Badia East shantytown after demolition, Lagos, Feb. 28, 2013. Samuel James
November 24, 2013
You go to the police station at four in the afternoon
to declare that you exist….
You stand still in a street that devours you, just as
you in turn devour your rage and defeat.
What is homeland? To hold onto your memory—that is homeland.
Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief
23, 2013, early morning: with no warning, armed state government officials
descend on Badia East, a centrally located shack neighborhood in Lagos,
Nigeria, and smash rickety houses and businesses to the ground.
In the days
that follow, the Lagos state commissioner for housing is adamant that the
eviction and demolition were a public service. “It’s a regeneration of a slum,”
the honorable Adedeji Olatubosun Jeje told the New York Times. “We gave enough notification. The government intends
to develop 1,008 housing units. What we removed was just shanties. Nobody was
even living in those shanties. Maybe we had a couple of squatters living
The residents told a different story: people were sleeping when the bulldozers
descended. Later, they discovered that the government had, in fact, informed
the baale (the area’s traditional ruler), a man they
seldom communicate with and who lives far across town in a different
neighborhood. What’s more, they noted, they had been uprooted once before, in
1977, when the federal government built the nearby national theater and
relocated families living on that site to Badia, which was under federal
jurisdiction because a railroad line ran through the area.
The way the
residents understood it, this transfer gave their new community implied federal
recognition; the state could not simply come in and destroy their homes and
livelihoods. “We were moved to this place by the federal government,” said
Biola Ogunyemi, a local activist whose home escaped demolition—for now—as we
walked through the wreckage of Badia. “Now they want to evict us again, without
coming here to discuss with us. Lagos State has stolen our rights away from
us.” A white pickup full of gun-toting state government forces cruised by as we
spoke. The residents, who had done nothing to resist the storm troopers, grew
quiet and waited for the commandos to depart. Our conversation picked back up
as the truck pulled away, and one resident whispered the obvious: the sole
purpose of the armed drive-by was intimidation.
As many as nine thousand people were pushed out of Badia East that morning,
the Social and Economic Rights Action Center, a local non-governmental
organization, has reported. Days after the eviction, a hardy few were
scavenging scrap from the demolition site, seeking boards they could use to
rebuild and rubber or metal they could resell. Months later, scores of families
were still living nearby on makeshift platforms they had erected above a swamp
or encamped on the open dirt with no shelter at all.
residents assumed that their thirty-plus years of occupancy gave them some sort
of possession right. Perhaps they believed that the federal government would
not betray them by allowing them to be pushed out a second time. Perhaps they
simply couldn’t comprehend that their less-than-modest community could be of
interest to anyone else. But they didn’t reckon with the new mega city plan
championed by Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola, whose policies are altering
the city in staggering style.
believes that shantytowns and street markets are a visual and moral blight, and
his administration has been avidly getting rid of them. Badia, a sea of shacks
in a bustling neighborhood not far from the port, is in the crosshairs because
of its location. It sits in the shadow of a busy elevated highway interchange
and directly across the street from the 7-Up bottling plant in adjacent Ijora.
Under Fashola’s plan, Ijora will become the temporary terminus of one of the
new light rail lines under construction in the city. All rail passengers coming
from the east, along the Badagry express road and the major interchange called
Mile 2, and heading to Lagos Island, Victoria Island or Lekki—the most popular
areas of the city for big businesses—will have to disembark in Ijora. Badia,
neglected for years, is suddenly desirable turf.
a different scenario. Suppose, starting back in 1977, that the people of Badia,
shocked by their forced relocation from the national theater site, had created
a map of their new community as they developed it and determined to chronicle
all the changes they experienced as the neighborhood moved forward. After three
decades of ceaseless editing, this always-up-to-date map would be incredibly
fragile—frayed from countless erasures and pencil marks and innumerable times
being folded and unfolded and folded again. Despite its tenuous condition, this
tattered atlas of the community would be invaluable.
document the neighborhood’s history: the structures, stores, pathways, alleys,
houses, ditches, pilings; the local landmarks and how they changed over time;
the names of the traditional healers and juju men and women’s circles and
self-created community institutions; the locations of latrines and garbage
heaps and self-built wooden bridges that snake across the mud flats, offering a
sketch of the privately owned but communal infrastructure that has made life
better in the community. And it is crucial that this document be ink-on-paper.
Yes, there are currently a number of worthy digital projects, like Map Kibera,
an online effort to chart the contours of Nairobi’s largest shantytown. And
yes, digital maps don’t degrade. But they also don’t have the same local reach—because
most people in Badia and Kibera and other shantytowns and street markets don’t
have personal computers, smartphones or broadband connections stable enough to
access and continually update an online map.
