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Lagos: 19th best city in the world?

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Before writing this article, I casually surveyed a few Lagos residents, asking how they felt about living here. They all had one thing in common: a love-hate relationship with the coastal mega-city. Those who had previously tasted urban life outside the state before migrating would rather not be in Lagos if it didn’t bring them closer to money. The others, who were born here, have become dopamine addicts from the everyday bustle and are unsure if they want to detox.

Yet, there’s more than one reason this detox has become a need. The Financial Derivatives Company (FDC) once reported that at 55 years, the average Lagos resident would have spent six years in traffic. “Lagosians are spending approximately 1,080 hours a year in traffic, compared to 148 hours in London, the city with the worst traffic jams in the world (excluding Nigeria and Egypt),” the report said. And because it’s such a crowded house, there’s, quite literally, little room to breathe. The Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency recently started publishing an Air Quality Index report on social platforms. And every chart seems to send one message, loud and clear: there is no good air in Lagos.

Reports often look like this:

This place, ladies and gentlemen, is the city Time Out ranked as the 19th best city in the world, above Melbourne, Singapore, Dubai and many others. And this article only exists because of the question we all asked in reflex: how come?

Time Out’s report says it ranked cities based on food (quality and affordability), culture, nightlife, how the city makes people feel, and more. On the one hand, it was refreshing to find out it wasn’t about how healthy life in the city is. On the other hand, these metrics are still far from convincing.

Firstly, affordability and Lagos, in the same sentence? Interesting. No one living in Nigeria believes that. Not even the government. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) ranked Lagos as the most expensive state to live in Nigeria, with its inflation rate outpacing the national average. Besides, if food were ‘affordable’ in Lagos, it wouldn’t have 17.2% of its children stunted and 13.3% underweight. The ‘quality’ part is more tolerable, primarily because there was no clear definition of the term in the term, and that makes its meaning subjective.

The second problematic metric here is “culture”. Understandably, the report aims to make a case for tourism to the city. And many Western tourists synonymise “culture” in the African context with festivals and fashion. It’s a simplistic, hare-brained, and reductive line of thought. But it’s sticky. It’s the easiest way to sell tourism to the West. Lagos has a fascinating festival culture but a broken communal culture. Here’s an example: if you get robbed in broad daylight while taking a walk, you’d be at fault for not taking enough caution against thieves. You’d likely hear comments like: “They dun see say you be mumu. Na why they (thieves) come meet you.” Trust is also so low that people, especially women, scan the passengers of buses before boarding them.

But, like I said, Lagos is an addictive city. More than half of the respondents to my casual survey said they feel the “most alive” in this same city they verbally loathe. They seem to love it more with each gram of toxic air they inhale — a literal toxic affair. So, you’ll get why “how the city makes people feel” would make a great ranking metric for Lagos.

Time Out’s report makes a great feel-good publication. That’s why even the Lagos State government was quick to amplify it. But it’s also a classic example of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” It’s hard to call a self-acclaimed ‘centre of excellence’, which manages to be so emblematic of disorder, the world’s 19th-best city in any regard.

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