets) point to the huge gap between demand and official supplies which they continue to bridge.

15In terms of usage, commercial motor transport accounts for the great bulk of urban commuter traffic in Lagos. This is in spite of the large number (well over a million) of private automobiles in the city. From the 1930s to date, the working class and even members of the middle class have relied on buses, taxis and, more recently, on motorcycles for conveyance. Only a tiny fraction of Lagosians rely almost exclusively on their personal vehicles, though they too often patronize the taxis.

16The consumption of electricity and water is not so neatly determined by class or status, except in the early and late colonial period and in terms of the sinking of boreholes and the use of electric generators. It is significant that the usage of water and electricity was initially limited spatially and socially to the Island and the elite (European and African) that lived there. By the late colonial period, more areas and a larger number of people had gained access to these facilities, though still mainly on the Island. As we have seen, it took the creation of Lagos State for these facilities to be extended to many of the urban fringe communities across the boundary with Western Nigeria.

17It may be noted in passing that usage also varied with official policy. Thus, street lighting received priority in the early and middle colonial periods while the rise of mainland estates at Yaba and Ebute Metta in the subsequent period extended its usage spatially and socially, that is, for purposes other than street lighting. Moreover, from the 1960s the rise of industrialization further expanded the scope of usage and imposed greater strains on supplies. The oil boom of the 1970s led to greater use of electrical and electronic equipment and the rise of ancillary enterprises in these fields. This too increased the range of usage of electricity and water in Lagos.

18The usage of water has followed the same trajectory, with the major consumers being private consumers, shipping and industry. Residential consumption constitutes the bulk of the demand for water for domestic cooking, washing and toilet usage. Although the proportion of users of flush toilets remained insignificant till the early 1980s (when the Jakande Administration eradicated the bucket system of human waste disposal), it is significant, as noted in Chapter Three, that water-flushing of toilets had been is use in Lagos since the 1930s.

19A final issue to be taken up in this work concerns the constituents and possible direction of public policy on infrastructure and urban facilities in Lagos during the period of study. The first observation to make is that policies were not always spelt out, meaning that there were only ad hoc policies on this important subject. Consequently, policies have been incoherent, inconsistent and uncoordinated. For much of the colonial period, the focus of infrastructure policy was the elite, principally colonial officials and expatriate entrepreneurs. By implication, spatial, racial and social segregation was embedded in the provision of these facilities. A second issue worth considering is the adequacy of these facilities over space and time. By and large, policies did not address the setting and achievement of targets, although projects such as new power generating plants or dams were intended to serve a certain number of people in specific locations. Such specification became manifest in the aftermath of the creation of Lagos State, especially since the Second Republic when social welfare became an issue for public debate.

  • 3 Moses Ogunleye, “Coping with the Transportation Problems of Metropolitan Lagos,” in Bola Bolawole (...)

20This study, therefore, concludes with the following recommendations. First, there must be a well thought out integrated approach to infrastructure development in Lagos in the wider contexts of State and Federal Government policies. Second, arising from this is the need for policy coordination to ensure profitable intermodal urban transport in the Lagos metropolis. For too long, the government has placed an undue emphasis on road transport.3 This explains the heavy investment in roads and bridges by the Federal and State governments, and the commitment to projects such as the Federal Urban Mass Transit Programme. The preoccupation with road transport has led to the neglect of alternative means of transport and of the evolution of a viable mass transit system for Lagos. This has simply compounded rather than ameliorate the perennial traffic congestion and pollution in the metropolis.

21In this connection, water and rail transport must be integrated with road transport in a systematic way. Water transport should be developed where it will have the most beneficial effect: along the lagoon network stretching from the Oworonshoki/Bariga axis to Ebute Metta, Mile 2, FESTAC and Okokomaiko. Efficient ferry services along this southern belt of the city will relieve pressure on road transport. The following routes are suggested for consideration in the development of effective ferry services in Lagos:

  1. Lagos-Apapa wharf
  2. Lagos-Apapa (Creek Road) - Tolu-Ajegunle
  3. Lagos-Apapa (Creek Road) - Tolu-Ibafon-Beachland-Estate-Mile 2- FESTAC Town
  4. Lagos-Apapa (Creek Road) – Tolu- Ibafon- Beachland-Estate- Satellite Town
  5. Lagos-Awolowo Road (Ikoyi) – Queen’s Drive (Oyinkan Abayomi) – Federal Secretariat
  6. Lagos-Ebute Ero-Federal Secretariat
  7. Lagos-Ijora (For Rail/Water Link)
  8. Lagos-Ijora-Oyingbo-Maroko-Akoka-Oworonshoki
  9. Lagos-Oworonshoki
  10. Lagos-Tarkwa Bay
  11. Lagos-Queen’s Drive (Oyinkan Abayomi)- Maroko
  12. Federal Secretariat-Ebute Ero-Lagos.4

22Appropriate intermodal arrangements should then be provided at places such as Mile 2, Oyingbo and Marina so that commuters can switch from the ferry service to other modes of urban transit.

