The Dilemma of Informal Settlements in Nigeria

Jul 07, 2017|Martha Sambe

We live in an age where more than half of the world’s population live in cities, and chances are, you are reading this article in a city. Except you were born there, or in another city, you (or your parents) likely migrated from a small town or a rural area. 

This move, termed urban migration, has strong links to economic growth. Migrants benefit from greater access to social services and infrastructure, as well as the network economies provided by cities. Economies, especially those making the transition from agriculture to industry, also stand to benefit. For an economy in transition, urban migration means the clustering of cheap, available labour. In nearly all countries, urban migration boosts productivity, reduces inequality, and accelerates development. 

That being said, urban migration might seem rosy, especially to migrants and emerging economies, but it is not without its problems. 


More People, More Problems

Unfortunately, as Lagos State has discovered, cities cannot experience a continuous influx of migrants without significant challenges, particularly when planning has been poorly done, or not at all. One of such challenges is the rise in informal settlements or slums. These are, according to the OECD, “unplanned settlements and areas where housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations (unauthorised housing).”

Several conditions inadvertently come together to create informal settlements; they include poverty; rapid urbanisation; lack of affordable housing; poor planning and ineffectual policies, etc. It is difficult to tell which of these conditions arise first, consequently leading to the others. However, it doesn’t take much to see that rapid urbanisation in a city that has inadequate housing policies will very likely result in undesirable outcomes. Moreover, when people are unable to keep up with the high cost of living in cities, such offshoot settlements are likely to emerge.  

The 2015 World Migration Report suggests that the increasing number of informal settlements is fueled by the growing number of people who cannot afford to buy, rent or build formal housing. This inability to afford basic needs due to inadequate income in urban settings is known as urban poverty. For the urban poor, living in illegal structures often means a lack of access to public infrastructures and services, e.g. roads, piped water, sewers, drainage systems, healthcare, schooling, etc. At any given point in time, informal settlers are not only at risk of being homeless, but they also face great health hazards with the ever-looming possibility of losing their lives.

So urban poverty is accompanied by exclusion from social services and heightened security risk. Unfortunately, governments do not do enough to manage this, with many failing to extend social services (some of which are free) to informal communities. In Lagos, for instance, one can counter this by stating, as a matter of fact, that inhabitants who reside in informal settlements are not necessarily enjoying much of the social services the city offers, or ought to offer. 


The Role of the State

The lesson is two-fold: the dividends of urbanisation are larger when growth is widespread, and urbanisation is well-managed. But when poor urban planning is met with inequitable and ineffectual governance, the outcomes of rapid population growth are quite undesirable and severe. So in analysing the case of urban migration and informal settlements, the role which the government plays cannot be ignored. The management and planning of cities are, after all, a government affair, and so is the provision of basic social amenities.

Thankfully, all is not lost for urbanised cities that have failed on this count. Even now,  governments can still provide some support for informal settlers who choose to fend for themselves. It is also not unreasonable to expect the government to deal sensibly with informal settlers. Whether we like it or not, we stand to benefit from their presence in urban areas as informal settlers often occupy the unskilled and unorganised positions available in cities. Also, there is the evident fact that they are humans and ought to be treated with dignity.

The case of Otodo-Gbame in Lagos is a prime example of how governments can fail to manage the challenges of rapid urbanisation. A plausible solution to evicting thousands of people and rendering them homeless would have been to relocate them to state-built low-cost housing, or even develop the area where they had lived into low-cost housing. Of course, doing that would have required careful planning and an investment of resources which perhaps the government believed would be better off invested in other projects. But, at best, the Lagos State government has merely shifted the problem. The expelled settlers are more likely to expand other informal settlements within the state than, say, leave the state, or miraculously be able to afford legal housing. 


A Test of Good Governance

Urbanisation is an inevitable spatial process, and when handled properly, yields benefits for migrants and immigrant cities. However, poor planning can, and often results in the emergence of informal settlements and rise in urban poverty. Lagos State is not unique in this, remember El-Rufai’s reign as the Minister of the F.C.T.

As cities develop, they need a clear strategy for managing migrants and dealing with existing or emerging informal settlements. Eviction and relocation are merely superficial solutions. Dealing with the case of informal settlements might well be a testament to how great a city is, but also, how committed its leadership is to sustainable development.


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