Suppose that, long before the state swooped in to raze their homes, the
people of Badia had presented annual copies of this living map to the local and
national governments, to the United Nations, to the World Bank (which has given
the state government $85 million for drainage projects, including one in Badia
East). Suppose they had given a copy to the baale, to the local politicians and
all the political parties. Suppose they filed copies with the local land
records office and with the court and gotten copies to all the newspapers in
town. Suppose they had, in short, used the map as a tool to declare, “We
exist—and we don’t have to go to the police station to declare it. We matter.
We are important.” Would the government have found it quite so easy to evict
squatter neighborhood needs to be its own troubadour, every street market its
own cartographer, every informal community its own town crier. In this way,
each can demonstrate its history, importance and value. Think of how powerful
Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, whose tragic self-immolation ignited
the Arab Spring, might have felt if he had been on a city map—literally, his
location, products, accomplishments and value recorded on paper and filed with
the government. He might not have felt the need to set himself ablaze in front
of a government office to declare his existence. He might have found another
route, in concert with his fellow vendors, to make his frustrations known.
This, of course, represents a seismic shift in strategy for squatters and
street merchants. In the early days of their encroachments, squatters and
street hawkers hid from the authorities, figuring that flying under the radar
was their best guarantee of survival. If they successfully avoided detection,
they felt, they could achieve a level of freedom and stability. But as cities
pursue growth at all costs, spending wildly to attract international sporting
events, or trying to build themselves up as business and tourist destinations
by copying the planning techniques of the West, there is no longer any hiding.
mega city plan, Governor Fashola wants to recast the massive Nigerian
commercial metropolis to be more like Dubai. In pursuit of this goal, Fashola
has criminalized street vending, sent squads of paramilitary police to smash
down massive street markets, outlawed most okada, or motorcycle taxis (there were perhaps one million
motorcycle taxis operating in Lagos and banning them trashed an industry that,
in a very conservative estimate, generated a turnover in the neighborhood of
$500 million a year—money that mostly circulated locally), and turned loose the
bulldozers on shack communities. Even gigantic markets like Oshodi—which for
decades sprawled over a highway interchange and became so massive that it was
like an immovable chaotic commercial cosmos that took over buildings,
sidewalks, streets, a train line, and even the highways—are at risk. Indeed,
Fashola’s vengeful quasi-police force, the squadron called Kick Against
Indiscipline, made quick work of Oshodi, destroying most of it in 2009, meeting
almost no resistance.
kind of environment, spontaneous neighborhoods and markets can no longer
imagine that they exist in a vacuum. Rather, they must declare their presence
and take charge of their interaction with government and the rest of the city.
To Possess a
Around the world, cities are drawing up master plans with little public input and then using those plans as policy weapons of mass destruction, rushing to demolish impoverished communities and destroy vital informal markets in the name of progress and civic betterment. The estimated 900 million squatters who live in self-built communities are generally not part of these plans. Nor are the majority of working people (1.8 billion people, 60 percent of the workers of the world) who labor off the books, in the informal markets or on the streets or who get paid with cash under the table.
Mumbai officials have pointed to Shanghai as their development model and
have periodically razed shantytowns and pushed hawkers off the streets. São
Paulo and Kigali have claimed Singapore as a model for development—and São
Paulo recently pushed out the street merchants on Rua 25 de Marco—where trade
was so brisk that, if it were a single corporation, its annual turnover would
make it one of the five largest Brazilian-owned firms in the country. Rio de
Janeiro has demolished favelas and street markets as it spruces up in
anticipation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
cities forget is that they have their own culture and development patterns.
They don’t have to turn themselves into somewhere else. It hardly seems an
accident that Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore, these purported models of urban
excellence, are authoritarian cities where big government and big businesses run
the streets. There is little citizen empowerment in these municipalities.
Rather, they are notable for central control of development decisions, for
devoting development efforts to attracting tourists rather than making life
better for residents, and for enforcing strict laws regarding personal conduct.
happen if every one of the informal outposts and enterprises in these cities
made their own equivalent of a map? If the vendors in São Paulo’s massive
street markets had mapped their stalls and the global journeys merchants took
to get their products and the distance their customers traveled to get to the
market? If the okada
drivers, rather than folding up shop and selling their bikes, had mapped all
the trips that they made in every neighborhood of the city for a month, thus
showing that they were a necessary and well-accepted provider of public
transport? If all street hawkers recorded their itinerant journeys, showing
where the best spots were to sell and how many miles they walked every day? If
the metal scavengers and plastic recyclers mapped their routes and where they
found the most valuable material? If the garbage dump scavengers mapped where
the trucks came from at what times of day? If the communities threatened with
demolition drew themselves into existence?
Every second, the urban population of the world edges upward by two people.
That tiny increment, compounded over minutes, hours and days, makes an
avalanche: cities around the globe are growing by 60 million people a year.
