A private city

Eko Atlantic in Lagos, like Tatu City in Nairobi, Kenya; Hope City in Accra, Ghana; and Cité le Fleuve in Kinshasa, DRC, point to the rise of private cities. What does it mean for the rest of us?

Image credit Katie Jane Fernelius.

PROPERTY VALUES have been restored and multiplied. And more buildings are springing up in anticipation of the opportunities that lie ahead. When all is done, A NEW CITY will emerge from an area that once was devastated by NATURE’S ONSLAUGHT. But that devastation is now history. Our ultimate triumph now beckons. The human spirit will prevail again, because of A FEW GOOD MEN who demonstrated tremendous goodwill.

– Babatunde Fashola, Governor of Lagos State (2007-2015), speaking in 2013.

Babatunde Fashola, governor of Lagos, stood at the podium in front of a Jumbotron projecting his face. It was 2013, and he was opening a ceremony for a small congregation of “who’s who” in Nigeria. Then-president Goodluck Jonathan, former US president Bill Clinton, and billionaires Gilbert and Ronald Chagoury looked on from a small audience, a flock of suit jackets and neck ties, kaftans, and caps. It was a celebration to mark the reclamation of 5,000,000 square meters of land from the ocean. On that land, a new city was promised to rise and become the future financial capital of Africa. It would be called Eko Atlantic.

The first time I laid eyes on Eko Atlantic was in a YouTube video. A rabbit hole of auto-play videos lead me to one that panned across a computer-generated skyline of high modernist skyscrapers, a cityscape unpopulated and placeless against an empty horizon. The narrator, British-accented and chipper, announced that Eko Atlantic was a privately-built city being constructed on the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. This new city would become a gateway to the continent and a “unique opportunity for investors to capitalize off huge developing growth,” according to the bodiless voice. It would have privatized roads and sewage, its own electric grid, and a sea wall designed to stop the threat of an eroding coastline, effectively reversing a century of natural history. To put it simply, Eko Atlantic would be a city of the future.

It was 2016 and I was living in Lagos. I lived on Victoria Island, a neighborhood known for big business, near the Mike Adenuga Towers which were tinny gold and outfitted with a statue of a bull in the plaza, giving the effect that the building was a double-exposed photograph of Trump Tower and Wall Street. Down the street from me was the Chinese consulate, where every day I’d walk by and see rows of Nigerians on benches outside, waiting to apply for visas. All Eko Atlantic was to me, at that time, was a logo and a long concrete wall at the edge of Victoria Island, separating me from what looked like miles of empty beach and naked steel frames, construction seemingly paused.

At the time, Nigeria was in the middle of a recession. I was advised to bring all my money into the country in crisp $100 bills, so I could exchange my cash on the black market. The banks followed the government’s arbitrary exchange rates and often ran out of cash at certain locations. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the private investigators for scams and corruption, graffitied properties across Lagos in their signature red all-caps: “EFCC UNDER INVESTIGATION.” Online, I’d read reports of the EFCC raiding luxury apartments whose walls were insulated with duffel bags full of American dollars. It seemed to me that Lagos was a city held together by cash, as if every building was literally made of money.

Gated communities jigsawed the whole city, creating a compendium of private borders to constantly negotiate. Phone calls, proof of invitation, and persuasion were often required to get you inside. But even outside of these walls, the city felt enclosed. A lagoon, Lagos is crisscrossed by water, dividing it into distinct social geographies like chambers of the heart. A cluster of islands in the southeast—Victoria, Lagos, Ikoyi—were accessible to the mainland via long, heavily trafficked bridges which slowly pumped commuters back and forth. To refer to the islands was to refer to business, to wealth, and to the city’s elites. It was precisely this group of people who attended that 2013 ceremony at Eko Atlantic.

In the video of that 2013 ceremony, Bill Clinton eventually took the stage and praised the Clinton Global Initiative-sponsored project, saying, “So, for every person who believed in this project, who believed in the future of the city, the state and the nation, I thank you. And I especially thank my friends Gilbert and Ronald Chagoury for making it happen and keeping their commitment. It is a commitment that will eventually not only help brand Nigeria as a country of the 21st century, but also show that it is affordable and profitable to live in harmony with this new natural reality.”

Image credit Katie Jane Fernelius.

