Water and Economic Development

I don’t mean to flog a dead horse but I think there might be an economic lesson in the recent furore over the Oba of Lagos’ comments. In particular, I’d like to zero in on a rather popular view about Lagos that has been echoed by no less a person than Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie in her recent piece on the matter:

But it is odd to pretend that Lagos is like any other city in Nigeria. It is not. The political history of Lagos and its development as the first national capital set it apart. Lagos is Nigeria’s metropolis

As the gist goes, Lagos is what it is today because it benefitted from being the Colonial and Federal capital. This is why it is more ‘developed’ than anywhere else in Nigeria. Indeed, that is what Ms Adichie is saying above – that it is the political history of Lagos that sets it apart and why it is like no other city in Nigeria.

Well, Lagos is certainly like no other city in Nigeria for sure. But is this because of its ‘political history’? That is, if Lagos was never the capital of Nigeria, would it still be Lagos as we know it? Would another city have developed further than Lagos if it had been chosen as the capital?

The best way to answer a question like this is to try to figure out why Lagos was chosen by the British as a capital in the first place. And the answer to that lies with geography. I try to avoid economic theories linked to geography as much as I can because it is too deterministic and people then focus on the problem and not the solution. But this is important.

Here’s a random Daily Mail story from 2008:

Hooked up to four powerful tugboats, the World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid began what could be its final cruise on Thursday – a return to the Manhattan pier where it has served for 24 years as a military and space museum.

Lines were cast off at a Staten Island naval pier, freeing the ship for the five-mile trek up New York Harbor and the Hudson River.

You can click on the link above to see some photos of the ship being tugged to the museum. The ship itself, USS Intrepid, has a Wikipedia page which tells us that it had the capability of carrying up to 100 aircraft and weighed almost 37,000 tonnes with a full load. It was also 266 metres in length and about 45 metres high. I think we can conclude it’s a pretty big ship.

Yet that giant of a ship was being towed into close to midtown Manhattan in New York. Can such a ship dock anywhere inside Africa? The answer is no. And it is not for lack of facilities or ports to handle its size.

In some ways Africa has been dealt a tragic hand by geography – more than half of the continent is at least 2,000 feet above sea level. Indeed, most of the continent is at least 1,000 feet above sea level. Of course, the higher above sea levels you are, the higher your waterfalls and cascades where rivers meet or drop into the seas and the oceans. This helps to explain why many of the rivers in Africa are not really navigable and the general scarcity of harbours. That is why you cant really get a ship the size of USS Intrepid to dock inside any harbour in Africa. Consider the River Niger – the longest river in Sub-Saharan Africa at 4,200km long – It starts in the Highlands of Guinea which is a dizzying 5,800 feet above sea level before entering the Atlantic Ocean, obviously at sea level. This is not an easy river to navigate and it confused the Oyinbo explorers for a long time.


All of this matters economically. Before humans came up with trains and aeroplanes, the only way to get around was by sea. It was what made a lot of trade possible as well as migration. Where rivers were treacherous and impossible to navigate, it meant that a lot of places were culturally isolated for a long time and were at great risk of coming under attacks as a result. It might also explain why a continent with around 15% of the world’s population has over 30% of the world’s languages.

You can still see examples of how difficult it is to navigate Africa’s geography for business till today. Take the Simandou Iron Ore deposit in Guinea – it is the richest quality iron ore in the world. But have a look at the map below (from The Economist) which shows the plan of how the ore is to be transported from mine to port:


Obviously the most efficient route to the coast for the ore has to be through Liberia. But if you were a Guinean, would you agree to building a port in another country to transport your ore? Exactly. So this route through Guinea will cover 650km of railway lines with 35 bridges and 24km of tunnels at a total cost of $13bn (just for the infrastructure alone). When Guinea will start making money from that ore is anyone’s guess but it won’t be anytime soon.

Now, you are free to assume that the British were stupid for choosing Lagos or perhaps they drew lots and decided on which part of Nigeria to land in – no one will stop you from thinking that way. But these are the facts – the highest point in Nigeria is Chappal Waddi in Taraba State which stands at almost 8,000 feet above sea level. And the lowest point? Lagos Island at almost 1 foot below sea level (click-through the wiki link and have a look at the African countries on the list). Compared to today, there was no sophisticated shipping technology back then so the British naturally used the best access point from the river as their base. Lagos had a natural geographical advantage. Lokoja was a capital before Lagos but the difference in both cities today, tells us that economics trumps politics over the long term.


