Lagos Night Life In Need of More Light and Transparency

In my more than two score years in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, I have always thought of the city as a trader’s paradise; a place where merchants can carry on business at all times of the day, whether it be at dawn, dusk or in between. The energy in the place appears inexhaustible enough to be extinguished by the mere approach of darkness. Sadly, in many places, this is just what happens; enterprise comes to a halt, frozen by the arrival of night.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be so – at least not for a state set to be the third largest economy in Africa – if a few crucial ingredients are firmly in place. This can almost be guaranteed with greater security of lives and property, what with traders’ desire to continue their hustle into the dead of night. It didn’t seem so at first until I started to believe that with the ‘Light Up Lagos’ initiative, the Lagos government may be on the way to ensure this happens.

I came to this conclusion after my interaction with micro-business people across densely populated areas of Lagos including Agege, Alimosho and Ogba. In these markets that mostly form during rush hour and typically last until nightfall, traders display and flaunt wares as diverse as kitchenware in lock-up shops to bathing sponges and perishable food items in the open. Also to be seen in this milieu are nimble okada riders who go into fits just to outdo each other in nicking the next passenger.  A casual observer from afar may see the frenzy as one mad house but, within the maze, transactions worth hundreds of thousands of naira are being closed. Such is the informal economy that is Lagos night markets.

These market operators reveal that they do not mind displaying their wares until very late in the night if they will not be harassed by hoodlums. Many who trade around Ogba Bus Stop are comfortable to do so as they feel safe with the bright lights shining above them, something that was absent roughly a year ago.

Theresa (not real name), a seller of spices, whom I spoke with at about 9pm, said she hoped to stay on until about 11 pm before heading home. She now stays back two hours longer for a chance to make a few bucks more than before the lights were installed. Umaru, who has been operating a Kiosk at the same market said that, although he has never heard of attacks around the market (probably because it is situated close to a police station), people got apprehensive when darkness approached; so it was natural for them to pack up and leave. He observed however, that traders have begun to stay a bit longer to sell their wares ever since the street lights came on.

Turning the Lights On

The ‘Light Up Lagos’ project was launched in 2016 with the aim of illuminating major highways and streets in Lagos with street-lamps in order to boost commercial activity, enhance security and promote tourism by adorning the city with a more befitting aesthetic appeal. Considering the breadth of Lagos, the initiative is ambitious albeit laudable. It is certainly indispensable for a city that is determined to maintain its self-imposed ‘mega city’ label.

If the project is to aid commerce and work towards a round-the-clock economy, then, based on the accounts of Theresa and Umar, it is probably succeeding – even though some media reports might suggest otherwise. “The ‘Light Up Lagos’ project is one of the components needed to make sure a 24-hour economy runs in Lagos State,” said Steve Ayorinde, former Lagos commissioner of Information who is now in charge of the Tourism ministry.

Documents obtained from the state electricity board say that over 1000 km of road networks from almost all the local governments of the state are benefitting from the initiative. “These installations cut across areas like Maryland, Ojota, Berger, Iyana Oworo, Ajara, ASCON areas in Badagry, Ile Epo Zik to Tollgate, Alausa, Third Mainland Bridge, Ikorodu Road and Service Lanes, Oworonshoki etc”, says one of the documents. Communities in Ajah, Ile Epo-Zik and Sango Toll Gate have also benefited from the project along with 34 communities in Badagry, the southernmost parts of Lagos.

But street lights are only one part of the three facets that make up the Light Up Lagos Initiative. Other components of the programme are community electrification and embedded power. The community electrification plan is to ensure that communities that have been disconnected from the national grid are re-connected or get new transformers.

Recently, the Lagos governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, signed into law a pledge to bring uninterrupted power to the whole state, something inconceivable almost anywhere else in the country. The plan was to use state funds to provide guarantees to private electricity generators so that they can build mini-power plants around the city. Very early in his tenure, he had promised Lagosians that “my administration would light up the State and create a 24-7 economy.” With the Light Up Lagos project, He hoped to put Lagos ‘on the same pedestal and status as similar megalopolis in the world’ stating also that it was “part of our security strategy to make our State competitive, safe and secure.”

The Embedded Power facet of the scheme is yet to take off but it envisages providing power for strategic locations in some parts of Lagos in the medium term. Planned to plug the shortfalls from the regular national electricity grid, private businesses and homes would buy their power directly from the state government.

