Chaos and Complexity: Lagos and lessons for megacity management in the 21st century


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David Rubens MSc, CSyP, FSyI, is currently completing his thesis for the University of Portsmouth Professional Doctorate in Security & Risk Management, where his research involves developing models of strategic management and critical decision making for complex crisis environments. He has just returned to the UK after spending 15 months as MD of a US security consultancy in Nigeria. 

The status of the city as the highest form of human social organisation has been an idea and ideal that has maintained pre-eminence since at least the time of the Greeks. Cities are not only drivers of economic growth and development, they create a framework that drives progress in all aspects of cultural, intellectual and social activity.

It is perhaps both a symptom and a cause of a modern global malaise that not only is the role and function of cities being questioned but also the viability of their very continued existence. Like anything in nature that aspires to gargantuatism, cities have moved beyond the bounds whereby the structures and frameworks that first allowed them to prosper and thrive can continue to support the monsters that they have become. With the rate of growth predicted to rise on Malthusian scales (the global urban population is estimated to grow by 70 million people a year), the ability of city managers to continue to supply basic life-management structures is going to be increasingly challenged beyond breaking point.

Cities are not only beginning to fail in their fundamental purposes – as anyone will know who has sat in a traffic jam on a road system designed for a slower and simpler age – they are actually killing the people who live there. Whether it is pollution or the ever-present stress of over-crowded urban life, the question is how the next stage of city development will play out.

Mega-City Management: Dysfunctional or merely self-organizing?

The rise of the megacity has been accompanied by a paradox that sets the utopian ‘city of the future’ against the reality for hundreds of millions of people of the daily struggle that is associated with life in the megacities of the emerging world. In many ways, the urban dweller in modern day Lagos, Mumbai, Dhaka or São Paulowould actually see more connections with the 19th-century urban poor described in Dickens in terms of negotiating the multitude of interactions that go to make up daily survival than with the modern-day planners in London, Tokyo and New York considering how fibre-optic communications systems can best be utilised to integrate global financial management, web-based home security systems or internet ordering from the local sushi bar.

Although the rise of the emerging world’s megacities has been well-documented, it is only relatively recently that the ‘third world’ experience, and particularly that based on the mega-slums and favelas of the emerging south, has been seen as anything other than ‘exceptional’. Under this reading, the accepted model of a major city has implied the integrated management and planned development associated with Europe and North America (and to a lesser degree Asia). The vast unmanaged slums of the third world were therefore considered outliers with no particular significance from an urban theory perspective. In fact, so deeply entrenched is the the conceptualisation of the global south megacity that ‘[t]he slum has become the most common itinerary through which the Third World city (i.e. the megacity) is recognized’ .[1]

However, many of today’s dysfunctional mega-cities had previous lives as well-run – and even model – urban centres, mixing Western-style planned development with a local flavour. But sudden, unmanageable growth rates soon outstripped the capabilities of the governance frameworks. Until the mid-1970’s, for example, Lagos was a functioning mid-range city, with a relatively simple management system and few complex challenges. Increased urbanisation then led to an expanded demand on its services and infrastructure, triggering a self-perpetuating cycle of failure and institutionalised disenfranchisement. Whilst the growth of the developed-world megacities was wealth- and opportunity-driven, in the developing-world megacities, those that were attracted to the urban centres were often unskilled and without the support networks that would allow them to achieve even the lowest level of self-sustaining lifestyles. This inevitably led to the emergence of shanties and slums which, together with a culture of endemic urban planning violations, rapidly created a monster that grew beyond the powers of its handlers to control.