Almost all of these new urban residents will be in the cities of the developing
world. They will be the root of urban population growth and at least 50 percent
of global economic growth. Simply put, there’s no government, no global or
local non-governmental organization, no private developer, who can build enough
housing for these new urban residents at a price they can afford.
The novelist Patrick Chamoiseau said it best: “To be is first and foremost
to possess a roof.” For the 60 million new urban arrivals to exist—for them to
be full-fledged individuals, workers, citizens, to raise families, to
participate in social and civic life—they must have a roof, and to do this they
must build for themselves, even if that means constructing their homes
illegally. The world’s squatter communities are neighborhoods of strivers.
Squatter communities may not yet have water, electricity, sanitation or sewers,
but they have something else: incredible individual and collective energy and
spirit. Despite the obvious degraded conditions, the residents live with great
gusto. They buy food and household items and, when they can (more often than
you might expect, actually), they party. Indeed, it’s fair to say that every
one of the world’s shantytowns, no matter how small, has at least one grocery
store, one restaurant and one bar.
Major makers of consumer goods and beverages have recognized just how big
the shantytown market can be. From laundry detergent and toothpaste to beer and
soda, major multinationals have made it their business to get their products
into the stalls, stores, saloons and salons of these self-made communities.
Selling to firms in the shantytowns is no different than selling to any other
businesses—though perhaps involves more cash-in-hand transactions than credit
same with street markets. Major firms know that selling on the street
represents a powerful tool. Procter & Gamble, a multi-billion dollar consumer
goods company, has recognized that its continued global growth requires getting
its products into street stalls and shantytown stores in the developing
world—and it has adjusted its policies to include them. “No matter the
legislation or fiscal structure of the country,” Paul Fox, P&G’s chief PR
man, told me, “we want to make sure these stores are financially viable.” All
told, these small but high frequency shops account for 20 percent of P&G’s
business—making them the company’s largest, most important, and fastest growing
phone providers of Africa are one of the enduring examples of creative use of a
street sales force. The press has been full of stories of the emergence of the
mobile phone economy—a continent with just 16.5 million mobile subscribers in
2000 saw mobile accounts rocket to 650 million by 2011. This makes Africa a
bigger mobile market than either the United States or the European Union—with
very little analysis of why this leapfrog technology has grown so quickly.
What accounts for the success? Two things stand out: street selling and
Mobile phone providers in Africa were willing to tap into a ready-made,
unlicensed sales force of street vendors. In much of the developing world,
phones are pay-as-you-go—meaning that you have to buy airtime credit to make
calls. Since most mobile phone providers on the continent don’t sell many
phones or monthly contracts, those minutes are the key to their corporate
profits. They sell the airtime through unlicensed sidewalk merchants and street
hawkers. This roving sales force is so big and so profitable that the mobile
phone companies consider it a legitimate distribution channel. They call it the
umbrella market, in honor of the umbrellas that these roadside vendors use to
shade themselves from the sun and rain.
Here’s how the system works: the mobile providers produce recharge cards.
They sell them in bulk to distributors, who in turn sell to sub-distributors
who sell to the roadside vendors. If the vendors buy in bulk, they can get a
discount, and that discount is the source of their profit. “We don’t have a
direct relationship with the gentleman or lady on the street,” said Akinwale
Goodluck, who at the time we spoke was general manager for -regulatory issues
for the South Africa-based mobile provider MTN, which has a 40 percent lock on
the Nigerian market. Nonetheless, he told me, most mobile providers in Africa
earn the bulk of their cash by selling recharge cards, and roadside sales
account for the bulk of profit. “The umbrella market is a very, very important
market now,” he said. “No serious operator can afford to ignore the umbrella
The existence of the umbrella market ensures that people don’t have to go
out of their way to buy airtime. There’s always someone selling recharge
cards—whether on the corner, on the sidewalk or threading their way through
traffic—and it’s this presence that has helped make mobile service convenient
and popular. In this way, street hawkers function as a social good, and a key
driver of profits for major corporations.
too, had a hand in the spread of phones. Take Kenya. When I was first there a
decade ago, the mobile phone revolution had not reached the masses.