So where does this leave us? Is a natural geographical advantage the be all and end all of economic development? Absolutely not. Our purpose on earth is to defeat brute nature. Central heating has made it possible to live productively in certain countries in the world such as those in Scandinavia. Without air conditioning, the US South would seriously lag behind the rest of America today economically. In the time of the Tang Dynasty, China was so hot that an inventor named Ding Hua came up with an air conditioning system and an Emperor later had a ‘cool hall’ built in the imperial palace. Go to Miami today and you will lose count of the number of man-made islands there. Humans have learnt how to create lakes too and build whole cities out of the ground. In 1965, Singapore’s land size was 58,000 hectares. Today it is 71,000 hectares and it plans to add another 6,000 hectares by 2030. Much of this has been achieved by importing sand from other countries. The invention of the elevator made it possible to pack human beings more densely in cities which are much easier to administer and build infrastructure for. The list of places and situations where humans have beat brute nature is endless.

But is it to strange for a country to have a dominant city? Does this always happen at the expense of other parts of the country as is the narrative these days that Lagos was developed at the expense of other parts of Nigeria because it was the capital? The UK’s GDP is around $2.5trn. London alone accounts for close to $800bn of that. The biggest infrastructure project in Europe right now – Crossrail – is happening in London and the High Speed 2 train planned will link the rest of the country to London. It is not because Bristol or Manchester do not need new train networks but because building a country does not have to be zero sum and strong economic centres are not so easy to replicate. And often, the answer lies in history and economics and not politics.

Believing that a thriving economic centre can be created by politics is a journey that leads down the garden path. Reducing the importance of Lagos to a political creation is an economically illiterate and depressing argument to be having. Lagos does not exist at the expense of anywhere else. People make money in Lagos and go and spend it elsewhere in the country. People come to Lagos for opportunities daily – it’s a big market and its density means that infrastructural challenges are not a barrier to getting goods and services to people as they might be in other parts of the country where people are widely dispersed. Lagos is an advantage and benefit to Nigeria and it should be maximised as much as is humanly possible.

Oba Akiolu’s comments were deeply irresponsible and offensive. But Lagos is far better than his comments and it should not be reduced to his level. And certainly it should not be an excuse for people on both sides to bring out their prejudices in the sunshine.

There’s a country to be built and it certainly wont happen by half-baked theories used as a wrapper for people’s prejudices.



P.S – I’m from Ondo. Last time I went there, it looked so depressing and hopeless to me. If you ask me the best way to develop the place, my answer will be to find a way to connect it to Lagos as quickly and efficiently as possible. Enough said.






9 thoughts on “Water and Economic Development

  1. Great and easy to read article as always. You made me go read that Chi’s ok article on that hideous site.
    Let me veer off topic a bit.

    I think the new government needs to create ‘model’ states in each geopolitical region of the country, which will attract people in that region, instead of everyone flocking to Lagos. For instance, just imagine if 16 years ago, we had decided to fix the power in just six states (lets say Lagos, Oyo, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Kano, and Kaduna) – and that led to improved economies in those states, with the resultant magnetic effect on neighbouring states, we would have made some progress.

    I do not believe every state needs the same level of infrastructure at the same time! Why does Ogun State need an international airport if I can get to Ikeja from Abeokuta in 30 minutes? An dI could go on and on.

  2. Don’t think Chimamanda was implying that politics was the ONLY reason why Lagos became what it is. Being a capital was a factor in its development at least from 1914. Of course it wasn’t the only factor as you have taken pains to explain.

    I think Lagos was harbour was chosen by the British from the km of Nigerian coast line (which is also at sea level) because of its proximity to Britain. Calabar was the Capital of the Southern Protectorate before amalgamation (noticed you missed that and use Lokoja as your example) and a major port too. One can also argue that the harbour locations on the estuarine mouths of the Niger and Calabar Rivers are much better (geographically) for ports than the Lagoon and barrier Islands of the Lagos Harbour with the tendency to accumulate sand at the entrances due to long shore drift. But that’s another story.

  3. Interesting piece, history, geography, politics, economics and sociology all in one piece, nice work Feyi. Chimamanda’s point was in reference to the ethnic diversity of Lagos, and she buttressed this citing its political history and development. “It is valid to debate the ethnic diversity of different parts of Nigeria, to compare, for example, Ibadan and Enugu, Ado-Ekiti and Aba, and to debate who moves where, and who feels comfortable living where and why that is.” Regardless of the reasons as to why Lagos is the thriving economic capital of Nigeria, different ethnic groups from across the country flock there daily to make a living is a point that we can all agree on.