Covered by Business Insider and CNN’s Inside Africa, videos of Eko Atlantic told a congratulatory story: the state governors and billionaire Chagoury family had banded together to protect the coastline from erosion with a massive land reclamation effort that had now become “a city-building project on a global scale.” The Eko Atlantic channel provided a digital scrapbook of the project’s growth over the previous 10 years as it documented dredging, landfilling, and the construction of new buildings. But it always came back to those CGI images of the city, projecting an imaginary future where it was said Lagos would become the Dubai of Africa.

In the years since I first encountered Eko Atlantic on YouTube, it has become my white whale, a synecdoche for all the dynamics I’ve been trying to make sense of in Lagos. While it was hailed as an innovative solution to the problems facing the city—the lack of skilled jobs, the paucity of formal housing, and coastal erosion caused by climate change—private cities like Eko Atlantic are really a continuation of the status quo, bypassing democratic debate and concretizing urban inequality in the name of attracting investment. Yet these private cities continue to be symbolically powerful: though their urban imaginaries are created primarily for an audience of investors, the promises can resonate with working Africans too. The powers and processes sedimented beneath the clean facade of projects like Eko Atlantic give insight into cities like Lagos across the African continent, and tell us who claims control of the economic future.

The city as a franchise

In 2018, my friend Ishan and I produced a radio documentary on Eko Atlantic and slum evictions for the BBC World Service. After haggling over email, the development director of Eko Atlantic finally agreed to give us a guided tour of the city and let us film for a short video piece we were producing as a companion to the radio story. (Prior to that, the only time that I had visited Eko Atlantic was for a music festival featuring Diplo, where I had to use one of those awful pre-loaded, contactless wristbands to buy drinks and a late night thunderstorm canceled half the performances. All I remembered of it was walking through the sand in the rain, trying to get outside its walls so I could call a keke, a moto-taxi, to take me home.)

When Ishan and I showed up at the offices on the perimeter of the city, a black SUV was waiting for us. In the front seat was the development director Pierre and his driver. Pierre had previously been in charge of reconstructing the central district of Beirut after the Lebanese civil war. He also worked on the Monaco urbanization at sea project, which sought to extend the city’s domain through new “eco districts” extending offshore.

After we passed through the entrance, Pierre narrated the progress of the construction, nearly word-for-word with the YouTube videos, as we drove down the main avenue. Without the CGI to simulate the district to come, it felt desolate and empty. Occasionally we’d park, so we could film shots of the city. Pierre tried to direct the camera, instructing us on which shots and angles we could use to best portray Eko Atlantic. He complained that the weather would ruin our filming; it was harmattan season and orange dust from the Sahara curtained the sky. A few times, he interrupted a shot or told us to “cut” if we were filming something that looked bad, like a construction worker taking a nap by an empty canal.

Pierre also brought us to one of the completed residential towers, Eko Pearl. Like a model home, it was vacant, full of furnished apartments with untouched kitchens, pretending at the future life that would be there. The hallways smelled like a just-opened can of tennis balls.

As we concluded our tour, Pierre took us back to the front offices for Eko Atlantic, where the YouTube videos played on loop against the far wall. In the center of the room was a scale model of the future city, nearly the length of a half a basketball court. It almost looked fun to play with, like a dollhouse, except that each plastic building was closed and impenetrable, no human figurines visible beyond its opaque windows.

Eko Atlantic is part of a cohort of private city projects emerging across the continent: Tatu City in Nairobi, Kenya; Hope City in Accra, Ghana; and Cité le Fleuve in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Like Eko Atlantic, the developers have provided assuringly modern visual simulations of cities not dissimilar to Dubai, glass boxes and aquamarine canals sprawled out across geometrically fanciful urban grids.

In a paper about the urban fantasies of these cities, professor of city planning Vanessa Watson analyzes some of these new urban projects. What they share in common are their sheer scale, promising to be entire cities even as they often exist as offshoots of other metropolitan areas. And, in keeping with that scale, these cities tend to share an unspecified plan for governance, neglecting democratic processes in their development, their creators instead rattling off lists of private sector companies responsible for their formation.

Situated in a mythology of globalization, the promotional literature for Eko Atlantic talks of thriving businesses districts, reliable infrastructure, and prime real estate, all promising to make the city internationally competitive. For a while, Eko Atlantic only existed in virtual space, in computer-generated simulations of glistening glass skyscrapers reflecting an undisturbed sky, canals full of clear still blue water, and avenues lined with trees. It was tempting to question whether Eko Atlantic really existed in any material way, or whether it was some elaborate catfish for investors’ money. Far from reassuring me of its realness, visiting Eko Atlantic gave the impression of a slide deck spat out by a 3D printer.