Ironically, the facilities that would provide the illumination required for a sense of security needs to be secured. Sadly, Lagos is notorious for the misuse and theft of public amenities, installations and equipment. The project therefore incorporates the engagement of local vigilante to work with the local police to ensure the facilities don’t get squirrelled away by criminals in the beneficiary communities.

Shedding more light

The Light-up project may have brought good tidings for traders like Theresa and Umar trying to sell their wares up till the late hours, but their unexpected fortune is unlikely to be a useful indication of the initiative’s success. Although Ikeja, the suburb where they operate, is a densely populated local government area, the number of residents there pale in comparison with others like Alimosho, Mushin, Ajeromi or Surulere. In such areas, security from hoodlums would be arguably better appreciated especially at that time of night.

With deals struck and support offered from private sector actors, the Lagos government has made clear that it will light up every local government in the state. Apart from determining whether the project offers value for taxpayers’ money, there are salient factors to consider before drawing conclusions about which residents in Lagos should be given priority. Clearly, population density is one of them. Another is the number of roads in the different local government areas while a third would be the cost of the streetlights vis-a-vis the other components of the overall project.

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Open Data Research Centre, SMC

If the government were to use the first criterion, Ajeromi/Ifeloju with the highest population density should get more street lights than any other local government while Ibeju-Lekki should get the least street lights. On the flip side, Alimisho local government deserves more street lights than others if the number of roads was used as the criterion. Alimosho proves its mettle as Ifako/Ijaiye falters. Alimosho has a whopping 1,083 roads and should get more lights. A combination of both criteria could give a robust view.

So should the population density of the twenty local governments in the state or the number of roads in a local government determine where to install the lights? To make this decision, relevant data is required. Unfortunately, most of what is in the public domain appears to be grossly incomplete or non-reusable.

Generic data from the Lagos Bureau of Statistics offers some respite. In the same way as the flicker of light from a matchstick guides an explorer through to the end of a dark tunnel, the types of roads and the materials used to construct them can help to situate the Light Up Lagos project.

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Open Data Research Centre

From the data, I found that 92.4% of the roads were constructed by the local government. The state and federal government were only responsible for 6.1% and 1.4% of the roads respectively. This means that there are more feeder roads in the state than highways. This is justifiable for a state with such an enormous population. These roads feed traffic from residential areas to the highways. Of more importance are the types of materials used for the in the construction of the roads. A typical Lagos road is either paved or made up of gravel and earth.  Bitumen is commonly used for the construction of paved roads. Which of these is prevalent in Lagos?

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Open Data Research Centre, SMC

Data shows that there are more earth and gravel roads (59%) than those covered with bitumen (41%). Of the roads constructed by the local governments, more than 61% are earth and gravel roads. This means that most of the feeder roads are unpaved. Thus, would Alimosho, the local government with the highest number of gravel and earth roads, have all its roads lit up?

In the context of this data, one could question the readiness of Lagos roads for street lamps when more than half of its roads are made of earth and gravel. Would the government use taxpayers money to light up untarred roads all in the name of positioning the state as a mega-city? In the case of future upgrades of the roads, what would be done to the street lamps? Of course, they would have to be evacuated first and then reconstructed; but that would not be a judicious use of taxpayers money. It could be thus assumed that one of the three pillars of ‘Light Up Lagos Project’ which is the creation of 24/7 hour economy within the state might not be achieved unless the current situation of the feeder roads which host most of Lagos’ residents is revisited.

Hobbling in the dark

But did the Lagos government apply these criteria to lighting up the city? I am left with my imagination as the crucial information is not available in the public domain to be scooped and interrogated. I spent the good part of four weeks trying to get this information from the state electricity board. On my first day of enquiry, I got there at about 3:30 pm on a Friday and I was asked to return the following week. I did as I advised but, rather than furnish me with the requested data, I was told to write a letter to the GM responsible for the information. Once again, I placidly obeyed, drafting a quick letter there and then with the hope that I would be attended to immediately. But after barely two minutes, I was asked to return the following week.

