In its section on Nigeria, Lonely Planet’s 1995 edition of its Rough Guide to West Africa advised that getting the most out of one’s visit to the country depended on avoiding “Lagos and the sprawling congested cities of Ibadan, Port Hartcourt, Enugu, and Onitsha.” Several years later, a 30th anniversary edition offered a more nuanced take suggesting that some travelers might find the city “compelling” but that the metropolis remained a wild ride: “Lagos is chaos theory made flesh and concrete.”
To be fair, Lagos struggled mightily in the early 1990s. “Lagos’s prosperity peaked in the early 1980s,” notes sociologist Oka Obono, “before military coups and difficulties with the IMF drove Nigeria into recession.” Military rule ensued, as did restrictions on civil liberties and a debilitating crime wave. Over time, although crime rates fluctuated on the whole they remained high. During 2007, 50 people per month perished in Lagos State robberies. “Home invasions were extremely common in Lagos in the 1990s, they still happen, though less frequently,” the unnamed protagonist of Teju Cole’s Everyday for the Thief —a Nigerian ex-pat returning to the city for the first time in over a decade—tells readers.
During the ‘90s, the city became the epicenter for political resistance to the authoritarian government. Even with such dissent, Lagos had lost some of its governance mojo as Nigerian leaders moved the capital to Abuja in 1991. Abuja bloomed under the jaundiced influence of malfeasance and graft as greedy military leaders and contractors conspired to build the new capital for personal benefit and largely at the public’s expense. “The stink of corruption, presumed to be too much the vernacular of life in Lagos, become the breath of air in this Medina,” famed Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun observed.
Amidst economic, political and social struggle, Lagos still made its mark on Africa, let alone Nigeria. The proliferation of VCR’s and hand-held recording devices during the late 1980s and early 1990s intersected with a city struggling through economic depression and a debilitating crime wave. No longer safe enough to venture out to the cinema nor able to afford its cost, Lagosians invested time and money in “home movies,” as they are sometimes referred. Film making on Lagos streets emerged as a popular new and widely disseminated media form. Known as Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, the third largest in the world behind America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, soon asserted itself continentally.
Due in part to Lagos’s “low capital” economy dominated by informal employment, directors and producers discovered cost efficient strategies to scatter celluloid stardust across Africa. “Nollywood is cheap and nimble,” a 2010 Economist article summarized. “Films are shot on digital video cameras. Scripts are improvised.” Pirates understood how to smuggle and distribute Nollywood products across national boundaries and over vast distances, thereby creating the pan-African movie market. It gave voice and representation to not only Lagosians and Nigerians, but Africans generally. “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN,” Lancelot Idowu, one of Nigeria’s best-known directors noted. The Economist furthered this argument by declaring film “Africa’s dominant medium, replacing music and dance. It links distant societies, fosters the exchange of ideas and drives fashion trends.”
Due in part to Nollywood and a burgeoning art scene, a new Lagos—or, at the very least, a new projection of Lagos—has come to dominate the media narrative about the city. A February 2019 New York Times article depicted the Lagos art world as an edgy, transnational, and still developing affair, though emergent enough that Lagosians refer to it as an art “ecosystem.” Gallery showings draw Lagos’ upper crust and exude an air of excitement amidst the chaos that many point to as the metropolis’s defining characteristic. “Cars snaked out from the hideous traffic and deposited the city’s elite, dressed to impress, at the Civic Center, a concrete-and-steel edifice fronting Lagos Lagoon,” journalist Siddhartha Mitter noted. “Women exuding Vogue beauty and power paused on the patio to give television interviews.”
Do not underestimate the importance of such developments. “Literature, music, visual arts, theater, film. The most convincing signs of life I see in Nigeria are connected to the practices of the arts,” Cole’s aforementioned protagonist remarks. “And it is like this. Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope.”
Keep in mind, on the one hand, 21st century Lagos is replete with chaotic traffic, electricity blackouts, violent crime, and overcrowded housing. On the other hand, it boasts glittering skyscrapers, a burgeoning art scene and an ascendant film industry. Today’s Lagos did not emerge from a vacuum but rather took its shape from a postcolonial order over the course of six decades.
