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Notes on the Geography of Nigeria: Lagos

Richard Burton (not Liz's guy; this is the intrepid-past-the-point-of-reckless Victorian explorer Burton) wrote in 1859 that the British consulate in Lagos was "a corrugated iron coffin" that "contained a dead consul once a year." Not too promising. Eighty years later, the eminent British entomologist Kenneth Mellanby, arriving to stay a few years at Ibadan, called Lagos "for the most part a crowded, unhygienic, teeming slum." Fast forward another 50 years and two English architects who know the place better than any other foreigners (and perhaps any native Lagosians) write that on arriving in 1954 they "had no conception of the catastrophic effects that unplanned and unbridled materialism would have on Lagos." Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong, but for sure the city was getting bigger: from 20,000 residents in 1850, it grew to 40,000 residents in 1900, to 250,000 in 1950, and to nobody-knows-how-many-million today. (The federal government counted 9 million in 2006; Lagos State did its own count that year and came up with 17 million. Take your pick. In a way, it doesn't matter; whatever the number, the city's congestion is often overwhelming.)

See Richard Mellanby,The Birth of Nigeria's University, p. 35 and John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood, Sandbank City, p. 6. The often-quoted lines from Burton appeared in his anonymously published Wanderings in West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po, attributed on the title page only to "a F.R.G.S." Those were the days!

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More to see than you might guess. This is the channel leading from the ocean (a couple of miles to the left) to Lagos Lagoon, a saline lake 30 miles long, though much narrower than that. A good harbor on a coast without many? Might be, except that until 1914 a sandbar at the mouth prevented ships with a draft over 14 feet from entering even at high tide. Until a channel was dredged in 1914, everything had to be brought in or out by lighters, and ships wanting sheltered anchorage had to continue eastward another 150 miles to Forcados, in the Niger Delta.

By 1924, modern docks had been built on the other side of the water at Apapa, until then mostly a swamp. The city itself stayed on this side, though space was tight because Lagos Island is all of three square miles. For a time, this channel-facing side of the island was a palm-fringed boulevard. It's still called Marina, but don't expect yachts and fancy shops. Marina was sacrificed to traffic, as the concrete wall hints. Did anybody deplore the change? Sure. In a 1996 issue of the Glendora Review, the architect David Aradeon recalled that he much earlier "had decried as environmentally unsightly, the concrete encasement of the Island in a continuous ribbon of elevated ringroad." Wole Soyinka has echoed Aradeon: "Who can imagine what used to flourish where now there is nothing but an oppression of concrete and motor grease?" (quoted in Godwin, 156). Of course you want to know about the oil-drilling rig. Is it a permanent fixture here? Sorry, you'll have to ask somebody else, but it's been parked here for a while--some say for years. Call it temporary storage.

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The Marina is no fun today, though the light traffic this morning is a rare blessing. The island's highrises are lined up here: the highest is the Union Bank of Nigeria, formerly Barclays. The other side of the island is a different world, an infernally congested informal market.

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Streetside view of Marina on a day with remarkably light traffic; somebody had died, and the markets had closed. UBA, the United Bank for Africa, is in the building that once was Barclay's: the British royal arms used to occupy the framed rectangle in the pediment. Most of the other buildings are newish, but pretend that you see palms (originally, Eucalyptus) off to the right, on the space now backed up by the elevated freeway. The late Kaye Whiteman, a journalist with long experience of West Africa, writes, "When I first saw it in 1964 it [Marina] was still a pleasing street.... It faced directly on to the lagoon, looking over to the port in Apapa.... Yet the landfill that occurred in the lagoon alongside the Marina in order to build the overhead motorways from the late 1960s onwards destroyed the street's purpose.... The Marina ceased many years ago to be a promenade."

See Kaye Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, pp. 228-9.

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Drive along Marina looking for something interesting and you'll settle on this, the Secretariat. It opened in 1895, amazingly early considering that Nigeria was created in 1914. In 1895, there were instead three British domains here. One was the concession of the Royal Niger Company, most of which would become the Northern Nigeria Protectorate in 1900. The second was the Oil Rivers or Niger Coast Protectorate, administered by the Crown from Bonny and in 1900 reorganized (along with a slice of the Royal Niger Company domain) as the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. The third and smallest was Lagos Colony, for which this building was constructed. It was 20 years old when the Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria Protectorates were combined with Lagos Colony to form Nigeria. The British would rule until 1960.

