Nigeria is arguably the worst run of the world’s seven most populated countries. Despite earning hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the past decade, it is expected by 2015, by some calculations, to have the second-most destitute people in the world after India. But its largest city, Lagos, which until recently was known as one of the world’s most difficult cities to govern, seems to have turned a corner.
Even though it remains a slum-ridden and largely impoverished metropolis, with an exploding population estimated at 21 million (of Nigeria’s 170 million people), it has seen steady improvement in its governance for over a decade. The government has enhanced public transportation, cleaned up streets, upgraded the business environment and bettered the lives of its inhabitants.
So Nigeria, of all places, may be pointing the way to a strategy by which fragile states might begin to succeed: Devolve more power to cities from their corrupt and overcentralized national governments. At least in democracies, the cities have promise because their elected politicians face pressure to deliver specific services to their constituents. In the central governments, which are more remote, there is too much power and wealth to be grabbed by dysfunctional politicians and their cronies, and too little direct accountability.
The emergence of fragile states is one of the world’s most pressing problems. Such states, which include Nigeria, Iraq and Yemen, contain a rising number of the world’s poor (half of the world’s people who live on less than $1.25 a day will be in fragile states by 2015, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and contribute disproportionately to the world’s instability and terrorism. They have become a major focus of international aid efforts, but it has proved very difficult to improve governance there.
The turnaround in Lagos can be traced to 1999, when Nigeria returned to democracy and the city began holding regular elections. For the first time since independence, Lagos was able to re-elect its own leaders, or turn them out of office. And while national elections became a mud fight between elites to control the state’s enormous oil wealth, local contests forced candidates to show pragmatism and competence.
Citizens in densely populated cities find it easier to organize themselves. And in an ethnically and religiously diverse metropolis like Lagos, politicians could not afford to pit ethnic and religious groups against one another, a problem that has long bedeviled Nigeria. Simple geography also helped the city administration. The powerful and wealthy classes are more likely to insist on better governance when their own neighborhoods are affected.
And unlike national politicians, local leaders know that the better they perform, the more money their city nets. The better its roads, schools and business environment, the more likely companies will pay taxes, and individuals will buy goods and services, which also contribute to the tax base. At the national level, by contrast, the great majority of the central government’s income has little to do with government’s performance, since about 75 percent of the national budget comes from the $50 billion a year that Nigeria collects in oil revenue.
Can Lagos really save Nigeria? Alone, it’s unlikely — one factor is that the country’s population is expected to continue mushrooming to 400 million by mid-century — but Lagos can now be the model for transferring more authority to other cities, such as Ibadan, Kano and Benin City. And they, in turn, could help to shift the polarized national politics that produce the same cadre of unaccountable elites year after year.
For example, if local politicians were better able to raise and regulate local taxes, they would find themselves more accountable to the population. And they would presumably establish a more welcoming local environment for business to flourish, and perhaps start a nationwide chain reaction unleashing the country’s famous entrepreneurialism. If income levels rose, education and a rising middle class might follow. Greater affluence and aspiration, in turn, tend to act as a useful brake on population growth.
Elsewhere, other cities offer a similar lesson. In Medellín, Colombia, the city government outshone the national government in the late 1990s by setting up a network of publicly funded business support centers, investing strategically in transportation and security, and introducing its own program of cash grants to help the poor. Cities such as Chennai and Hyderabad in India have similarly outperformed India’s national government in promoting growth, educating children and reducing crime and poverty.
Can this model hold out hope for other fragile states? Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Kenya all suffer from weak and dysfunctional governments, but have cities that could be the basis for a similar model of development. Regular local elections could spur significant changes in Kinshasa, Karachi and Nairobi, respectively, if the cities were granted more autonomy and the tax base was broadened to make government more dependent on local citizens and companies.
Almost half of the developing world’s population now lives in cities, and rapid urbanization is expected to increase this proportion to two-thirds within a few decades, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The city is now the main driver of growth and stability across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. And the example of Lagos shows that countries can begin to work better when their cities are well governed and thriving.
In other words, cities can help save countries.
Seth D. Kaplan, a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Betrayed: Politics, Power and Prosperity.