In 1950, fewer than 300,000 people resided in Lagos, but by 1963, 1.14 million residents lived there; thirteen years later, the population had climbed to 2.55 million. By 1982, the city counted just over 4 million residents, and today estimates often exceed 21 million. Industry took root in Lagos even before independence, such that by 1965 roughly a third of the nation’s manufacturing could be found in the metropolitan area. The rise of Lagosian industry in turn set off migration from the countryside to the city. Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, the city’s overall growth rate averaged 6%. Due in part to this industrialization, particularly after 1960, the annual growth rate of Lagos State averaged just below 10% from 1970 to 1980, three times the national standard. Many of the newcomers hacked it out as squatters or found spaces in illegal housing. For example, in 1952, 22% of families lived in unplanned areas; just over two decades later, this figure had more than doubled to 50%.
Though massive slum clearance legislation passed in 1955 and persisted into the post-colonial era, colonial rulers made few if any concessions for this migration. The only sections of Lagos that appeared to have been actually planned were those inhabited by Europeans. The rest of the metropolis would be shaped by economic forces rather than direct government intervention.
Lagosian urban renewal focused on projecting a newly independent Lagos as a symbol of national standing. Much as in American cities of the time, the Lagos business district along Marina Road, Broad Street, and Nnamdi Azikiwe Street received special attention. Nigerian architects adapted the international style of Europe to the African climate, inventing tropical modernism. “Slim, streamlined slabs of reinforced concrete with unadorned faces – the signs of modernism in Europe – were also the markers of tropical modernism,” writes historian Daniel Immerwahr. The excitement of independence allowed for adaptations such that Nigerian architects “let fly with all the clichés, gambits and stylistic treatments” that European tastes and regulations forbade.
Yet tropical modernism represented only one side of the coin in the nation and city’s bifurcated housing policy. The new architectural style would be reserved for government offices and downtown buildings, but government housing estates would follow European models. While tropical modernism represented an exciting break from the colonial past replete with Nigeria’s personal stamp, housing estates signaled the newly independent nation’s stability and power as it drew upon the modern, though not necessarily modernist, styles of Europe. The yolk of colonialism persisted even after independence: the “respectability politics” of architecture.
For example, one of the earliest housing estates built, Surlure, was constructed on the British Garden City model and looked much like the contemporaneous “automobile suburbs of the U.S.” As one of the state’s first such efforts, it established a pattern for public housing regimes. Erected during an oil boom on the northern section of Lagos’ mainland, much like public housing in the United States, Surlure was isolated; its location made work commutes difficult and attempts by the government to transform “slum dwellers” into “polite suburbanites” proved misguided and unsuccessful. 
Government housing provisions established in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s placed regulations on housing that made its cost prohibitive for many city residents. Unplanned communities sprouted. To the extent one can assign a noticeable design influence, the Brazilian bungalow model brought to Nigeria by formerly enslaved Muslims and Catholics who settled in Nigeria in the latter half of the nineteenth century would be the best example. The inability or unwillingness to follow regulations did not hamper the growth of such communities since the government failed to enforce their provisions, until crime, depression, and political decline assaulted Lagos during the 1980s.
By then, the government imposed its draconian will with overly zealous policing and intervention into daily affairs. The latter was exemplified by the government’s “War Against Indiscipline,” begun in 1984, which attempted to raze the city’s informal sector by eradicating slums, disrupting local markets, and getting Nigerians to “queue patiently at bus stops, shops, and government offices.” Between 1985 and 1986, the government demolished nearly 5,000 illegal structures. The “War Against Filth” followed, which required Lagosians to clean their homes and yards during the last Saturday of every month from 7am to 10 am. While it sounds like a noble goal, in reality, it functioned as a carrot for the well off and a stick for the working classes and poor.
