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Lagos, Nigeria's coastal megacity, is experiencing a population boom


Lagos is Nigeria's coastal megacity, and it is booming. It's the commercial capital of Africa's most populous country. Thousands of Nigerians move to Lagos every day, drawn by hope and the promise of opportunity that has always drawn people to major cities. But a failure to develop the city as it rapidly expands means the prospects for new arrivals may be growing dim. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Yoruba).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Yoruba).

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Drivers call out destinations in this sprawling outdoor bus station on the outskirts of Lagos. Vans packed with passengers arrive from near and faraway cities across Nigeria. The arrivals pour out into the heat and collide into a frenetic scene of street sellers hawking soft drinks, travelers rushing to make connections and drivers maneuvering their buses through the crowds.

ADELAHU ISMAIL: Every day, people are moving to Lagos. Plenty of people are moving to Lagos.

AKINWOTU: Every day, plenty of people move to Lagos, says Adelahu Ismail. He's a 56-year-old driver from Jos in central Nigeria, and he's been driving passengers between Jos and Lagos for 32 years.

ISMAIL: Most of the people that - are living at the village. They move to Lagos so that when they leave Lagos, they'll be able to - their life will be even more better.

AKINWOTU: But those people from villages moving for a better life can often meet a cold reality. Many think of Lagos as a thriving center of business and opportunity, but the urban poor and working class here tell a different story.

LEGBA: (Speaking Yoruba).

AKINWOTU: Legba, another driver, tells me in Yoruba he moved to Lagos several years ago.

LEGBA: (Speaking Yoruba).

AKINWOTU: He says that too many people in Lagos are suffering and that many of the people who work at this bus station go hungry. Twenty-four million people live in Lagos, and it's rapidly increasing. Close to 2,000 people arrive here every day from across Nigeria, according to the World Economic Forum. Near the bus station, dozens of motorbike taxis called Okadas line up along the side of a busy road, waiting for passengers. One of the drivers is 25-year-old Usman Isa from Nasarawa in central Nigeria. He arrived here a few years ago.

USMAN ISA: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: How much do you make in a day?

ISA: At least, I make 2,000 a day.

AKINWOTU: He says he earns 2,000 naira, the equivalent of $4. It's barely enough to live on, but it is something, he says. And to get that, he works 12 hours a day.

ISA: I started by 7 o'clock. I'm closed by 7 o'clock.

AKINWOTU: After he finished his education, he couldn't find work, so he traveled here. But it's getting harder and harder. A recent ban on Okadas across Lagos have pushed drivers like him out to the edge of the city. Critics say the ban is discriminatory, as many drivers like Usman have come from other regions and ethnic groups in Nigeria. As people pour in, Lagos' government isn't keeping up. Two-thirds of people live in informal housing settlements or slums. Many people sleep beneath bridges and partially constructed buildings and on the streets. And when you drive around the city, extreme poverty is increasingly visible.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: Clusters of small children press against the windows of cars and beg for money at a traffic light on a busy commercial street. Some are so tiny they stand on their tiptoes to see the passengers inside. When the lights turn green, they play around and climb on the barriers in the middle of the road.

ZAINAB: My name's Zainab.

AKINWOTU: One of them is 11-year-old Zainab, on the street with her little brothers and sisters. She's the only one in her family that speaks some pidgin English.

ZAINAB: Now because of this - money, we go see 400, 500. We go...

AKINWOTU: She says they get about a dollar a day begging on the streets. She walks us to her mother, Aisha, who is sitting on a piece of red fabric by the side of the road. Aisha and four of her children came to Lagos last year from Katsina in northwest Nigeria.

AISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: Zainab interprets for her mother, who says she used to wash dishes for money back home but came to Lagos after her husband died. She believed she could earn more money here and give her children a better life.

AISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: When she arrived, she sold water on the street, but the money wasn't enough to find them a place to live. Then a recent cash shortage in the country over the last few months has meant even fewer people have cash to buy her water. So instead, they've had to beg for money.

ZAINAB: She says she no need Lagos. She wants to go to her village, and she's not see the money.

AKINWOTU: Aisha has given up on staying here, but she doesn't have the money to leave. She says if she did, she and her kids would get back on the bus and take the long journey out of Lagos back home.

Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.

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