Understanding Dynamics of Urban Poverty in Nigeria: What Role for Urban Governance?

How are rapid urbanisation, urban poverty, and slums’ emergence interconnected in Nigeria? And what areas of urban governance should local governments focus on if they are to successfully tackle urban poverty? Bassey Bassey shares some reflections.

Africa’s astonishing urbanisation rate comes with challenges such as growing slums, growing poverty, widening inequality, inadequate infrastructure to enable service delivery, and weak governance capacities to deal with population increase within the urban centres. The surge to cities in Nigeria has been triggered by several factors such as insurgency, rising wave of insecurity, climate change, rising cases of internal displacements, lack of economic opportunities in rural areas, high inflation, biased social and economic development infrastructures planning that tilts heavily in favour of urban centres, and unrestricted and unaccountable resource extraction in rural communities. In the last decade, over 2.5 million Nigerians have been displaced due to some of the aforementioned push factors, while other rural-urban migration has been a result of purely economic factors.

What Causes the Emergence of Urban Slums in Nigeria?

Rapid urbanisation, urban poverty, and slums’ emergence or expansion are often interconnected. Most new city entrants are unfamiliar with the city, they are often semi-literate or illiterate with little or no skills readily needed in the city. This situation keeps them unsettled for some time, leaving them unemployed, homeless, desperate, and with no money to meet their daily needs.

Nigeria’s urban development plan, to the extent that there is even a semblance of planning, does not cater for the poor. Between 2016 and 2021, over 30,000 Nigerian slum dwellers have been displaced. For instance, indigenes and residents of Otodo Gbame and Illubirin have been forcefully evicted from their homes by the Lagos State Government. In Abuja, Nigeria’s capital and one of the fastest growing cities in the world, poor indigenous communities both within the city and suburban areas have suffered multiple forceful evictions between 2003 and 2021, featuring demolitions without any resettlement plan or compensation.

What are Causes and Consequences of Poverty in Nigerian Cities?

Most urban poor suffer from social exclusion, underemployment, poor transport systems, lack of access to housing mortgage schemes, criminalisation of their informal small businesses and livelihoods means in city centres, high vulnerability to environmental risks/disasters, and poor healthcare systems. While Nigeria’s urban development plans care little about the urban poor, it is the informal sector, where the majority of urban poor operate, which remains the largest employer, contributing about 65 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The majority of urban poor in Nigeria have been locked in intergenerational poverty due to sundry reasons, many of which can be traced back to a lack of good urban governance.

What are Challenges to Urban Governance in Nigeria?

Summarily, the issues are:

  1. Lack of an indigenous growth development plan – Nigeria’s development growth pattern is not designed as a local solution, but is modelled after advanced economies, hence neglecting the features and advantages of local economies and her people such as small-scale growth models that takes advantages of informal economies, rather than trying to make everyone’s employment and business formal and big.
  2. Poor access to quality education and skills. Nigeria has failed to adequately deploy the use of data on literacy rates and out-of-school children, to address the quality of graduate and neglect of technical schools, to design its educational curriculum, and to ensure access to quality education for all by making education loans available. The situation now is that we have a lot of young Nigerians that are uneducated because they cannot afford to pay for their tuition.
  3. Political and government corruption, lack of accountability, transparency, and a justice system that fails to sanction public resource embezzlements. All of these account for social mistrust, poor budget performances, and emboldens the poor social norm of “get rich by all means”.
  4. Lack of Inclusive and participatory planning and political participation.
  5. Failure of the trickle-down economy and overdependence on oil revenue; lack of access to credit by small businesses within the informal sector.
  6. Lack of access to social infrastructure capital and amenities in poor areas – access to electricity, water, road, health system, internet, rails, farms, lack of access to land and urban space, et cetera.
  7. Multiple and ambiguous tax systems.
  8. Lack of development capacity in the government and political offices. People cannot give what they don’t have. Political office holders, the executives, and even local development urban planners seem to lack the skills, ears, and openness to reason and develop growth models that fit the local Nigerian. This is evident across the state and national governments.

What are Features of Good Urban Governance?

Urban governance cannot be said to be complete, holistic, and sustainable if all citizens are not considered and their concerns and realities taken into account. Urban governance must be built on wide public consultations across many layers, it must be subjected to periodic review, be communicated in simple language, be available and accessible to the public, and, ultimately, must be people-centric.

City designs must ensure that health systems, access to energy, water, food safety, shelter, education, economic development, reduced exposure to disaster and environmental risks are enjoyed by all. Other considerations governments must adopt to enhance urban governance systems are:

  • Stoppage of mass evictions and regularisation of land tenure security for customary lands
  • Exploration of low-cost community housing models that integrate the low-income segment of the informal sector within the urban architecture. Such low-cost community housing models can stem from durable, environmentally friendly building materials.
  • Fostering urban thinking and knowledge among social movements, academia, civil society, media, and tech sector.
  • Discouraging, expunging and discontinuation of unfair capitalist models, policies, and regulations that favour only few big investors, leaving no room for local innovation and growth.
  • Embracing the habit of holding frequent town hall meetings with the people to discuss city plans and also sincerely consider their inputs and feedbacks.

Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals – sustainable cities and communities – cannot be achieved in Nigeria, if Nigeria fails to review, harmonise, and strengthen its urban governance system. The benefit of good urban governance is enormous: it is capable of catalysing Nigeria’s economic development drive, mitigate urban crime, environmental pollution, and homelessness, and ultimately create a sustainable environment where no one is left behind.

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