Andrew’s City is a project that challenges (these) stories held as objectives truths, asking, who indeed has the right to Lagos; the right to be a part of the city?
By Esesua Ikpefan
“I climbed up a wet ladder attached to a wooden stilt home with decades worth of assumptions I wasn’t going to carry back with me just thirty minutes later when I climbed back down that same ladder onto our boat. Approaching the small, private health center, the only one in a community of the anywhere from 20 to 300 thousand residents of Makoko, I expected to see nurses, patients, and whatever else I had thought a health facility should have. While I did see this, the classic Nigerian female nurse dressed in white, and a young attendant dressed in blue, what shocked me had nothing to do with the physical structure of the facility, or its lack thereof; it had to do with language.
Since Nigeria is a country of over three hundred ethnic groups and languages, I had met many Nigerians that didn’t speak a word of our ‘official’ language, English. Some spoke only their native tongue, while others were versed in multiple native Nigerian languages. In relation to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, I had long gone with the assumption, and often said that, ‘Yoruba is Lagos’ Pidgin English.’ Pidgin English, or broken English, is a dialect of English combined with local slangs and languages, spoken in parts of West Africa. If you didn’t speak English or Pidgin English in Lagos, I had thought, you would at least speak Yoruba, the language spoken by the Yoruba people, one of Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups, and the majority population in Lagos. Language, like Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Benin, Pidgin English, and English, in some of Nigeria’s urban centers, can be seen as unifying factor between the many Nigerians and foreigners from varying ethnic backgrounds that live in its cities.
I climbed up to that clinic never questioning the unification of urban Nigerians through common spoken languages. However, my experience in Makoko, one of Nigeria’s largest slum populations, challenged this view. There were people who lived in Lagos their whole lives, yet didn’t speak a word of Yoruba, Pidgin English, or English. Most of all, what I didn’t expect to see at the health center that day was a young man like Andrew. Andrew Jidonu, a prenatal care and delivery attendant at the clinic, only spoke two languages, some of his native tongue, Egun, and French. ‘Do you speak French?’ The translator had asked me. This was an awkward question to me. Why would I need to speak French in the heart of Lagos, to another Nigerian? Unknown to me, many others, like Andrew, born and raised in the Egun community of the Makoko-Iwaya Waterfront in Lagos, Nigeria, were so separated from the society at large that they had no use for Yoruba, Pidgin English, English, or any indigenous Nigerian Languages. Andrew only knew his mother tongue, and that of his Egun people’s French colonizers before they migrated from what is now Benin Republic to Nigeria in the 1800s. How could a Nigerian, living on our largest, most economically advanced and productive city, only need French? In those thirty minutes with Andrew at the health clinic, for the first time, my research on urban inequality in Nigeria felt real. I saw it, finally, grounded in real space. I had, that day, seen to what extent segregation was capable of in Lagos; in Nigeria. It made me question myself, what I had been taught, and the society that had shaped me to never have seen this part of the city; Andrew’s city. My assumptions about Nigeria were forced to change. I was, in that experience, exposed to the urgency for our society to understand the deeply rooted exclusion, inequality, and false narratives that have long plagued Nigerian urban centers like Lagos. This experience showed me the power the stories of our shared Nigerian heritages held: their power not only in its ability to unite and cause reflection, but their forgetfulness; their purposeful negation. There is power in value systems that create built environments that are so forgetful as to create such marginalization of communities; to consciously or unconsciously separate and exalt the elite, ‘Butter’, from the poor, those seen as embarrassments, or not seen at all, the ‘Pako.’”
An Excerpt from my work, Pako Butter, titled, “Andrew’s City”
Prior to British Amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, the region known as the country today, consisted of over 200 autonomous, independent, ethnolinguistic groups, that spoke over 200 languages. While these groups and languages still exist, their political and economic agency was stripped through British land use laws and indirect rule system. British indirect rule in the nation’s budding urban centers, placed majority ethnicities in ruling power over minorities, creating tensions and contestations over land, decision-making, and wealth distribution. Lagos, most especially, is a manifestation of these ethnic, religious, and spatial tensions. The Yoruba people, representing the majority ethnicity in Lagos, held political power over other groups both during colonization from the early 1900s till the nation’s independence in 1960. Furthermore, a growing group of Yoruba educated elite in the 1940s led nationalist movements for Nigeria’s independence from British rule. However, this group of educated elite has been criticized to have taken over the role of their British colonizers, in claiming histories colonized and taught back to them as truth. Thus, what is actually Yoruba heritage combined with false historical narratives taught to the people by the British, is many times taken to be Lagos’ factual history.