Those driven out by land speculation settled in what the United Nations describes as “peri-urban” areas, almost like slum satellite cities. In Lagos, “new shantytowns grow all the time like shifting sands” in the ever expanding mega-city, journalist Kaye Whiteman points out, notably along Badagry Road, Agege Motor Road, and the Ibadan Expressway. Others end up moving to mainland slums like Mushin, living in “rectangular concrete-block houses” with seven to eight people to a “single, mosquito infested room – in bunks or on the floor – along a narrow corridor of opposing chambers,” as the New Yorker’s George Packer observed in 2006. Both famously and troublingly, only .4% of the Lagos population resides in a home with a toilet connected to a sewer system; two of three residents lack direct access to clean drinking water, electricity, waste disposal or roads.
Despite a problematic housing policy and authoritarian regimes, democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. From the quick, but especially over the last twenty years, Lagosians discovered new ways to navigate the city—notably by building on its long-existing informal economy. In 1963, 70% of women in the city depended on petty trading and related activities to buoy their finances. Hawking one’s wares and services from the home or a nearby sidewalk beat paying rent for a storefront. By the mid 1970s over half the city claimed a foothold in the informal economy. Such hustle, as it is widely known, still accounts for much of the Lagosian economy. As of 2006, informal transaction accounted for over 60% of economic activity. “Everywhere is a market,” one resident told Packer. “The market – as the essence of the city – is always alive with possibility and danger,” Cole’s narrator tells us.
Few things exemplify the complicated existence of Lagos more than its traffic jams and the informal economy that inexplicitly buzzes around them. Markets pop up spontaneously around them; cottage industries such as okadas, motorbikes that traverse traffic congestion far more quickly and cheaply (if at greater risk) than cars and which ferry low-income workers to their place of employment, have gained traction in the informal economy. The “hustle” is literal and metaphorical.
Of course, one should not lionize such developments too much. After all, okadas represent a survival tactic by workers facing structural readjustments in the economy, a nod to the fact that pay in the “regular economy” declined significantly over the course of the 21st century. Traffic jams at once embody the resourcefulness of Lagosians but also the ways in which they remain subject to neoliberal forces of the megacity. “To mention traffic jams is like twiddling a raw nerve in many cities: In Lagos, it is the rawest nerve,” Nigerian poet Ofeimun reminds us.
Middle class Lagosians do not have it easy either. Take, for example, the fictional case of Ifemelu, the protagonist and returning Lagos ex-pat from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. Despite returning to Lagos after many years abroad as a fairly successful professional writer, she must temper her expectations for housing. “The other flats she liked were too expensive. Even though pipes poked out under the kitchen sink and the toilet was lopsided and the bathroom tiles shoddily laid, this was the best she could afford.” Her rent payment helps to explain why illegal housing proves so attractive to many residents. “She wrote the check for two years’ rent. This was why people took bribes and asked for bribes; how else could anyone honestly pay two years’ rent in advance?”
As Whiteman admits, though troubled, Lagos remains a buzzing hive of human ingenuity; in the face of deprivation and with neoliberalism run amok, it contains a “deep and complex cultural richness,” the source of “a multitude of creativities.” The power of Lagos lies in its people, relentlessly hustling and endlessly defiant. “Lagos is more than just a city or megacity; it is in its essential form a ‘spirit of defiance.’ Everything that works can be subverted to some other use,” writes Obono.
Nor can the city or its residents rest on its historical laurels. There can be no dependence on past glories but rather an emphasis on future progress. “Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all,” Obinze, Ifemelu’s main love interest in Americanah, tells her upon her return to Lagos. “But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of the past.”
Lagosians have always specialized in making something out of very little. Enduring very similar urban policies and navigating far more corrupt systems of graft and governance, Lagos’ citizens have carved out their place in Africa and the world – a booming film industry, an expanding art scene, and an unabated hustle. Lagos, despite all its contradictions, remains an entrepot of promise and opportunity. Peril undoubtedly lingers, but on the streets of Lagos everyone is the star of their own movie.
