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It’s often said that if the economy of Lagos were to be placed alongside those of whole countries in Africa, it would rank quite comfortably among the top ten economies on the continent. Current estimates of the city’s GDP from the state government suggests that it’s much bigger than such supposedly significant economies as Kenya and Ivory Coast.

But maybe Lagos’s path to commercial preeminence in the West African subregion was predictable after all. For decades, it was the political capital of an oil-producing country; and before that, it was the chief administrative centre of the British colonialists. Many of the country’s brightest and most entrepreneurial people have been (and still are) drawn to it by opportunities that have been ‘lubricated’ by oil wealth from further South. The combination of political, economic and human capital advantages have simply thrust Lagos unto its present dominant position.

But this brief account of Lagos’s commercial history looks more like a dismissal of the work that’s gone into making the city work. It doesn’t let us into the industrious descendants of ex-slaves who returned from the Americas in the late 1800s and founded successful businesses on Lagos Island. It says nothing of the administrative work and sheer philanthropy, or the foresight and plain lavish spending that helped bring the city’s basic amenities and fancy sights to life. It doesn’t present the lives and the material that has made (and still make) Lagos’s economy thick.

How then, did Lagos soar above other cities and countries on the continent, to become the tallest standing tree in Africa’s forest of commerce?

The Blessings of Waterways

Perhaps you’ve never thought of it this way, but we have Lagos’s creeks, lagoons and the Atlantic ocean to thank for setting things up pretty nicely for the city at the very start. The first inhabitants of the city were in part attracted by its numerous water bodies; they made a living off fishing, and the rivers and lagoons teemed with fish. Fishing still contributes a part to the city’s multi-billion dollar economy.

The early European explorers could access the settlements in the area because it was situated by the ocean. And the British set up their administrative apparatus there, as it was one of the more convenient points by which ships from their mother country could come in and out of the Southern protectorate.

Commercial properties across Lagos.

Lagos’s closeness to the ocean meant that it could be connected by seafaring vessels from along the West African coast, Europe, and even the Americas. As a result, Europeans set up trading posts in the area, and local businesspeople (including offspring of ex-slaves from the Caribbean and Brazil) became importers and distributors of various kinds. It was on this foundation that the future of Lagos as a commercial hub was built, beginning from the latter half of the 19th century.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that there was also a lot going out via Lagos’s port, as there were goods coming in through it. Materials ranging from palm oil and rubber to groundnuts and cotton were collected in centres from the West and North and transported to Lagos, where they were loaded on to ships bound for Europe. This was, in many ways, a precursor to the trade-enabling seaports and airports of contemporary Lagos.

Population and Government

By the time Nigeria gained her independence in 1960, Lagos was already one of the country’s chief economic nerve centres. Of course, it did have a number of headstarts over the other major commercial centres. Neither Kano nor Ibadan had ever been the national seat of colonial power. We could say that the ‘capital city effect’ was at play- as it has in Ghana with Accra, Cairo with Egypt, or even London in the United Kingdom. The political capital, in most cases, tends to become the chief commercial hub as well. But as we’ve already seen, Lagos had more going for it than mere political clout.

We know that the big industrial centres attract people, precisely because they’re where the opportunities are to make a better life (in material terms). And that’s what played out with Lagos. A few decades after Nigeria’s independence, it had overtaken Ibadan to become the country’s most populous city. Its currently estimated 20 million inhabitants have made it Africa’s biggest metropolis by population.

But there have been downsides to this expansion in the city’s human presence. The Federal Government began building a new capital city further north (Abuja), because of the city’s growing slums. Its roads were getting more traffic gridlocks; the streets and lanes were being swamped by makeshift stands, itinerant traders and a mass of people streaming through and fro. This was Lagos morphing into its present raucous, perhaps lively self. It had the vibrancy of a commercial powerhouse, but not the calm measuredness of an administrative capital.

A City On the Move

Today, Lagos is a melting pot in almost every sense of the phrase; it has what is perhaps the subregion’s most diverse mix of cultures and peoples. There’s a lot going on in its business space as well. It’s home to some of the country’s largest markets, West Africa’s biggest ICT hub, a billion dollar startup ecosystem, one of the continent’s most visited trade fairs, and by far the highest GDP of any urban agglomeration in Nigeria. It also has more SMEs and large-scale companies headquartered within it than any other city in the country, and maybe, on this strip of Africa’s Atlantic coastline.

In the end, Lagos has assumed its current status because of the enterprising spirit of millions of Nigerians. Without them, the city’s pre-existing advantages would amount to nothing and would lie unexplored and unexploited, as Eko’s marshes were before its first fish hunting settlers arrived.


References: Wikipedia: Lagos, Quartz Africa, Wikipedia: Brazilians in Nigeria

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This article was first published on 13th November 2018


Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.

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