This high modernist simulation—both digital and physical—embodies a techno-financial imaginary. It’s consistent not just with the architectural character of cities of the Gulf states, but also with the tech campuses of Silicon Valley. As an aesthetic, it’s meant to evoke cleanness, efficiency, and ease; technology smooths out all the rough edges. Such an aesthetic suggests a different vision of city planning: it’s the city as a start-up, a project launched with glossy veneer and devoid of social, political, and historical context.

This style of design stands in sharp contrast to the history of city planning in Lagos. Previously a protectorate of the British colonial empire, then capital city of a newly assembled Nigerian state, Lagos was planned in fits and starts by colonial authorities. Unlike their ventures in southern or eastern Africa, the British colonial forces didn’t pour that many resources into urban planning in Lagos, largely because they didn’t expect to use it as a white settlement. (Its tropical environment was seen as deadly to their delicate British constitutions.) Any urban planning they did was in service of “administrative and labor control and the effective articulation of exportable surpluses through modern means of transportation,” according to Liora Bigon’s history of urban planning in Lagos. The overall effect of this meant that many indigenous Lagosians didn’t lose their land rights to enclosure; today, Lagos is rumored to still technically belong to most of the initial ruling families of those indigenous communities, in spite of extensive land reform since. Certainly, decisions by the British colonial administration had certain effects, especially in terms of their work to dredge the harbor in order to provide better access to shipping vessels, but early twentieth century Lagos developed much more directly in spontaneous response to forces like migration, health, and sanitation concerns, and economic trends than it did from a centralized planning force.

More recent urban planning interventions have included infrastructural projects like the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge, the roll-out of low-emissions vehicles to replace the beloved danfo buses, and beautification campaigns run by Kick Against Indiscipline which, at their best, plant flowers in the gores between highway on-ramps and, at their worst, arrest street vendors. These measures seem to be more reactive than proactive, creating expensive fixes to bad traffic, emissions, and urban blight without consideration for the social and economic forces undergirding such phenomena: a city sprawling inland due to displacement of its working class by high-end development. In some ways, the privileging of developers’ interests in present-day Lagos expresses the same preferences as its colonial administrators: “the effective articulation of exportable surpluses,” or in other words, making money move seamlessly.

Image credit Katie Jane Fernelius.

So, who are these CGI images for? These sorts of simulations disseminate freely and gleefully in the urban planning circuit, where there is an uncritical acceptance that “smart” cities are good, as are “green,” “sustainable,” and “world-class” cities. Certain urban planners may get excited about these ideas in the abstract, but, as Watson writes, they also function as justifications to the public for what is ultimately an “exercise of symbolic power […] promoting the city and addressed to global elites” that “implies a concern with the importance of the city in relation to other cities rather than the extent to which it functions for its citizens.”

It’s tempting to say that this image of a clean, gleaming city was not really made for Lagosians, because we know that materials about Eko Atlantic are mostly being distributed at urban planning conferences around the world to architectural firms and real estate investors, and because the location and walls of the city themselves will likely preclude most of the 21 million Lagosians from accessing it. But I think to say that the vision of Eko Atlantic is not for Lagosians discounts how deeply entrenched narratives of first-world development are, and disregards the desires and dreams of many city-dwellers.

Lagos was the most aspirational city I’ve ever lived in. Almost every Thursday, I’d go to an open mic event at a boutique hotel. The music was good, the yam fries reliably crisp, and the Heinekens cold. It was a regular haunt for the expats who worked at multinational corporations, as well as for the city’s community of Instagram influencers. The rumored “talent guy” at a powerful media conglomerate called Pulse Nigeria, a white man in his 50s with a chic bald head and braided hemp bracelets on his wrist, usually attended, sitting in a reserved seat at the front and often accompanied by a young, beautiful Nigerian woman. Every week, one talented singer after another commanded the stage, all making eye contact with this man in the front row, an American Idol rendered in miniature. It felt emblematic of a culture of aspiration that inflected the whole city. Lagos seemed to operate off the premise that each day brought with it the possibility of being discovered; fame and fortune just one chance encounter away.