As always, we’ve provided a bibliography of the city below. Great thanks to Titilola Halimat Somotan and Susan Rosenfeld for their help in compiling the bibliography. The Metropole realizes that we might have left some essential works off of the list, so please fell free to add those titles we missed in the comments!
Adebanwi, Wale. “The City, Hegemony and Ethno-spatial Politics: The Press and the Struggle for Lagos in Colonial Nigeria.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 9, no. 4 (2004): 25-51.
Adefuye, Ade, Babatunde Agiri, Akinjide Osuntokun, eds. History of the Peoples of Lagos State. Lagos, Nigeria: Lantern Books, 1987.
Adelusi-Adeluyi, Ademide. “Historical Tours of ‘New’ Lagos: Performance, Place Making, and Cartography in the 1880s.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (December 1, 2018): 443–54. https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201x-7208790.
Aderibigbe, A.B., ed. Lagos: The Development of an African City. Nigeria: Longmans, 1975.
Aderinto, Saheed. When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015
Agbola, Tunde. The Architecture of Fear: Urban Design and Construction Response to Urban Violence in Lagos, Nigeria. Ibadan: Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique, 1997.
Akinsemoyin, Kunle and Alan Vaughan Richards. Building Lagos. Jersey: Pengrail, 1976.
Akinyele, Rufus T. “Contesting for Space in an Urban Centre: The Omo Onile Syndrome in Lagos.” In African Cities, eds. Francesca Locatelli and Paul Nugent. Brill, 2009, 109–134.
Apter, Andrew A. The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Baker, Pauline. Urbanization and Political Change: The Politics of Lagos: 1917-1967. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Barnes, Sandra T. Patrons and Power: Creating a Political Community in Metropolitan Lagos. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.
Bigon, Liora. “The Former Names of Lagos (Nigeria) in Historical Perspective.” Names 59, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 229–40. https://doi.org/10.1179/002777311X13148870565437.
Bourne, Richard. Nigeria: A New History in a Turbulent Century. London: Zed Books, 2015.
Cole, Patrick. Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Davies, Lanre. “Gentrification in Lagos, 1929–1990.” Urban History (February 2018): 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0963926817000670.
Echeruo, M.J. Victorian Lagos: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Lagos Life. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Falola, Toyin and Matthew Heaton. A History of Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Fapohunda, Olanreqaju J. The Informal Sector of Lagos: An Inquiry into Urban Poverty and Employment. Lagos: University Press Limited, 1985.
Fourchard, Laurent. “Lagos and the Invention of Juvenile Delinquency in Nigeria, 1920–60.” The Journal of African History 47, no. 1 (2006): 115-137.
Gandy, Matthew. “Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos.” Urban Studies 43 (2006): 371–96.
George, Abosede. Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
George, Abosede. “Introduction: The Imaginative Capital of Lagos.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (2018): 439–42.
Giles, Omezi. “Nigerian Modernity and the City: Lagos 1960-1980.” In The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities: infrastructures and spaces of belonging, edited by Mamadou Diouf and Rosalinds Fredericks. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 277-298.
Godlewski, Joseph. “Alien and Distant: Rem Koolhaas on Film in Lagos, Nigeria.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 7-19.
Hargreaves, John. Prelude to the Partition of West Africa. London: Macmillan, 1963.
Haynes, Jonathan. “Nollywood is Lagos, Lagos in Nollywood Films.” Africa Today 54, no. 2 (Winter, 2007): 131-150.
Immerwahr, Daniel. “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2007): 165-186.
“Lights, Camera, Africa,” The Economist, December 16, 2010.
Lindsay, Lisa A. “‘To return to the bosom of their fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Lagos.” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (1994): 22–50.
——–. “Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women, and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike.” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 783-812.
——–. Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa. UNC Press Books, 2016.
Mabogunje, Akin. Urbanization in Nigeria. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1968.
Mann, Kristin. Marrying Well : Marriage, Status, and Social Change among the Educated Elite in Colonial Lagos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
——–. Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Marris, Peter. Family and Social Change in an African City: A Study of Rehousing in Lagos. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1962.