  • 5 Tunde Odesola, “Lagos, private firms embark on ferry service,” The PUNCH, 6 January 2003, p.5

23It is worth noting that the Lagos State Government has recently adopted a policy of divesting from this enterprise. It, therefore, entered into an agreement with a consortium of private firms to ensure the optimal development of water transport in the state. According to its spokesperson, the State Government would not be directly involved in the running of the service; it would only “provide logistics and regulations.” The areas to be served by ferries are those stated above, as well as Ikorodu.5

24Rail transport should be developed as the core of urban mass transit in Lagos, focusing on the high-density residential areas of Agege, Abule Egba, Ipaja, Isolo, Ikotun, Egbe, Ajegunle, Oshodi, Mushin and Shomolu. This could be done in phases, with special emphasis on express services from these places to nodal points at Yaba, Oshodi and Ikeja, where road and light rail services could distribute the traffic to other parts of the metropolis.

25The advocacy of rail transport as the fulcrum of urban transport in Lagos is hinged on the writer’s personal experience of similar mega-cities in other parts of the world, as well as on the demonstrable advantages of rail transport in cities. First, it is environment-friendly as trains do not pollute the environment as much as thousands of vehicles which convey comparable traffic. Second, rail transport has an overwhelming edge in carrying capacity: a single train carries the equivalent of as many “Molues” as there are coaches! Third, arising from this is the decongestion of the roads if such commuters could be diverted from the roads.

  • 6 Interview with retired employee of the NRC in Abeokuta.
  • 7 Interview: Uche Nzeribe. NRC Headquarters, Lagos.

26Fourth, rail transport is comparatively faster, for, as an informant stated: “Go-slow kii mu railway” (“A train is never held up in the traffic, unlike automobiles”).6 An NRC employee pointed out that the journey by train from Iddo to Alagbado took twenty to twenty-five minutes compared with one hour by road. Fifth, for the urban commuter, rail transport is cheaper than road transport. The trip from Iddo to Alagbado is N20, a fifth of the road transport fare.7 Sixth, the safety record of urban commuter trains also speaks in their favour. Compared to the spate of road accidents, which occur virtually every hour of the day, train accidents are an uncommon occurrence. Seventh, trains are more economical compared with road transport facilities of equal carrying capacity. Consequently, the development of an effective urban passenger train service, even if for peak hours only, should be an urgent priority of the Lagos State Government.

27In the final analysis, the cultural context in which these innovations are expected to take place also needs an urgent review. The attitude of Nigerians to work and the maintenance of personal and public property must change if there is to be any positive and enduring change in the state and performance of public infrastructure and urban facilities in Lagos. The government and the community must develop the people’s pride in and attachment to public property, and everyone must imbibe a maintenance culture. Given the competition by several legitimate beneficiaries for the available resources, public infrastructure cannot always be replaced at will. This calls for the rational allocation and prudent management of resources. Moreover, officials should be alive to their responsibilities, reacting promptly to calls for the repair or replacement of burst or leaky water pipes, fallen electric cables and pothole-infested roads. Failure to act with despatch accounts for the degeneration of potholes into huge craters on Lagos roads and the prolonged disconnection of water and electricity supplies to entire neighbourhoods. This could have been averted. Nigerians in both the public and private spheres must learn to appreciate the virtues of prudent management of resources and the recycling and maintenance, as opposed to the wholesale replacement, of apparently disused infrastructure. This is an important lesson to learn from other lands.


1 An account of Marwa’s stewardship is in Bolawole, Bola (ed.), State Administration and the Challenges of the 21st Century: A Case Study of the Marwa Years in Lagos State: 1996-1999, Lagos: Double Bee Enterprises, 1999. The period up to 1989, especially Jakande’s tenure (1979-83), is covered in Dele Olowu, Lagos State: Governance, Society and Economy, Lagos: Malthouse Press Limited, 1990.

2 Interviews with commercial drivers in Lagos.

3 Moses Ogunleye, “Coping with the Transportation Problems of Metropolitan Lagos,” in Bola Bolawole (ed.). State Administration and the Challenges of the 21st Century: A Case Study of the Marwa Years in Lagos State: 1996-1999, Lagos: Double Bee Enterprises, 1999, p. 193, laments that “Lagos State relies almost totally on road transportation.”

4 A. A. Abubakar, “Evolution of Ferry Services in Mass Transit,” in S.G. Ikya (ed.), Urban Passenger Transportation in Nigeria, Ibadan: Heinemann, 1993, pp.265-266.

5 Tunde Odesola, “Lagos, private firms embark on ferry service,” The PUNCH, 6 January 2003, p.5

6 Interview with retired employee of the NRC in Abeokuta.

7 Interview: Uche Nzeribe. NRC Headquarters, Lagos.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 2003

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