The descent of Lagos from a fully-functioning (and even thriving) urban African centre to a dysfunctional megacity is an issue of political (non-)governance rather than purely one of urban growth. Whilst it might be difficult to differentiate between the causes and the effects of the descent into ‘failing city’ status in what is undoubtedly a complex series of closed feedback loops, ’to represent the city as it is today as an inherently ‘African’ condition is to ignore the dysfunctional political and social systems that have arrested the growth of the infrastructure of the city and left it in dire need of help’.[2]

If Lagos were a child she would definitely be described, even by the parents that love her, as having ‘challenging behavioural traits’. As the Honourable Commissioner, Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development wrote in the foreword to a 2012 report, ‘By the turn of the last century, Lagos had become an international poster child for the doomsayers of the coming urban challenge—with a reputation for overcrowded and squalid living conditions, high rates of crime, poor governance, urban and environmental degradation and transport chaos’.[3] If Tokyo can claim to be the vision of the future of the hyper-connected 21st century city, then Lagos could equally claim to be its evil twin sister, projecting its reflection through a demented mirror of dysfunctionality and chaos.

In 1964, when Nigeria declared independence from its British colonial rulers, Lagos had less than a million inhabitants and could claim to be a self-conscious beacon of a successful modern African urban centre; cosmopolitan, self-confident, globally aware and connected, but also secure in its African identity. The opening of the National Theatre in 1976 was a significant landmark in the consciousness of Lagos, appearing in many writings as either signifying the peak of national pride and confidence or a symbol of the disparity between its outward show and the reality of the lack of supporting infrastructure (the opening gala was disturbed by a power-cut, a reality of life in Lagos even today). In the same year, a decision was made that Lagos had reached an insupportable level of dysfunctionality (largely based on the continuous grid-lock due to an explosion of the number of vehicles on the road combined with a lack of urban planning and traffic management) and that a new capital, Abuja, would need to be constructed from scratch.

The Lagos experiment in combining modern urbanism with an African flavour was perhaps doomed from the outset, suffering from ‘Incomplete modernity’.[4] This phrase encapsulates both the physical architecture of colonial period major cities, where there was a legacy of under-developed and unequally distributed urban facilities, as well as local power hierarchies that produced a highly iniquitous and unstable legacy of authoritarian and undemocratic control.

Post-colonial administration was often fractured, with departments, ministries and agencies being created on an ad hoc basis and little overview of the strategic requirements or even basic organisational frameworks. Such initiatives created the seeds of destruction from their inception. In Lagos, as in many mega-cities, rather than simplifying the governance structure, each reform merely succeeded in adding seemingly-endless layers of competing jurisdictions and agencies. Administratively, Lagos State comprises five divisions. In 1991, the divisions were further subdivided into 20 local government areas, and in 2006, into 37 local government council areas. While the local government areas are duly recognised in the Nigerian Constitution, the local council areas are not. Different jurisdictional systems are used for different purposes– for example, tax collection, development projects and the management and implementation of local government programmes.

In reality, the problems Lagos has been facing–and which came to full maturity in the ‘dark years’ of military dictatorship (1966-79, 1983-98)–had antecedents in the earliest days of colonial rule. Despite the fact that British authorities saw Lagos as the ‘Liverpool of West Africa’, there was a disinclination to invest the resources to develop it as a functioning, modern city and it was known for its swamps and lack of infrastructure, especially its lack of sewage system. Although there have undoubtedly been improvements made in recent years, in large part due to the return of democracy and the emergence of an increasingly meritocratic, technically-enabled administrative class, one description of Lagos shows what happens when the struggle becomes too tough, and city managers just give up:

‘With no strategic urban planning, the city has had to contend with challenges such as uncontrolled urban sprawl, inadequate and overburdened infrastructure, housing shortages, social and economic exclusion, high youth unemployment, inadequate funding of urban development, rising crime and physical insecurity, cumbersome judicial processes, and low-level preparedness for disaster management. In addition, a large informal sector has developed, primarily as a result of in-migration of unskilled labour’ .[5]


The inexorable growth of slum neighbourhoods created the perception that such ‘traditional’ communities were outside the framework of structured city management, which in turn led to increasing levels of alienation, degradation and public health issues. Such problems were then delineated in terms of public order and safety rather than support and resourcing. At the same time, the responsibility for those areas was seen as being with the residents rather than those with the power to do so something about it. Even if there had been a vision of modern African urban planning, the combination of structural vulnerabilities, a lack of political / administrative frameworks and a lack of a suitably empowered administrative class conspired to derail the African modernisation process from the start.

