Lagos to build a city of brave new vision

2015-07-27 13:29
Artistic impression of the Lagos of tomorrow

Artistic impression of the Lagos of tomorrow

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The government of the state of Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital, has proudly proclaimed it is building a city that will become the new financial centre of Nigeria and perhaps west Africa. The scale of the Eko Atlantic project is immense and progress is being achieved through a team effort between investors, planners, engineers and contractors. 

Pitched as Africa’s answer to Dubai, Eko Atlantic is a multibillion-dollar residential and business development that is located as an appendage to Victoria Island and along the renowned Bar Beach shoreline in Lagos. 

There is no shortage of doubters and critics of the initiative, which is seen as an exercise in runaway neoliberalism by a country that cannot even ensure 30 days of continuous power supply to its citizens. The truth, however, is that Lagos deserves its dream El Dorado and the economic case for Eko Atlantic is sound. 

The only problem is that the plans are not radical enough. Our argument is that this project is underimagined and should be shored up urgently to match other international projects in fast-developing countries. In particular, we believe a city should be created along the lines of Paul Romer’s charter city. These are cities in which the governing system is defined by the city rather than by state, provincial, regional or national laws. 

This would mean that the city of Eko Atlantic would operate under high standards of transparency and good governance. Its security would be handled by independent policing standards. This could extend to other aspects of its civil and criminal justice systems. Its sanitary, health, energy supply, environment and other regulatory rules should be pegged with comparable standards in London, New York, Paris, Dubai and Shanghai. 

This would ensure that the laws under which the territory operates are, in essence, free of the stifling national regulations that have stood in the way of most African cities operating at optimal levels. 

A model for good governance 

At the moment, all aspects of the planning and building of Eko Atlantic are squarely in the hands of the private sector involving local and foreign venture capitalists. Those already on board include local and international banks such as First Bank, FCMB, Access Bank and GT Bank in Nigeria, BNP Paribas Fortis and KBC Bank, as well as a growing number of private investors. 

The recent inauguration of a new governor for Lagos, west Africa’s megacity with close to 18 million residents, presents a further opportunity to rejig plans and boldly move towards chartered-city status. 

Rather than just becoming a financial venture, the Eko Atlantic experiment can be carried further at no extra cost to become the hub to transform good governance in Nigeria and west Africa. Already, Lagos is the gold standard for other parts of the Nigerian federation. In 2012, it generated annual revenue of about $1 billion (R12 billion at today’s exchange rate), dwarfing that of the other 35 federated parts of Nigeria. 

If Eko Atlantic is competently handled by world experts in the legal, economic and industrial fields, the returns to the Lagos economy can easily double. 

Bad systems and rules are the reason most African cities do not attract much-needed international investment at appropriate levels. Bad rules have tied down the development of Lagos and 1 000 other African cities since their independence from colonialism. These include corruption, mismanagement, political interference, unresponsiveness, overbearing religiosity, nepotism, human rights abuses and incompetent presence of the state. 

At present, the judiciary, health and administrative systems of most Nigerian cities have severe problems. Lagos is no different, even though it is still far ahead of the other 34 states and federal capital territories. Eko Atlantic ought, therefore, to provide a Petri dish to run a new kind of African city. 

Constellation of Nigerian politics 

Lagos will have to work with the federal government to create a special zone of reform. The arrangements will require further delegation of control to Lagos state, which in turn will give up powers to the regulatory authorities of the chartered city of Eko Atlantic. 

Such arrangements and concessions should be easier now as the constellations have aligned for the first time in Nigerian history. Lagos state is now run by the same government and party that rules the country. This arrangement will allow Lagos to make more credible promises to investors across the world. 

There will be a mutual benefit of exchange in favour of investors, employers, residents, the state and the country. 

In a depressed international economy, such a city could attract the qualified, brave and adventurous from the entire globe. 

African countries sorely need a skilled workforce from the developed world to fill hi-tech employment and service industries that will fuel growth in the 21st century. 

There are successful comparable projects across the developing world. The Chinese government, seeing the tremendous success that different rules made to Hong Kong, wisely created special zones offering tax and tariff incentives. 

There is the phenomenon of medical cities that are scattered in many regions of Saudi Arabia. Dubai is a beacon of success and Abu Dhabi is closely following these examples with its bold creation of the Abu Dhabi Global Market established on Al Maryah Island. 

This is the latest United Arab Emirates creation of a financial free zone based on a separate jurisdiction. 

Honduras is also involved in the creation of such high-quality, liveable cities. 

It can be done 

It is certain that the proposed changes will generate controversy. Nationalist feelings against this proposal may run high, but this problem is not insurmountable. 

Ronald Reagan allowed himself the luxury of only one decorative plaque on his presidential desk in the Oval Office. It read: It can be done. 

The governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, will do himself and nearly everyone a great deal of good if he gets himself a similar plaque to remind him of the golden opportunity that Eko Atlantic represents. 

Oduntan is a senior lecturer in international commercial law at the University of Kent. This article was published in The Conversation

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