The tower at the left is an office building from Eleganza Industries, a West African conglomerate.

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The Secretariat has been demoted a few notches, not only because the government of Nigeria moved to Abuja in 1991 but because the government of Lagos State moved to Alausa, a district on the northern periphery of metropolitan Lagos.

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The highrise on the left is Independence House, opened in 1960 but not too proud to take a dollar when one's offered. The block on the right is the more daring Western House, from 1958. The designers were looking for a Tropical Modern style.

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Sad reality: all around Lagos, you need permission to take photos. Otherwise, you'd best be quick about it.

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If you think the Secretariat is in bad shape, don't look out back.

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The other old building you can't miss on Marina is Christ Church Cathedral. It isn't so old: it was completed in 1946.

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The Latin is "Lift up your hearts." Lugard recalled late in life that it was at his suggestion that Solomon's Seal, as he called it, was chosen as the Nigerian emblem.

Edward's visit had to be rearranged on account of "a slight outbreak of plague and smallpox."

Quoted by Whiteman, p. 149, from a souvenir volume published in 1926 of the prince's West African tour.

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This must be the best maintained building on Lagos Island. It's benefited from lots of recent investment, including for the marble floor. The funds were local.

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Nobody seems to know anything about the baptismal font.

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Educated at the College of the Church Missionary Society in Islington, London, Vernall was sent to Lagos to take charge of the training institution and its theological class. He married a missionary's daughter who was in charge of the Lagos Girls' Seminary and lasted a bit over seven years before succumbing to fever, aged 33.

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Transferred from a now-demolished church that Lamb himself had built, this plaque remembers a missionary who made six voyages to Africa, each time except the last ending in a journey home to recuperate. Educated at Cheltenham College, he had worked as a solicitor before heeding the call. After a few months at Islington, he was ordained and sent to Lagos. From his obituary: "His loss just now, when there are so few missionaries on the West African Coast, seems to our eyes insuperable."

See Church Missionary Gleaner, September 1883.

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Bishop Samuel Crowther was captured at age 12 by Fulani raiders and sold to the Portuguese. Rescued by the Royal Navy, he was sent to Freetown, where the Church Missionary Society took him in. He learned English, converted to Christianity, took the name of one of the founders of the CMS, and married a girl who had been a fellow slave on the same ship. He went to Islington and returned as a student and then as a teacher at Fourah Bay College in Freetown. Returning to England, he was ordained by the bishop of London. He then returned to Nigeria and opened a mission at Obeokuta. Two decades later, in 1864, the Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated Crowther as the first African Anglican bishop. With a deep interest in Nigerian languages, Crowther published several grammars before completing his life's work, a Yoruba Bible. Crowther was buried in the Ajele Cemetery, which was obliterated in the 1970s.

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The wish to memorialize runs deep.

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One block inland from Marina and parallel to it is Broad Street. The two roads--Marina and Broad, each at a measured width of 60 feet--are part of what little street grid there is on Lagos Island. (Consul McCoskry laid out Marina in 1859; Consul Glover added Broad.) Here we're at a point where Broad forms one side of an irregular traffic circle called Tinubu Square. It's a nearly unique bit of green, fenced off as securely as any square in London. It was unfenced until the 1970s, but back then it hadn't been a garden for long; in fact, from 1918 to 1959 it was the site of the Nigerian supreme court.

Old photos don't show that building as a conventional, classical heap, but people get attached to things, and in 1991 Wole Soyinka spoke at a meeting of the Nigerian Institute of Architects. "My point in raising the ghost of the old building," he said, "is to ask the question 'why?' Why was it necessary to tear down that unique building. Was there no other function it could serve?" The will to demolish runs deep, too.

In the background is the minaret of the central mosque, built in the 1970s.

See Godwin, p. 155.