    You dismiss Oba Akiolu’s comments as offensive and irresponsible, but when there was faceoff between Tinubu and Fashola (http://www.vanguardngr.com/2010/02/fashola-tinubu-rift-splits-ac/) which almost led to BRF’s impeachment in 2010, it was his significant contribution that resolved their conflict (http://www.nigeria70.com/nigerian_news_paper/fashola_tinubu_spend_four_hours_at_akiolu_s_palace_/176462). He holds a powerful position in Lagos state and commands authority.

    Chimamanda has every right to express her concerns over prejudicial treatment of her fellow Ibos, as we have a history of similar incitements against her people by other irresponsible leaders. As you are from Ondo, I reckon that you are unable to share similar sentiments as your tribe has never been subjected to genocide and it would be easy to dismiss such reactions. South Africa is fresh in the news for Xenophobic killings based on reactions to comments of a fellow important Monarch, their utterances and influence carry more weight than the 2 lines you have given Oba Akiolu.

    “There’s a country to be built…” but how can there be any meaningful progress when leaders in a country believe it is their right to take life as they wish, or use death threats to determine the outcome of an electoral process. Her piece is far more important than the reasons for the economic development of Lagos, like Lagos could be developed without the collective input of other Nigerians.

  4. Lovely piece. Water routes and accessibility have always been critical factors for socioeconomic development, even as far back ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt . We should avoid single narratives to justify our preconceived leanings. History and Geography always leaves it’s mark, it’s for us to get down and leave our marks on tomorrow’s history now.

  5. Feyi is someone I have come to respect because of his objectivity and I do admire his style of writing. However, I do object to his central idea of Lagos being what it is today solely on economic factors and not political. It is certain that the sea bit of Lagos is true but I ask if the original inhabitants of Lagos were Yoruba. The Epe and the Badagry people are not ethnic Yoruba. Again, there were returnees (descendants of slaves from Brazil and elsewhere) who took up abode in Lagos. (Let us remember that Calabar was the first capital city in what became Nigeria.)

    It is also true that resources from the West built Lagos but it is also a fact that from 1960 and a little after when our system of government became centralised benefitted Lagos immensely. Let us do well to remember that the East was on the wrong side of the Biafran War and this unfortunate incident also contributed to the supremacy of Lagos.

    Let’s go back to the Aborigines of Lagos and who owns the city. Isn’t it bewildering that in this day and age people (who should know better) still cling to primal leanings? Is there a physiological difference between an Igbo and a Yoruba? How long will it take our baby steps and nascent democracy to become what is obtainable in the US where two brothers can be governor in two different states (George W. Bush in Texas and Jeb Bush in Florida), and Hillary Clinton a native of Illinois aspire to and become a federal senator (one of two) representing New York? We are really far from where we think we want to get to.

  6. Feyi

    This article and the OSUN one both seem as some soft-landing measures for some APC goofs; not even my 8 year old soon would argue against the unique economic significance of LAGOS yet the GEOGRAPHY alone does not make the state but also the PEOPLE – a key segment of whom AKIOLU threatened to drown…LOL

  7. Your history misses a lot of facts.

    First Lagos is a portugese-derived name which symbolizes its long history of foreign influence. Second Lagos was prominent and infamous as a slave port because it fed off of the Yoruba intercine wars. Third, it was the decision to end slavery that brought the British to Lagos in 1851 when it deposed the slave dealing Oba and officially annexed it in 1861. Fourth, Lagos had serious problems as a harbour for the British due to the strong waves and the construction of the East and West moles (breakwaters) built between 1908 and 1912 allowed the place to be used as a port for British interest. Fifth, Lagos is unique as a cosmopolitan city because for the vast majority of its history it has been run by non-Yoruba administrations. From a slave settlement of 20,000 the British ran Lagos from 1851 to 1960 or around 109 years and handed over a modern city of 600,000 to the Federal Government of Nigeria . The Iddo Terminus, Apapa Port, Carter Bridge, Marina, Broad Street, Ikoyi were all initiated by the British colonialists. The Federal Government which ran Lagos from 1960 to 1990 created the bulk of the infrastructure that exists in Lagos today including all those elevated expressways, the MMA airport, the stadiums, and many of its industrial layouts. So Chimamanda Adichie is right that Lagos is unique because its long history as a colonial capital and federal capital sets it apart.

  8. the black man is as greedy as his colour,that’s why since the british left we could not united and do great things for this

    country.even the present governent,keep your eye down and wacth.

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