Entrepreneurs, businesspeople and politicians all had mobile phones. So did the
creative class. But I was hanging out in Kibera, the largest mud hut
neighborhood in the Kenyan capital, and few of the folks I knew there had
mobiles. Fast-forward ten years and the situation is totally different. There
are now 30 million mobile phones spread among 24 million Kenyans over the age
of fifteen—an effective penetration rate of 125 percent. Most of my friends in
Kibera now have mobiles. Even scavengers at Dandora, the city’s noxious garbage
dump, have them.
explains the ubiquity? Pirate manufacturers, most of them from China, drove the
cost of a handset down. A decade back, a mobile phone was a luxury item out of
the reach of the poor. Knockoffs, when they arrived, cut the price, and the
sudden arrival of cheap phones helped mobile usage explode. In this way, piracy
served the public good (and, not coincidentally, the corporate good). When I
was in Guangzhou, China, I met dozens of merchants seeking to get their hands
on pirated phones. They didn’t call them pirated or counterfeited or even
fakes. To these entrepreneurs, the pirated phones were, in the words of Chief
Arthur Okafor, who had a small (if you can call $40,000 in pirate purchases per
trip to Guangzhou small) but highly profitable business smuggling pirated
Nokias into Nigeria, “real copies.”
Nokia, the largest-selling phone brand in Africa (the Finnish firm, whose
mobile business was recently bought by Microsoft, still boasts around a 60
percent market share on the continent), has recognized that the way to win the
African market is to outmaneuver the pirates. In March 2013, when I was last in
Nigeria, I discovered that a new Nokia handset cost just $19. That’s less than
half what I paid five years ago. When a phone is that cheap, there’s almost no
reason for it to be pirated. Nokia has even learned a trick or two from the
pirates. For instance, around 2009, some savvy pirate operators started
producing phones that could handle two SIM cards simultaneously—two lines that
you could switch between as if you were using call waiting. Now Nokia offers
its own dual SIM phone for just $29. In effect, Nokia has copied the pirates.
And the firm is continuing to ensure that prices will remain low as it rolls
out smartphones for the African market. For example, the company recently
released what you might call a semi-smartphone that retails for less than $100.
With a hyper-long battery life—advertised as seventeen hours of talk time and
forty-eight days of standby—the phone seems specially designed for the
shantytowns and street markets of the world, areas that have limited access to
price of name-brand handsets falling, Kenya was able to take the controversial
step of canceling service on pirated phones. Overnight on October 1, 2012, the
Kenya Communications Commission deprived 1.9 million people of the use of their
mobile phones. But the move went off without much protest because customers
could now find legal replacements at an affordable price.
Dwellers to Policy Makers
communities and street markets need to publicize these positive facts. Mapping
is only one idea. There are other possibilities. A street market could form a
claims club, a kind of cooperative neighborhood registry in which each vendor
would record where he did business and what kind of business he did; in this
way establishing a non-binding, unofficial claim to his kiosk or place in the
market. Claims clubs like these were common in the United States a century and
a half ago, as homesteaders and squatters who led the western migration across
the continent (and in the process boosted the country’s economy) looked for a
way to stake their tenuous claim to the land where they had settled. A
community could conduct a census, simply documenting how many people lived
there. A market could start a newspaper or initiate a cooperative improvement
association, taking tentative steps toward public betterment by, perhaps,
paving a road or installing a few battery-powered streetlights.
simply making a map, establishing a local claims registry, convening a mini
planning tribunal, or opening a local media outlet are not sufficient for
people to gain a right to the city. These do-it-yourself strategies are simply
a start. They’re no replacement for direct action. Squatters and street vendors
will have to go public. They will have to show that, if government wants to
push them out, they will not go gentle into the night. They will have to engage
in a campaign to take control of their futures. This may take the form of
organizing a large public pressure group to push for proper policy changes. It
could also involve joining the system and even entering the political arena and
running candidates for office. And, in a move that would be truly
transformative and dynamic, squatters and street vendors could establish new
civic ventures based on a three-way partnership between residents, vendors and
their customers. These could offer strong, parallel, cooperative systems of
governance that would ensure that squatter communities and street markets could
never be considered unstable or dangerous or undemocratic or socially
On the other side, governments need to understand that development is not
purely technocratic and that planning rules cannot be inflexible. Rather,
politicians and policy makers have to learn to listen to the residents of the
discredited neighborhoods called slums and the vast numbers who are derided as
criminals because they do business on the street. They are the key component in
any true form of urban development. With their own effort and ingenuity, these
long-neglected citizens have started on the road toward equitable urban growth.
They have created their neighborhoods and businesses out of nothing. They have
democratized the spread of technology. They have built sustainable incomes and
are increasingly creating steady jobs. We need to turn development upside down
and give it back to the people who are creating the new urban world.
Until the damned maps burn
Until the mad cartographer
Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.
Psychoanalysis: An Elegy
Neuwirth is the author of Stealth of Nations: The
Global Rise of the Informal Economy and Shadow Cities: A Billion
Squatters, A New Urban World. His articles have appeared in the Nation, New York Times, Washington Post, Harper’s Magazine, Scientific American, Forbes, Fortune, Metropolis and City Limits, among others. He is writing a book
about self-governance and outlaw citizenship. On Twitter: @RobertNeuwirth.