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A block farther north than the central mosque there's the much more interesting Shitta Bey mosque, named for Mohammed Shitta, a merchant who acquired the honorific "bey" from the Ottoman sultan. The mosque was built in 1894 and was designed by Joao Baptist da Costa. His Portuguese name is no accident: many of the wealthiest people in Lagos at this time were former slaves who had returned from Brazil. Their so-called Brazilian houses once were dotted across Lagos Island, though most have been demolished.

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The mosque can be difficult to see inside, but here's a peek. The curved windows and doors are characteristic of the Brazilian style--in this case carried over to the mihrab.

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Still on Broad Street, this heap was built in 1925 to house the Ministry of Health. It's had other occupants over the years, including--according to its occupants in 2015--the last British governor of Nigeria. The governor's nearby house, secluded in its grounds, is invisible from the street--good luck getting past the guards--but in photos it looks a lot like this place, though with central pediments and a ground-floor arcade.

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Here's the main corridor of the same building, built by a public works department poor either in funds or in imagination. The sculpture at the far end marks the executive offices of the Centre for African Arts and Civilization. How's that for dissonance?

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If you think the ministry is a hulk, try the colonial government's hospital.

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Enough government buildings? Here's the Casa do Fernandez House from 1880 and more commonly known from its ground-floor tenant as the Ilojo Bar. It fronts on Tinubu Square, a bit of whose greenery is on the right. A terracotta statue, labelled Primavera, survives on the rooftop balustrade. Want more proof that colonial Lagos had cultural pretensions? Shortly before 1920 Allister Macmillan showed up to gather information for the Red Book of West Africa, a classic mugbook. In it, Mackenzie describes a young Yoruba woman, Ore Green. "Miss Green served as dispenser at the Eye and Ear Hospital, Soho, and, on her return to Lagos in 1917, acted for Dr. R.A. Savage as dispenser and midwife for eighteen months; after which she started in practice on her own account as a professional nurse. Miss Green is a highly accomplished, well-read, and cultured lady, and her rendering of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, staged at Lagos in June and July 1911, demonstrated other remarkable gifts..."

See Macmillan, p. 132.

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Another survivor. It's the Doherty Villa from 1895. Named after? No idea, but you can imagine someone a hundred years ago like George McKechnie, the agent in 1918 of the Africa and Eastern Trade Corporation. Macmillan's Red Book gives him the full treatment: "The writer, who has met not a few of the most able and prominent commercial men in every quarter of the globe, found in this notable Scotsman, a gentleman widely read and studious in every branch of thought--one whose knowledge of life in all its aspects is as comprehensive and accurately detailed as his remarkable versatility and ready grasp of everything pertaining to commerce and finance. Mr. McKechnie's strong aversion to eulogistic publicity regarding himself forbids a delineation of the intellectual powers with which he is gifted..." Can't spread it much thicker than that.

See Macmillan, p. 65.

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One more Brazilian survivor. It's the Lumpkin House on Abide Oke Street, formerly Porto Novo Market Street. Built about 1890, it was restored in 1990 by Godwin and Hopwood for the Leventis Foundation, which subsequently vacated in favor of a bank. The first owner was Jenkins Lumpkin (1851-1919), a physician with a diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh) and a medical degree from the University of Brussels. He was only the third African to earn the official title "colonial surgeon," not granted lightly.

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Another restored building but in the very different British colonial tradition, this is the Jaekel House, named for the long-serving chief superintendent of the Nigerian rail system, Francis Jaekel (1913-2002). The building is on the grounds of the Railway Compound in Ebute Metta, from which the railway north was begun in 1896, reaching Kano in 1913. The building is of pre-cast concrete blocks, with roofing originally in Welsh slate, imported along with coal for the steam engines.

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Wooden jalousies cool the conference hall over the main entrance.

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Simpler colonial houses survive. This one, like the Jaekel House, is in Ebute-Metta. (The name means "Three Jetties." The place was a fishing village just north of Lagos Island until lightning struck and the place was chosen as the terminus for the railway.)

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A few old simple houses scrape by on Lagos Island itself. Here's one.