The enterprise and hustle of Lagos is apparent in contemporary novels about the city, like Blackass by Igoni A. Barrett, Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo, and Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole. But the idea of Nigeria on the rise is also central to today’s investment literature. Akin to the “tiger” economies of Asia, Nigeria and other sub-Saharan countries have been hyped as “lion” economies of Africa by the McKinsey Global Institute among others. Urban studies scholars Laurence Côté-Roy and Sarah Moser ask a provocative and compelling question in the title of their article: “Does Africa not deserve shiny new cities?” In it, they write that this investment literature of ‘Africa rising’ “construct[s] a compelling narrative of Africa as the world’s next big venture, which fuels a broader ‘optimism industry.’” For this reason, it can be difficult to say whether the optimism felt at the level of individual Lagosians generates, or is generated by, such claims. If one were to look at reports from McKinsey, it’d be difficult not to believe that Nigeria is on the up-and-up.

While reporting the BBC radio piece, I interviewed multiple activists and residents of slums, people who had been excluded from a lot of economic narratives about Lagos, treated as disposable by the city’s decision-makers, evicted and pushed out of their homes. Though many of them had concerns about Eko Atlantic, all of them also talked about the importance of Lagos getting nice, new buildings. They wanted the city to be modern.

Anthropologist James Ferguson, a keen writer on Africa and globalization, writes that modernity is “a way of talking about global inequality and about material needs and how they might be met.” I think that to the extent that certain Lagosians feel excited about Eko Atlantic, it speaks to the fact that they recognize their own economic exclusion and are questioning the role that geography, politics, and the global economy plays in that exclusion.

Ferguson, writing in 2006, points out that certain critiques of globalization can feel weirdly out of place in an African context where franchises like McDonald’s are scant. Instead, globalization in an African context “brought an increasingly acute awareness of the material goods of the global rich, even as economic pauperization […] made the chances of actually attaining such goods seem more remote than ever.” It’s not unfair to suggest that desire for nice, new buildings could express desire for wealth for working Lagosians and their city. I don’t want to suggest that Lagosians are at all gullible about the dynamics underlying Eko Atlantic: I don’t think that most working Lagosians believe that Eko Atlantic will directly house them or offer them jobs or, to be frank, even let them in through the gate. But I do think that Eko Atlantic is seen as evidence of economic growth and advancement in Lagos; perhaps less its driver, as the developers would suggest, and more a symptom of it.

It is important to note that there was and is resistance to Eko Atlantic too. Journalists have reported on ocean surges down the coast that residents and scientists blame on the sea wall of Eko Atlantic. The Heinrich Boell Foundation of Germany (a leftist public policy think tank) has, in concordance with Nigerian researchers, published literature critical of the project. And Justice Empowerment Initiative brings together slum dwellers who continue to organize against demolition of slums in service of new waterfront properties. Their work provides some fine examples of citizen journalism in documenting a record of state abuses against the poor.

A project like Eko Atlantic feels like it ought to be proof that Nigeria is ascendant. It’s exactly the kind of project some international media outlets like to show off as “innovative,” in an effort not to focus on the kinds of stories often lambasted for perpetuating stereotypes about the continent (namely, that it is impoverished and chaotic). But far from being a rebuke to those narratives, Eko Atlantic implicitly affirms those stereotypes by positioning itself as a modernizing force in Lagos. These new buildings are “designed to avoid and supplant the ‘failures and decay’ of the existing city,” as Watson writes. Like a fairy godmother transforming a pumpkin into a carriage, the erection of nice buildings in a walled enclave is proposed as a catch-all solution to the disorder of Lagos—a makeover meant to attract the prince of foreign investment.

Capital is “globe-hopping, not globe-covering,” according to Ferguson. He’s rightly challenging the lingua franca of development economics, which conceptualizes globalization as capital flows, as if capital like water disperses evenly across a terrain. It’s this sort of thinking which suggests that Africa need only appeal better to foreign investment in order to improve living conditions for its people. This is the same logic that guided the Washington consensus, the set of structural reforms imposed on the global South by the IMF and World Bank at the end of the twentieth century: reduce state spending, privatize public services, enshrine property rights, and open up to foreign investment.