Matory, J. Lorand. “The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic Roots of the Yorùbá Nation.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no. 1 (1999): 72–103.
Mitter, Siddhartha. “Lagos, City of Hustle, Builds an Art ‘Ecosystem.’” The New York Times, 8 February 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/08/arts/design/lagos-nigeria-art-x-art.html.
Muritala, Monsuru Olalekan. “Urban Livelihood in Lagos, 1861-1960.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 20 (2011): 193-200.
Nzegwu, Nkiru. “Bypassing New York in Re-Presenting Eko: Production of Space in a Nigerian City.” In Re-Presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st-Century Metropolis, ed. Anthony D. King. New York: New York University Press, 1996, 111–36.
Obono, Oka. “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 31-37.
Ofeimun, Odia. “Imagination & the City.” African Quarterly on the Arts vol. 3, no. 2 (2001): 12-15, 137-141.
Olukoju, Ayodeji. The “Liverpool” of West Africa: The Dynamics and Impact of Maritime Trade in Lagos, 1900-1950. Africa World Press, 2004.
Olorunyomi, Sola. Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent. Ibadan: IFRA, revised edition, 2005.
Oluwasegun, Jimoh Mufutau. “The British Mosquito Eradication Campaign in Colonial Lagos, 1902-1950.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 51, no. 2 (May 4, 2017): 217–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/00083968.2017.1302808.
Osifodunrin, Paul. “Strangers, Indigenes and Child Kidnapping in Late Colonial Lagos.” Lagos Historical Review 13 (July 2013): 1–16. https://doi.org/10.4314/lhr.v13i1.1.
Onajide, M. O. The Development of Housing Policy in Nigeria, 1952-1983: A Case Study of Western Nigeria. Abuja: National Library of Nigeria, 1988.
Peil, Margaret. Cities and Suburbs: Urban Life in West Africa. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981.
—–. Lagos: The City is the People. London: Belhaven Press, 1991.
Packer, George. “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos.” New Yorker, November 13, 2006. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/13/the-megacity
Peel, J.D.Y. Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Sawada, Nozomi. “Selecting Those ‘Worthy’ of Remembering: Memorialization in Early Lagos Newspapers.” Journal of West African History 2, no. 2 (2016): 79-108. doi:10.14321/jwestafrihist.2.2.0079.
Sydney Smith, Robert. The Lagos Consulate: 1851-1861. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.
Whiteman, Kaye. Lagos: A Cultural History. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2014.
Wright, Gwendolyn. The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Abani, Chris (ed.). Lagos Noir. Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, 2018.
Achebe, Chinua. No Longer at Ease. http://www.bnpublishing.net: 2009.
Cole, Teju. Everyday is for the Thief. New York: Random House, 2007.
Ekwensi, Cyprian. Jagua Nana. London: Hutchinson, c1961.
——-. Lokotown and Other Stories. London: Heinemann, 1966.
Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. Americanah. New York: Anchor, 2014.
Onuzo, Chibundu. Welcome to Lagos. London: Faber and Faber, 2017.
Saro-Wiwa, Ken. Basi and Company. Port Harcourt: Saros Publishers, 1987.
 Kaye Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, (Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing, 2014), 113.
 Oka Obono, “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 32-33.
 Obono, “A Lagos Thing,” 35; Teju Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, (New York: Random House, 2007), 45.
 Odia Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” African Quarterly on the Arts 3, no.2: 12-15, 135-141.
 “Lights, Camera, Africa,” Economist, December 16, 2010.
 Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 87.
 Oka Obono, “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 32.
 Daniel Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no.2 (December 2007): 166, 176; George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” New Yorker, November 13, 2006, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/13/the-megacity.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 170-171.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 168-169.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 171-175.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 178.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 179.
 Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, 52.
 Obono, “A Lagos Thing,” 36.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 173.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 173.
 George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” New Yorker, November 13, 2006, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/13/the-megacity; Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 57.
 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, (New York: Anchor, 2014), 486.
 Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, 89.
 Obono, “A Lagos Thing,” 36.
 Adichie, Americanah, 358.