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Mostly the old stuff has been cleared away and replaced by low-rise apartment blocks. Maybe they're an improvement. The peripatetic John Gunther visited in the early 1950s and wrote that Lagos had "the worst slum we ran into in all Africa, except in Johannesburg. In the very middle of the town, 28,000 people live on 60 acres.... the houses are so ramshackle that a visitor can walk through them from street to street; each, open at the ends, is so grotesquely dilapidated that it can serve as a passageway."

See Gunther's Inside Africa, p. 755.

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Funny thing is, walking around here you don't even notice that the paving is buried under sand. (There must be paving, don't you agree?)

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Very few authors have attempted tourist guidebooks for Lagos, but the 1975 Guide to Lagos published by E. Seriki and E. Pulleyblank includes this genteel caution: "It is best to go into Jankara Market with somebody who speaks Yoruba." Still true, probably more so now than then.

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Careful with your camera. Dare to drive?

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Rear view of government-funded housing.

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Lots of churches survive, including this one in the same neighborhood.

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Here's another, a second Christ Church Cathedral. It's on the mainland at Oyingbo and belongs to the First African Church, an 1891 splinter off the Anglican Church.

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Here, back on Lagos Island, is the Catholic cathedral of the Holy Cross, begun in 1934 and consecrated in 1969. The architect must have said, "They want tradition? No problem; I can do tradition."

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Not here. This church opened in 1966, even before the completion of the Catholic cathedral. How did the Methodists get such a prime bit of land (Tinubu Square is just behind the camera)? Answer, this church replaced an earlier one built on this site in 1861, the same year British rule was proclaimed over Lagos Island.

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Just behind the Methodist church is the St. Anna Courthouse from 1925. Think Lagos has any other surviving regal insignia like this George Rex? Good luck finding it.

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The British colonial government ended on October 1, 1960. It happened here, though the memorial was built in 1972.

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The memorial is part of the TBS, a vast ceremonial square named after Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria. It was built on what had been a race course, and the architect David Aradeon recalls: "Every day the city kids went to the race course to play.... Then all of a sudden and in the flush of the oil glut, the new governors had a better and brilliant idea. They covered part of my childhood experiences with concrete; life was snuffed out in the expanse of green grass; the openness was enclosed and walled off, the trees and their fruits and their shade was killed, and the children of the city could no longer play or run on their race course. [The new governors] were really so self assured; they knew what was good for all of us. It was development and they always knew what type."

See David Aradeon, "The Unmaking of Tradition" in the Glendora Review, 1996.

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Aradeon continues: "The loss of the open recreational race course with its green texture was deplorable enough, but even more deplorable was the total change of scale of the buildings whose volumes define this important colonial historical centre."

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The scale he deplores is on display in Western House and Independence House. The latter used to house federal ministries whose employees had fun (or not) with frequent power cuts; since they decamped to Abuja, the building has housed parastatals.

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Western House, developed by the National Investment and Property Corporation, was the work of an Accra-based partnership, Nickson and Borys. The buildings included not only offices but apartments and shopping. It's still stylish.

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The apartment wing.

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Lagos attracted other avant-garde architects. Here, at the surviving bit of the racetrack, is another example: step inside.

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The design was by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, prominent expatriates thinking about ventilation in a day before air conditioning. A later addition spoiled whatever breeze there might have been.

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Many heavy-handed highrises were built, in this case on Martin Street across from the Shitta Bey mosque. It's Great Nigeria House, owned by the Great Nigerian Insurance Company. The first four floors were gutted in 2013; two years later, word was that repairs were imminent.

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In 2015 the Mamman Kantagora House, a government-office building, was engulfed in flames. A story in the Nation explained that "the fire was said to have started from the third floor which serves as the generator room. It was gathered that the generator was serviced (on Tuesday) and may have exploded because of some leakages."

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Construction continues, in this case on nearby Victoria Island with the mixed-use Victoria Tower, under construction in 2015. Its intended chief tenant was Nestoil.

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Traditional designs retain their appeal for some. There's no truth to the rumor that the columns are surplused drill pipe.

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The city has a bunch of dreary residential highrises, too. Here's Eko Court, built by the Lagos State Property Development Corporation in Lekki, an eastward extension of Victoria Island.

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Later in the 60s, a Kennedy Center look-alike appeared: it's the City Hall, built to house the city council but abandoned after a fire and eventually converted into a public-function hall.