This logic assumes that Africa had previously been inhospitable to the free market—perhaps a misguided assumption given that capitalism was historically powered by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and given that presently “the basic commodities that lie in abundance in Africa remain the primary ingredients of the global economy,” according to Financial Times West Africa correspondent Tom Burgis. The Washington Consensus has arguably made it difficult for countries to participate as equal partners in the global economy by imposing massive debt on them. Today, many of the countries that are most rich in resources are also the most exploited by multi-national corporations who bypass local democratic processes, abuse on-site workers, and extract resources with little to no taxation paid to the government. All this is to say that corporations from around the world remain actively involved in African economies, not in spite of political conditions, but because of them. And their activity is largely “concentrated in spatially segregated […] enclaves,” to borrow again from Ferguson—in other words, ensconced in places like Eko Atlantic.

Urban studies scholar Michael Goldman writes about efforts in Bangalore, India to transform local economies into urban real estate through massive development projects. He talks about how the “privatization bravado” of the 1990s set the stage for the idea of world-city making in fully-enclosed development projects that allegedly will make cities “world class.” As he writes, their enclosures, far from containing their impact, actually require and institute a real estate regime in the government as they give over economic and political control to developers in shaping the city, over the consent of its residents. Consequently, locals “are being actively dispossessed as part of the effort to build up a world-city based on a speculative imaginary for world-city investors who may just stay away, and for world-city professionals who have yet to come.”

The logic of private cities is a continuation of the logic of the Washington consensus, taken to the extreme. Private cities like Eko Atlantic typically advertise themselves as “Free Trade Zones” or “Special Economic Zones”, classifications meaning that business can be done with as little regulation and taxes as possible. The state has questionable grounds to interfere in operations, like, for instance in enforcing labor laws. (In 2020, injured workers at the Dangote oil refinery in Lagos expressed concerns that the government lacked power to intervene on their behalf because the refinery was in a free trade zone. Of course, one wonders whether the government would choose to intervene if it could.)

Image credit Katie Jane Fernelius.

But more than just a flashy project for the wealthy, Eko Atlantic is an off-shore account rendered in concrete. The idea of making Lagos the Dubai of Africa takes on new significance in light of Matthew Page’s Dubai report based on data of luxury real estate purchases in UAE which found over 800 properties belonging to “politically-exposed persons” of Nigeria (that is, politicians). As Page writes, “an unknown proportion, perhaps substantial, of the over $400 million they have used to buy Dubai property could be part of a river of illicit financial flows out of Nigeria, which the think tank Global Financial Integrity conservatively estimated to total $178 billion from 2004 to 2013.” Eko Atlantic may be positioning itself as the Dubai of Africa not just in aesthetic, but in mimicking how Dubai handles vast transfers of cash: with little oversight or impunity. Assuming the best, it makes Eko Atlantic a great place to avoid taxes or financial regulations; assuming the worst, this could make the private city a good place to park ill-begotten money.

By design, private cities like Eko Atlantic exempt themselves from a political context, less belonging to a nation-state than becoming a city-state unto themselves. But the money undergirding these projects doesn’t appear from thin air: it’s a wealth built by the same history that built the cities and states they occupy.

The city that oil built

It is important to historicize the wealth of the Chagourys and what has made it possible for them to build Eko Atlantic. Most Nigerians know the Chagourys for their association with the country’s bloody dictator, Sani Abacha. Abacha, who was head of state from 1993 to 1998, was notorious for extensive corruption, looting money from oil profits and transferring it into overseas accounts. He was also responsible for the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who protested oil extraction in the Niger Delta.

While reporting for the radio documentary, I talked to Jim Rupert about his work as the West Africa correspondent for the Washington Post in the 1990s. Of his investigations into the Abacha regime, he said: “We didn’t begin by investigating the Chagourys, but rather by investigating what we understood was this corruption within the Abacha regime. And when I went to Nigeria to quietly ask, ‘Well, how does all of this corruption work ’ Nigerian officials and journalists, international diplomats all told me, ‘You have to learn about a family named Chagoury.’”

By Rupert’s account, the Chagourys’ role under the Abacha regime was endemic: not only pilfering kickbacks from oil companies at every step in the supply chain, but also getting contracts to build government office complexes and secret police headquarters in what was then the new capital city of Abuja. The Chagourys also leveraged their access to Abacha to get audiences with multinational corporations and foreign governments.

