Cities Saving States

Nigeria is a mess, but its biggest city is thriving. Can Lagos show other misgoverned countries the way?

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Nigeria is arguably the worst-run of the world’s major countries. Oil-rich but corruption-ridden, it has more poor people than China (even though its population is only one-seventh the size) and an average life expectancy of 52 years. There are pirates and armed militant groups in the south, sectarian conflict across the tumultuous “middle belt,” and the bloody Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in the north.

Despite these dismal realities, the city of Lagos — until recently one of the world’s hardest places to govern — seems to have turned a corner. Although Nigeria’s largest city remains slum-ridden and poor, its governance has steadily improved since civilian rule returned in 1999. Public transport is better, the streets are cleaner, services are more reliable, and the climate for enterprise has improved. Indeed, business and investment are booming.

So Nigeria, of all places, may show how fragile states can begin to succeed: Devolve more power to their cities. Central governments — bigger, remoter, and less accountable — are easy targets for corrupt politicians and their cronies. City officials, on the other hand, must prove themselves by delivering specific services to their constituents. Given how quickly urbanization is transforming the landscape of many countries — nearly half of all people in the developing world now live in cities — a city-centered approach also offers the best way to improve the lives of the people living in these places.

What are the hallmarks of Lagos’s success, and are they replicable? Things began looking up in 1999, when democracy and regular local elections returned to Nigeria. Unlike the country’s national elections, which have long been about which elite will control the state’s vast oil wealth, local contests force candidates to compete in finding solutions for local problems, yielding better leadership in the process.

In Lagos, the positive effects of this dynamic are clear. Traffic jams have been reduced. Roads are better maintained. Traffic lights work. The city is building expressways and even a light-rail system. Buses have their own lanes, part of Africa’s first rapid-bus system. Playgrounds are under construction. Improved lighting has contributed to better policing. Petty crime and even armed robbery are down. Community service programs mean that local toughs are sweeping streets and directing traffic. Foreign companies that once steered clear now flock to sell to Lagos’s huge population. Consumer giants such as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and Guinness have come to town. Investors are developing real estate, especially for the moneyed class.

Structural factors are key. Change is easier at the urban level because devolved power and regular elections affect local political dynamics so squarely. Tighter boundaries, the tendency of urban life to blur identities, and a need to raise revenue locally produce better political incentives and more development-focused leaders.

Nigeria’s federal system, adopted after a brutal civil war in the late 1960s, gave regional governments such as that of Lagos State far more authority than is devolved in most developing countries. Greater authority enabled Lagos’s leaders to promote progress, and drew a better class of candidates for public office.

As a result, the city has been blessed with good leaders. Both Bola Tinubu, governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007, and his successor Babatunde Fashola, a plain-speaking 50-year-old lawyer, have been vital to the city’s turnaround. The latter, one of the few popular politicians in a country where they are usually despised, was reelected in 2011 with 81 percent of the vote. Lagos’s leaders have been helped by a growing number of Nigerians who have returned from schools or jobs abroad to work in the increasingly professional city government.

Lagos’s relative success suggests a new strategy for promoting stability and development in fragile states — one of the world’s most pressing problems. Such states, which include Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Libya, fuel international instability and terrorism and contain more than their share of the world’s poor. They are riddled with cronyism and corruption. Drug lords, armed gangs, militias, and terrorists infest their ungoverned spaces. Fragile states have become a major focus of international aid, but improving their governance has proven very hard.

Reforms should harness the institutions that offer the best incentives for good performance, and these are local. Although the ideal local/national mix must vary with each country’s circumstances, in this model a large share of a state’s resources and responsibilities would flow to major cities and surrounding areas. Empowered mayors or district governors would handle most facets of governance.

The central government would remain important, but its focus would shift to large-scale infrastructure projects; standards for courts, schools, and healthcare systems; guidelines for the sharing of financial resources; performance-based rewards and penalties for urban and regional governments; and foreign relations. It should also focus on threats to stability such as Boko Haram. The key is to balance the ability of the central government to provide overall guidance with the urban (or regional) authorities’ stronger capacity to enforce the rule of law and deliver the services that most affect people.

Can cities really save states? In Nigeria’s case, Lagos can serve as a model for the development of other cities, such as Ibadan, Kano, and Port Harcourt. And they, in turn, could help to change the gangsterish dynamics that dominate national politics and yield the same cadre of incompetent leaders year after year.

Elsewhere in the developing world, other cities offer hopeful case studies. Urban-based governance is reducing fragility in some countries that have empowered urban or local governments to act on their own. In Colombia, Medellín has made significant economic and social progress since a constitutional change in the early 1990s greatly strengthened the country’s mayors (by, for instance, granting them much more authority over security). The city dramatically reduced homicides from more than 200 per 100,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 1990s to less than 40 by the mid-2000s. In Bogotá, Antanas Mockus gained fame as mayor by creatively and wittily transforming public norms regarding corruption, women’s rights, water usage, taxpaying, and driving, among others. At relatively little cost, he sharply reduced violence, improved public transport, and brought in more revenue.

Indian cities such as Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Shimla, and Pune have similarly outperformed the national government in promoting growth, educating children, and reducing crime and poverty. Chennai, which a survey in the magazine India Today recently named India’s best-governed city, has outperformed the country’s other major cities in the quality of schools, crime rates, investment generation, and economic growth.

Lagos is no urban paradise. Slums remain, as do traffic jams and pollution. Most people are still poor. But, paradoxically, these persistent problems underline why Lagos could be a model for other parts of the developing world. Fragile states aren’t likely to suddenly turn into economic dynamos like China with its gleaming, ultramodern cities such as Shanghai. Lagos, however, is a metropolis that other poor cities could realistically emulate.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, and Kenya could all benefit if regular local elections capable of spurring significant changes in Kinshasa, Dhaka, and Nairobi, respectively, were combined with devolutions of power (to include revenue authority and especially the power to levy property taxes).

As the example of Lagos shows, the city may be a way — perhaps the only way — for fragile states such as Nigeria to strengthen governance. Entire countries begin to work better when their cities are well-governed and thriving. Through municipal innovation may lie the path to national salvation.

A city-first strategy won’t cure all the woes that plague fragile states. Central governments still need to play crucial roles in security, infrastructure, and dispute management. Yet allowing cities to forge ahead will brighten prospects for strong leadership in countries that too often have lacked it. If other cities repeat Lagos’s progress, the dynamics of many struggling states could change for the better.


Dr. Seth D. Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, Senior Adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), and consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, State Department, and OECD.

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