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Here's the pedestrian but United Africa Company House. The UAC is the descendant of the Royal Niger Company, which endured several permutations before and after its acquisition by Lord Lever in 1920. Sylvia Leith-Ross, who spent many years in Nigeria, refers to the company's pervasive influence: "That HM's government is under the thumb of the UAC is believed by all and no argument will shake this belief. Even an illiterate smith, far out in the bush, when asked why he did not make more matchets or simple tools, replied: 'What is the good? UAC would forbid my selling them. They want to be the only people to sell anything'"

See Leith-Ross, Stepping Stones, p. 118.

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The motto of the Royal Niger Company had been Ars, Jus, Pax. Not a word about stockholder returns. Here's the company's previous office, Old Niger House, at the north end of Broad.

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Among the UAC enterprises was a chain of department stores called Kingsway. The Lagos store, shown here, opened on Marina in 1948 and included a Nigerian first: an escalator. Gunther in the early 1950s wrote that "the all-powerful United Africa Company maintains a modern, well-equipped shop--swarming with African customers." Leith-Ross found a nun who was less amused: "Examinations have ruined education; Kingsway has ruined virtue." No longer: the store's closed.

See Gunther, p. 178; Leith-Ross, p. 137.

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One vestige: Mr Biggs is a fast-food chain that belongs to the UAC.

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Hard to believe that post-Independence Lagos Island saw the construction of a stylish hotel. Here's what's left of the Bristol. A guide from 1975 reports that "the hotel is favoured for its location in the centre of the main shopping and business area of Lagos Island."

No longer: the hotel is closed. A journalist recalls that he "stayed there on my first visit in 1964, when it was still an establishment of reputation, and thought nothing of walking along Broad Street to go to the Daily Times office that was maybe ten minutes away."

Why should that the idea of walking seem so unlikely? The journalist continued: Lagos has become "a bizarre and dysfunctional mix of the wilderness of skyscrapers, street markets, old shops and residence, all under pressure from the ubiquitous and extortion-demanding 'area boys," a phenomenon recently tamed... but not eliminated."

See Whiteman, p. 76 and 81-2.

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The Bristol's hulk sits on a corner of the Central Lagos Slum Clearance Project, which was begun in 1955. Some 30,000 people were evicted in this clearance scheme, but the result, apart from this hotel, was an open space of 42 acres converted in the view of one observer to "a shopping slum."

See Donald W. Griffin's "Urban Development in Africa: the Case of Lagos," in The California Geographer, 1967.

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Here's that shopping slum; the central mosque is in the distance. (It must have its fans, but Kaye Whiteman calls it "a flat-pack mosque found all over the Islamic World."

Elspeth Huxley had her doubts about the slum-clearance scheme from its early days. "A splendid plan has been prepared to clear these stinking Lagos stew... it is to cost £20,000,000 for the first ten years. The initial stage is to build 5,000 houses on the mainland into which to move the occupants of the first block to be purged.... Experts from Britain have drawn these plans; the [new] houses are to be built at a density of sixteen to the acre and to be several storeys high." What was it all for? Huxley thought she knew the answer: "The demand for slum-clearance has not come from the Lagosians; it has come from the British, who live in comfort and feel ashamed..." See Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, p. 64 and Huxley's Four Guineas, p. 178.

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So the scheme was never completed, but the market function continues in high gear, here along Martin Street, immediately north of the slum-clearance area and close to the Shitta Bey mosque.

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Long ago the city expanded far beyond Lagos Island: three bridges link it on the north to the mainland; others run south to Victoria Island. The Carter Bridge, running north, replaces two earlier Carter Bridges, the first built of wood in 1900 and the second, of iron, built in 1931.

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People with money live at Lekki, east of Victoria Island and reached by toll road and traffic jam.

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How the mighty prosper.

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Secure at Lekki behind its perimeter, this is the Chevron compound.

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Noblesse oblige: the oil companies have funded the protection of a small patch of rain forest.

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If the British undertook slum clearance from guilt, the oil companies have done their bit by protecting a few acres of rain forest.

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They do wish to have their generosity recognized.


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