The modern megacity is widely viewed as in a failing state. However, an alternative view based on his study of Lagos is espoused by R. Koolhaas, who sees Lagos as a self-managing organism within which constant negotiations between micro-communities take place outside of any formal city management framework. For Koolhaas, these daily personal negotiations are not a sign of failed management, but rather ‘a developed, extreme paradigmatic case-study of a city at the forefront of globalizing modernity’ .[6] In this view, the cutting-edge ‘modernity’ of developing world megacities should be recognised, rather than being judgmentally labelled as ‘primitive’ when measured against the template of ‘developed’ Western cities .[7]

Although it is clearly easier to build functionality and good governance into a major city than retro-fit it once it has descended into a failed state, if the megacities of the developing world are to find a way of stabilising themselves, then Lagos may well be the petri-dish where such experiments can be carried out. As the Filani report makes clear, any improvements will be the result of the transformation of the systems of governance built on sustained political leadership and long-term policies rather than quick fix solutions. Some of the planks of the transformation that Filani identifies are: the development of a knowledge-based approach to policy development; the development of partnerships between public and private sectors that allow effective policy implementation frameworks; increased oversight and management of public spending; more effective tax and revenue collection (revenues in Lagos rose from 600m Naira/month ($3.8m) in 1999 to more than Naira ($45m) in 2007); the use of information and communication technology and data collection; and specific programmatic interventions in alliance with UN, regional and national agencies. At the same time, there is the development of parastatal agencies that created the framework for policy implementation, including Lagos State Emergency Management Authority (LASEMA), Lagos State Emergency Medical Services (LASEMS), Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA) amongst others .[8]

Lagos and its brethren megacities across the developing global south are not second-rate, primitive recreations of ‘real’ cities, but models of a future post-modern urban reality. The problems that these megacities have been wrestling with for decades are increasingly taking centre stage in even the most advanced cities of the Western world. The issue is no longer how to manage better but rather how to create a more appropriate management system. An adherence to a mechanistic, directive-based polity no longer reflects the hyper-complexity of the modern urban experience. Given the chaotic and free-forming nature of much of megacity life, there is a clear parallel between some of the issues being faced in developing an effective crisis management decision-making framework and the same issues being confronted in megacity management circles. If the megacities of the present are to maintain relevance for the future, Lagos may well be the pathfinder for the journey ahead. If, as the saying goes, within chaos there is opportunity, Lagos undoubtedly has no shortage of the former. It is my hope and belief that it is also provides the setting for the latter. As Koolhaas put it, from this perspective, ‘Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos’.[9]

[1] Roy, Ananya (2011) Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 35(2):223-238, p. 225.

[2] Isichei, Uche (2002). From and for Lagos, Nigeria. Archis No 1:12-15, p. 2.

[3] Filani, Michael O (2012). The Changing Face of Lagos: From Vision to Reform and Transformation. Cities Alliance, p. 4.

[4] Gandy, M. (2006). Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos. Urban Studies, 43(2):371–96, p. 374.

[5] Filani, p. 16.

[6] Koolhaas, R., P. Belanger, C.J. Chung, J. Comaroff, M. Cosmas, S. Gandhi, D.A. Hamilton, L.Y. Ip, J.Kim, G. Shepard, R. Singh, N. Slayton, J. Stone and S. Wahba (2000). Lagos, Harvard Project on the City. In R. Koolhaas, S. Kwinter, S. Boeri, N. Tazi and H.U. Obrist (eds.), Mutations, événement culturel sur la ville contemporaine, Arc en Rêve, Centre d’architecture, Bordeaux, p. 653.

[7] Robinson, J. (2013). Ordinary cities: between modernity and development. Routledge.

[8] Filani, p. 6.

[9] Koolhaas et al, quoted in Roy, p. 227.

PS21 is a non-ideological, non-partisan, non-national organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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