(When friends ask me how it felt to live in a “corrupt” country like Nigeria, I’d usually answer that at least in Nigeria they called it corruption, because in America we called it lobbying. It is important to emphasize that the corruption of Abacha and the Chagourys is not unique to Nigeria. I want to refuse the narrative that corruption is a problem endemic to African elites, a hold-over from cultures of patronage, as moneyed expatriates often claimed to me. Abacha and the Chagoury’s corruption was a process for bypassing democratic decision-making in order to concentrate decision-making and money among an elite few. And, on a practical level, it was facilitated by and moving through Western institutions and partners, like Halliburton, Swiss bank accounts, and indirect donations to US presidential campaigns.)

After Abacha died—in the arms of two sex workers, from a heart attack, allegedly poisoned—Gilbert Chagoury paid the Nigerian government $66 million after being found guilty of laundering money for the Abacha regime. In spite of that charge, the Chagourys’ close connection with the Nigerian government and multinational corporations still persists today, as they continue to earn approvals and contracts for large-scale projects. In some ways, the Chagourys represent the ruthless dynamism of capitalism’s exploits on the continent: oil, offshore accounts, contracts for infrastructure development, and now real estate.

Eko Atlantic, like private cities across the continent, signals a profitable opportunity for real estate capitalism. But the ground underneath Eko Atlantic, far from being created out of nothing, has its own history of displacement. In fact, it’s a piece of land that has always toggled between the rich and the poor, less explicit as a class war and more proof of the inextricable and intimate relations between classes.

Before it was called Eko Atlantic, the beach where the private city stood was called Bar Beach. It was a community of petty traders, cleaners, waiters, and clerks who mostly worked in service on the wealthy Victoria Island. But it had a storied past. The British protectorate of Lagos was a tough city for colonial officers. Malaria and heat stroke regularly took out their slim ranks. In an effort to control malaria, the British oversaw multiple projects draining swamps, re-shaping the coastline in ways that still have effects today. Furthermore, in their efforts towards promoting “sanitation” (a familiar euphemism in colonial literature), the British apportioned Bar Beach as a “clean air zone” in the late 19th century, advertising an area separate from the detritus of Lagos. Over time, that designation eroded and far from being a “clean air zone,” Bar Beach became the dumping ground for trams full of effluence (read: shit)—a modern, at the time, attempt to manage sewage in the port city. Lagos eventually traded trams for alternative forms of plumbing, and as its prior reputation as a dumping ground faded from memory, Bar Beach slowly became a place of leisure again.

Beachfront culture was a huge cornerstone of leisure in Lagos. Lagosians today will tell you about holidays spent at the beach as children, eating whole fish and enjoying live music. Some will even recall the Bar Beach show of the 1960s and 1970s, a variety show featuring musical acts, not filmed on location, but evoking the spirit of the shore. It was a spirit that the Lagos State Government would later try to capitalize on in the late 1990s in their efforts to build a tourism-friendly economy.

But the popular beachfront culture couldn’t sanitize Bar Beach completely. During the military era of Nigeria’s history, mainly in the 1970s through the 1990s, the verdant landscape of the beach made it a prime location for military training and exercises, too. Eventually, the military would use the beach to perform public executions. “In crime-ridden Lagos, public executions draw crowds,” read a New York Times dispatch from Bar Beach in 1979. (Some members of the public grimly called these executions another kind of “Bar Beach show.”) The public executions would stop when Nigeria’s military rule came to an end. But there were still grisly associations with the beach. At the very least, Bar Beach was considered a place where you would get up to no good: the kind of place it wouldn’t be hard to find some drugs if you wanted to.

Despite all this, what is most important to know about the place that preceded Eko Atlantic is that it was a community: home to about 80,000 people, mostly living in stilted homes above the water. The water had always been a threat, not just as it crawled up the coast, swallowing land, but also as it thrashed swimmers around in its notoriously violent tide. Sometimes it would ebb so far as to lick the main road, but Sisyphean sand-filling efforts pushed it back throughout the early 2000s. It has long been evident that coastal erosion is a real problem.

The Lagos state government and the Chagoury family would like you to believe it was coastal erosion that displaced the Bar Beach community—they told me as much in interviews in 2017. But the fact remains that in 2008, state officers arrived, shooting tear gas into the community and burning down homes. In the chaos of the eviction, some fleeing community members drowned off the coast. Countless more lost all their possessions in the mix of fire and water. All of those who survived were rendered homeless in one day. Later that year, Eko Atlantic began construction on the evicted beach. (This wasn’t to be the last eviction, either. Most recently, Tarkwa Bay, which sits directly across from Eko Atlantic, was evicted in early 2020.)