These false historical accounts have proven detrimental for communities like the Makoko-Iwaya Waterfront Community, which sits on the edge of the Lagos lagoon. Makoko-Iwaya is a community of anywhere from 40,000 to 300,000 residents. The region begins on the edge of Apollo Road in Yaba, mainland Lagos, and stretches out to stilt homes built out into the water’s edge. Presently, Lagos State labels the community as illegal intruders, inhabiting the waterfront due to poverty and necessity.
However, archival maps and historic documents prove the community’s claimed existence, showing their presence in Lagos since the 1800s when Egun fishermen who migrated to Lagos from Benin Republic settled there. In addition, with Lagos city’s current migration rate at an all-time high of 89 migrants per hour, many newcomers to the city have made their home in Makoko.
Over the years, Makoko has grown from a collection of Egun fishing villages, attracted other indigenous Nigerian fishing communities, and become home to thousands of newcomers.While other groups of educated elite, such as the returning Afro-Brazilian community in Popo Aguda, Lagos, have been accepted as part of Lagos’ heritage and as valuable members of the city, possessing architecture that is protected nationally and by the state under historic preservation laws, Makoko has remained a marginalized fishing community.
These opposing public attitudes towards two migrant groups is telling of what Toyin Falola terms the “colonization of mind,” that values Europeanized forms of African architecture as better or more important than indigenous ones. Thus, the state’s denial of Makoko’s rightful existence is one way to eradicate a community the general public sees as less than.
The tension between the people’s claim to land ownership through ancestral heritage and the government’s projected illegality resulted in violent evictions that took place in Makoko in 2012. Michael Herzfeld, in Spatial Cleansing, discusses the consequences of state visions that are misaligned against the reality and context of the built environment. He describes how concepts of beautification, most especially in state-led development projects that aim to adhere to western standards of beauty, create unjust urban planning practices. These practices usually involve the removal of the ‘unclean’ through processes of what Herzfeld calls spatial cleansing. What the Lagos State government continues to ignore, is that groups like those in Makoko had existed prior to the British declaration of Crown Lands, that deemed such groups illegal, unclean and undeserving of respect and inclusion. The waterfront has remained a contested space, as the Lagos State government hopes to clear the area to create luxury waterfront development. Thus, Makoko serves as the manifestation of the power of narrative in its ability to shape societal attitudes that cause urban exclusion, as well as shape physical space.
If narrative can promote exclusion, how can it foster inclusion, advocate for value and create solidarity between low-income groups in Lagos city’s marginalized slum-like environments?
 Falola, Toyin, and Matthew Heaton. A History of Nigeria. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Ibid.3 Adebanwi, Wale. Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria. Univ Press, 2016. Ibid. Ogunlesi, Tolu. "Inside Makoko: Danger and Ingenuity in the World's Biggest Floating Slum." The Guardian, February 23, 2016. February 23, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/23/makoko-lagos-danger-ingenuity-floating-slum. "Plan of Ebute Metta and Yaba." Map. In National Archives of Nigeria, Ibadan, COMCOLl I: Colonial. Ambode, Akinwunmi. "The Development of a Mega City and the Challenges of Urban Poverty: Lessons from Lagos, Nigeria." Address, Nigeria in the World, Cambridge, October 03, 2017. Falola, Toyin. "The Slave Mutiny of 1839: The Colonization of Memory and Spaces." In The African Diaspora: Slavery, Modernity, and Globalization, 53-72. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2013. Ogunlesi, Tolu. "Inside Makoko: Danger and Ingenuity in the World's Biggest Floating Slum." Herzfeld, Michael. "Spatial Cleansing: Monumental Vacuity and the Idea of the West." Journal of Material Culture 11, no. 1-2 (2006): 127-49. Nigeria. Town Council Lagos. Secretary. Memorandum: Squatters on Crown Land and Obstruction of Streets by Petty Traders.Lagos, 1930. Ambode, Akinwunmi. "The Development of a Mega City and the Challenges of Urban Poverty: Lessons from Lagos, Nigeria."
My name is Esesua Ikpefan, I am a first year Doctor of Design student at the Graduate School of Design. Last year, I completed my Masters of Design Studies in Critical Conservation, focusing on issues of heritage, ethnicity, colonialism, group identity, and its effect on being an informer and reflection of urban contestation and marginalization in Lagos Nigeria. These studies have sparked my interest in what constitutes as a Nigerian city, who controls what is seen as “proper” urban environment, and furthermore, what does it mean to live in the city?
Through the Spaces of Solidarity course, I have been able to develop an ongoing project that I hope to realize within the next few years, given its acceptance by the Adogbo neighborhood within the Makoko-Iwaya Community in Lagos. Most especially, I hope that my work can serve to confront hegemonic societal and governmental structures that create crippling disenfranchisement for Nigeria’s ethnic minorities and low-income populations.