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Something is rotten in Lagos and it’s not waste


Aerial view of Lagos

Several days ago, on a trip from the Lagos mainland to the Lekki peninsula, I saw a sprawling heap of trash by the Obalende junction.

It seems absurd to call garbage ‘unkempt,’ but this one did look neglected.

It was even more surprising that the waste oozed, spilled and piled around and out of several shiny trapezoid garbage bins. Printed on the sides of the bins were the words ‘CLEANER LAGOS,’ self-glorifying in unconscious irony.

I had been away from Lagos for most of 2017 and so did not know that the state’s waste management authority – LAWMA – had been downgraded (or upgraded, depending on your perspective) from providing waste disposal services to a purely regulatory role.

Meanwhile, the state government had partnered with a foreign-owned company to handle LAWMA’s services. If newspaper reports are any guide, many Lagos residents do not think this a sensible policy.

Naturally, the state government has refused to admit misadventure. Instead, it has alleged sabotage and other humdrum rationalisations. Still, the entire scenario remains curious. Constitutionally, waste disposal is a primary function of the local governments.

Not only has the Lagos government usurped the role (and pushed out small businesses in the process), it has also ultimately abdicated responsibility to big business.

This unnecessary ‘fix’ of the waste collection and disposal system is just one of the many instances of the growing Corporatocracy of Lagos state. The Otodo Gbame evictions sacrificed the people for estate developers.

Similarly, Lekki toll sacrificed the people for corporate concessionaires. My personal grievance is with Freedom Park in Lagos Island: supposedly tax-funded and sheltering paying commercial tenants, yet it is anything but free to public access.

Economic classism is the underlying norm in Lagos policies.

It seems to me that the Lagos state authorities have finally lost their identity as a government and fully morphed into a corporate board of directors. The state is one huge market, and the government seems more concerned with maximising profit from market gaps than in providing functional public services and utilities.

There is something rotten in the state of Lagos. And it is not just the undisposed waste.

There is rot in a government that considers making money for corporate interests as its primary policy consideration; a government that seeks to profit from the masses for the benefit of the political elite; a government that only acts as transaction broker between the electorate and grubby private hands.

Lagos may look shiny on the outside but it has a reptilian underbelly of corruption, patronage and inequalities.

The primary function of any government is to secure the lives of its people and assure their welfare.

Although it may carry out its duties through proxies, government still bears the burden of delivering on a functional and safe environment, ensuring socio-political equality, and reducing areas of oppression and marginalisation.

This is the only sensible reason why governments are elected, taxes are paid and security forces are maintained.

But this has not been the experience in Lagos. Instead, the policies of the state government, from Mr Tinubu to Mr Ambode, have increasingly oppressed the lower economic classes. This attitude is both unethical and unlawful; it is contrary to norms of development under international law and the human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a party.

I understand that government can increase efficiency by liberalising some public services, or that it can stimulate the economy by encouraging more private sector participation.

But I cannot accept that citizens pay taxes and still pay direct fees to private hands for what should be public services. I cannot accept that the process of private participation is opaque and limited to a particular economic and political class.

There is an alarming growth of autocracy in many of the Nigerian states. Governors behave with equal dictatorial tendencies as their military predecessors. The standard rule in state policies is now ‘My way or the highway.’

Today, many misguided Nigerians have come to confuse autocracy for efficiency. The only easily recognisable democratic element in our country is the existence of political parties and periodic elections.

But democracy is not simply a method of selecting people into government; it is also a way of governance. Elections are not a substitute for civic participation; voting is not a shortcut to protest.

Lagos boasts a multitude of sophisticated Nigerians: from savvy traders and entrepreneurs to corporate professionals, from internationally recognised artistes and artists to non-profit advocates and activists.

It is time for all of these people to organise themselves against economic classism in public policy. We should not simply accept the existence of a government that refuses to be guided by the people or account to the people.

The people of Lagos – like the rest of the Nigerian people – will have to save themselves at some point. And not just by voting for candidates in fait accomplish elections.

We in Lagos must also actively engage the realities of our society and government through the exertion of our mental and material resources.

Otherwise, may the gods help us all.

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