Image credit Katie Jane Fernelius.

The promise of a private city like Eko Atlantic is that it can start a new city off of a blank slate, unencumbered by the burdensome histories that make cities difficult. But Eko Atlantic is the continuation of more than a century of changes to the Victoria Island coast. It is not the first adversary of coastal erosion, nor the first moneyed force to reshape the coastline to its liking. Classed access, partitioning, and political violence run constantly from the colonial-era “clean air zones” to the sanitized image of Eko Atlantic today.

I will sheepishly admit that while reporting the radio documentary, I was hungering for some damning detail, something explicitly horrifying to contrast against the narrative of progress that Eko Atlantic’s promotional materials touted. Slum evictions, while horrible, feel almost passé in reporting on the developing world. (I once pitched an editor a story about a slum eviction in Lagos and he replied, “Stories of slum evictions are a dime a dozen.”) As urban historian Mike Davis has shown in his work on cities and slums, the spread of urban poverty is perhaps one of the most striking legacies of the austerity of global capitalism in the developing world, a result of reduced public spending, mass migration and the “informalization of labor” (the latter of which he asserts is a euphemism for mass unemployment). The widespreadness of slums can risk inuring us to the fact that urban slums at this scale are a rather novel phenomenon, historically, and one of the most blatant expressions of the inequality inherent to capitalism.

Eko Atlantic is a vision of that inequality thrown into relief. When I flipped my focus from looking at the impacted city-dwellers to the practices of the developers, I was frustrated, like the editor I pitched, by the lack of a smoking gun. Digging into the Chagourys’ association with the Clintons drove me to reading the drivel of right-wing media which, admittedly, sometimes had germs of truth. My friend Ishan and I spoke with journalists and researchers in Lagos who felt threatened by the Chagourys, but those threats were never directly leveraged against them, just ambient warnings from friends and neighbors and coworkers. It was hard to discern what was an actionable threat versus leftover paranoia from a different era in Lagos, when the Chagourys were aligned with Abacha. Such paranoia seemed not unreasonable in our interviewees even if we struggled to fact-check it. For Ishan and I, insulated by our American passports, all we got was a strongly-worded email from Ronald Chagoury Jr. rebuking our interview with him (and with a phalanx of lawyers CC’d).

In looking for the sensational, I think what I had been hoping for was some way to de-sanctify the project, to find a script for how power operated that could expose the aspirational narratives as bogus, so that I didn’t have to graffiti “NEOLIBERALISM UNDER INVESTIGATION” onto Eko Atlantic like EFCC graffiti.

But looking for evidence of spectacular, cinematic violence is a fool’s errand, because it dismisses what is hidden in plain sight: that displacement, exploitation, and violence are endemic to Lagos’ relationship to the global economy and have been so long before the emergence of private cities. The fact is that Eko Atlantic, and the political and financial mechanics that make a project like it possible, are not atypical of Nigeria or sub-Saharan Africa. Slum clearance and high-end luxury developments are the expression of the mechanics of global capitalism that have been reshaping African megacities like Lagos for decades. The advent of private cities is just the apogee of financial capitalism’s liaison with real estate. Despite what their developers might claim, private cities represent not a fix or departure from the issues facing these cities, but rather a continuation of the very forces that caused them. In their literal concretization, private cities entrench inequality and affirm private rule.

Perhaps the most nefarious element of the story Eko Atlantic tells about itself and Lagos is that it suggests that the future of the city is enclosed by technocratic capitalism: no longer belonging to Lagosians themselves, but instead to the profit motive. I refuse to accept this inevitability. “We must be able to envision alternative configurations of agents, practices and social relations,” Davis writes, “and this requires, in turn, that we suspend the politico-economic assumptions that chain us to the present.”

As much as private cities exemplify the most financially, socially, and environmentally costly aspects to global capitalism, they might also contain the seeds of its demise—by showing the limits and failures of a capitalistic vision of the future. Aspiration doesn’t need to belong only to McKinsey reports about the “lion” economies of the continent. It can be reclaimed by everyday Lagosians as it already is. The future is not entirely foreclosed. At least, not yet.

Further Reading