CRF Blog

Africa’s First City

by Bill Hayes

In Africa’s First City, National Geographic looks at the economic boom and growing inequality in Lagos, Nigeria.

In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, “Be Very Rich” has all but become the city’s motto. The country recently recalculated its gross domestic product to take into account sectors of the economy that barely existed two decades ago. As a result, Nigeria determined that its GDP surpassed South Africa’s in 2012 to become the continent’s largest economy. About 15,700 millionaires and a handful of billionaires live in Nigeria, more than 60 percent of them in Lagos.

As with other African metropolises, oil-enriched Lagos has long nurtured an elite class only marginally inconvenienced by the squalor enveloping the city as a whole. Now the upper class is expanding, and despite persistent income inequality, so is the middle class. The growth of the latter in Nigeria, according to a 2013 survey by Ciuci Consulting, a strategy and marketing firm in Lagos, is driven by the expanding banking, telecommunications, and services sectors, particularly in Lagos. Nigeria’s middle class grew from 480,000 in 1990 to 4.1 million in 2014, or 11 percent of households. Seemingly overnight, Lagos has transformed itself into a city of Davids clamoring to become Goliaths.

This is a great African success story. And how lovely it would be to tell this bright, uplifting tale while ignoring altogether the dark and demoralizing saga of Nigeria’s grotesque terrorists, which has blocked the boomtown narrative from the world’s consciousness like a lunar eclipse. But Lagos does not exist in a parallel universe, any more than the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram does. Both are indigenous to Nigeria, a vast West African nation teeming with industrious strivers … but also with poverty, despair, and violence. If anything, the miracle of Lagos is that its economy gallops onward even when fettered by the same federal incompetence that allows terrorism to go unchecked. A lesser city would be crippled. Then again, in a sense so is Lagos. [more]