I showed up as directed only to be told that there was no information for me along with the refrain that I should “come again” but, this time, before the end of the week. A back and forth ensued and approximately one month after my application, several emails and even WhatsApp messages, I received a two-page document about the Light Up Lagos project that was devoid of any kind of data. I grumbled and was promptly told that I was lucky to have gotten the ‘prize’ I was clutching in my hands. In fact, according to them, it was given to me only because of my persistence. I was then advised to make good use of what I had, since “after all, half bread is better than none.”

The non-availability of data thus frustrated my attempt to find out the official rationale and analyses behind the distribution of streetlights across local governments. It thus muted a simple inquiry to help draw simple inferences about the project, such as the tendering, contracting and implementation processes, which was the original intent of this piece. I was therefore left with no option but to skew my story since I didn’t have any data to work with. Alas, I had imagined drawing fancy graphs demonstrating relationships and causalities with data on the number of streetlights mounted in each local government versus the population and number of roads in each local government!

Other shades of light

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My original enquiry had also sought to find out how much it costs the Lagos taxpayer to light up their city. According to data obtained from the state’s annual budget, not less than N27.8 billion has been spent on the project since 2016. ‘Delivery of light up Initiative’ was allocated N3 billion in 2016 and N1 billion in 2017 while a whopping N13.1 billion was spent on Independent Power Projects (IPPs) in 2017 and N10.72 billion in 2016.

While it was easy to obtain costs of the line items in the state’s annual budget by merely searching online, a breakdown of the actual spend turned an impossible task. The best that came out of my month-long visit to the state electricity board was an explanation of the initiative. Nothing is known about the bidders for the contract, criteria for the bidding process nor about how much was paid to the awarded contractor. In other words, my interest in comparing the cost of delivering the project with similar projects in other parts of the country or the world proved an impossible task. The non-availability of information of this sort may mean undermining the taxpayer who may be interested in establishing whether his taxes are judiciously used. This is crucial information for a state with the highest Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) in Nigeria.

Among the questions I asked the electricity board was ‘who are the contractors to the project? The idea was to eventually establish if there was competitive bidding in awarding the contracts and to see if due process was followed. This too met with a dead end after a series of ‘come back tomorrow’.

The numerous roadblocks I encountered in the course of my enquiry leads me to conclude that if the Lagos government really wants to be accountable to the people, it is apposite to open up to them and this will include making data and other information easily accessible to the people. A situation where even journalists like me who have a duty to obtain and process such information for the people cannot gain access makes the situation all the more opaque and unacceptable.

Light at the end of the tunnel

But perhaps the bigger worry should be that Theresa and Umar and many more like them, who are smug with illumination coming from high above them, do not seem to care for these things. One could see that they are content to sell their wares deep into the night without the slightest worry about how much it all costs them in fees and taxes. Watching as they exchange goods for money, with their only thoughts probably being how to subsist at the lowest rung of the hierarchy of needs, perhaps the best thing to do is to leave them alone in their ignorance because that has proved to be bliss. But then again, it is this “I don’t care’ attitude, which characterises much of the Nigerian society that gives room for government’s lack of transparency. If only they can care a bit more about where their tax buck really stops, perhaps they can get the Lagos government to do the needful and account for the lights and much more as they work to make Lagos a traders paradise.

Where to start from on how to tackle a government as big and as powerful as the Lagos State government may seem like a daunting one. In fact, it may seem impossible. This is all the more so when one considers all the powerful things a government can do and does in Lagos, like demolishing whole areas and markets and even seizing land for development. But despite all the power a government wields, people can boldly demand for simple accountability. This is because governments get to be there by the people’s votes and so are entitled to explanations failing which the unresponsive, irresponsible government gets voted out. As soon as they can understand the power inherent in their votes, then the challenge is half-way solved.  They should realise that they can stop corrupt, non-transparent governments and those that take them for granted. They owe themselves and the other segment of society that civic duty. In the end, it is up to the traders whether they want to see more lights, better maintenance of the lights and other public infrastructure to help their hustle. In short, their longed-for traders’ paradise where they can operate round the clock lies in their own hands.

About Kirk Leigh

Kirk is a editorial board member at Independent Newspapers where he marshals Business and Market Intelligence. He is certified Bloomberg analyst and contributor. At Independent, he does a daily analysis of the economy, a biweekly company analysis and a weekly column, Economic Corridor, which is widely followed by policymakers and those interested in public policy. Kirk got his journalism training at the International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) in Berlin, Germany.