The irony of preaching social distancing to those living in close urban dwellings in Lagos exposes the crass nature of class disparities in Nigeria.

Lagosians struggling to access government sponsored COVID-19 emergency food bags. Image credit Kunle Ogunfuyi via Flickr CC.

In all its contexts, the crisis caused by COVID-19 has illuminated the stark inequalities which plague society. As the virus has inched across the world, patinas of equality have been torn away. As it turns out, access to financial support, medical care, and public health infrastructure are nakedly organized along pre-existing lines of privilege and wealth. Those at risk of catching, and dying of COVID-19 are themselves much more likely to be poor. Any naive assumptions that the coronavirus would act as a “great leveler” have been thoroughly discredited. Yet in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, these trends are further compounded by the architecture of the city. As the most populous urban center in Africa, Lagos is home to an estimated 20 million residents. It is also the smallest state in Nigeria, constituting a land mass of approximately 3,345 square kilometers. In the era of coronavirus, the distribution of space in Lagos has overlaid responses to, and implications of, the pandemic. While public calls to stay at home are blasted on social media from the villas and mansions of celebrities, the working class are stuck in overcrowded housing, exposed. The implications of the coronavirus crisis in Lagos are refracted through the cartography of class, as we illustrate here.

One of the manifold corollaries of the coronavirus pandemic in Lagos has been its magnifying of the class divide. Indeed, class privilege has long manifested itself within the politics of space in the city, inherited from colonialism. While the dimensions of the city have expanded, and urban architecture on (much of) the mainland has been reformulated, certain sections of the axis of Lagos known colloquially as “the Island” (i.e. Victoria Island, Ikoyi, Lekki, and Banana Island) have retained their collective identity as the home of the rich and the powerful.

These residential areas for the wealthy carry with them a genealogy of exclusion. The high-brow areas of today’s Lagos, Victoria Island, Ikoyi, and the Government Residential Areas (GRAs) were almost exclusively reserved for the bungalows of colonial officers in pre-independence Lagos. With the advent of self-determination, these locales represented access to capital and power for Lagosians with aspirational dreams of upward socio-economic mobility. Characterized by green spaces, cavalcades of trees, and a (rare) abundance of quietude, residency in one of colonial Lagos’ sought-after districts offered access to space, which was at odds with the architecture of the city at large. While Lagos became increasingly congested due to increasing migration, the sheer cost of land in places like Ikoyi limited the encroaching urban sprawl.

Detached houses and buildings one can actually walk between, novelties elsewhere in the city, continue to dominate in the playgrounds of the wealthy. This is not to say that areas such as Ikoyi and Victoria Island have not born witness to the cramped living conditions experienced by Lagos’ poor in recent years. As the numbers of those migrating to Lagos continue to grow and working-class residents are increasingly displaced by development projects, the boundary between affluent neighborhoods and poorer districts has become blurred. Yet the extraordinary range in what people of the city call home remains very much predicated on socio-economic status.

The scarcity of affordable housing in Lagos has seen an increase in the population of residents in makeshift slum settlements. Successive administrations have sought to evict residents of these areas, such as waterfront communities Tarkwa Bay, and Makoko, reported to be the world’s largest floating slum. As the number of homeless people in Lagos continues to rise, left to find makeshift shelter under the city’s bridges, state authorities have relentlessly sought to take land from the poorest, and at the expense of the city’s ecology. Over the last two decades, there have been ongoing efforts to dredge up and “reclaim” land lost to the Atlantic Ocean. An attempt to meet the high demand for accommodation for the affluent, these aggressive dredging projects have seen new settlements emerge on “the island,” such as the ultra-expensive Eko Atlantic (launched by former American President, Bill Clinton) and much of Lekki peninsula.

The last time substantive measures were put in place towards providing adequate housing for the underprivileged in Lagos was during the administration of Governor Lateef Jakande (1979-1983). Jakande, one of the foremost disciples of Obafemi Awolowo (a revered nationalist figure and post-independence government minister), enacted basic social-democratic policies in keeping with the political philosophy of his mentor. Jakande constructed over 30,000 housing units, known as low-cost estates, to cater to the demand for affordable housing by working-class families. These houses, still in existence today, are still popularly known today as “Jakande houses.” Another neologism in the collective lexicon of public housing in Lagos is “face-me-I-face-you.” Face-me-I-face-you is a pidgin expression used to describe a particularly popular architectural style of housing in various urban settlements across Nigeria, but predominantly in Lagos. The houses are utilitarian in design and affordable for low income earners. Their primary function is to accommodate as many tenants as possible within very minimal space. In design, the buildings usually have a tight cluster of one or two-room apartments with the entrance to each apartment facing that of another with a narrow hallway separating them. The kitchen, shower, and toilet spaces are usually communal for all the occupants of the building.

What does this architectural landscape mean for the implications of the coronavirus crisis? To say that space is a scarce commodity in Lagos, a luxury only available to a few, is not an original sentiment. Yet interim measures to stem the spread of the virus are predicated on the very access to space that so many Lagosians simply do not have. Public health strategies centered around social distancing and self-isolation are alien concepts, and moreover, practically impossible for the majority of the city’s residents. The irony of preaching social distancing to those living in face-me-I-face-you buildings exposes the crass nature of class disparities in Lagos. This reminder of the stark difference in the lived realities of Lagosians across the class divide seems to be what counter cultural musical rave-of-the-moment, Naira Marley, was alluding to when he crooned “Owo wa l’Eko, awon kan wa okay”: there’s a lot of wealth in Lagos, quite a few are living very well.

As of June 30, 2020, Nigeria has reported 25,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 573 deaths stemming from the physiological effects of COVID-19. A high proportion of these cases are in Lagos state. On March 30, 2020 the neighboring state Ogun and the national capital Abuja were placed under lockdown. Although such measures are now being eased, the lingering restrictions and calls for social distancing disproportionately impact those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Narratives around the alleged earliest cases of coronavirus transmission in Lagos only serve to further underscore the intersection of class and health amid the pandemic. It is said that on March 10, 2020, members of the Lagos-centric affluent class trooped to London to attend the 80th birthday celebration of Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK and Northern Ireland (and retired Supreme Court judge), George Adesola Oguntade. This party took place at the London Hilton Hotel on Park Lane in Mayfair, one of the most expensive areas in London, and one of the earliest areas in the UK to see serious transmission of the coronavirus. Some of Oguntade’s guests then returned to Lagos shortly after the celebration. For everyone else who missed out on the revelry in London, it was televised locally, thanks to the Bisi Olatilo Show—a television program that caters to members of Nigeria’s elites by showcasing special events they are involved in. The Nigerian dailies shortly after began reporting that two individuals who attended the London party died of the coronavirus afterwards. Around the same time, reports confirmed that the late Abba Kyari, President Buhari’s chief of staff (whose medical report had to be sent to Nigeria by his doctor in St. John’s Wood) and other politicians had contracted the virus. The subsequent public response unsurprisingly invoked both some degree of schadenfreude, and the initial popular perception of the coronavirus as the “rich man’s disease.”

While not an epidemiological correct assertion, there is an unintended sociological rightness to this perception. It could be argued that the rich of Lagos who comprised the first known group of carriers of the coronavirus across Nigeria are now also best placed to avoid infection by virtue of their access to space. In a city where the large majority of low-income earners are employed within the informal economy, working menial jobs, the imposition of lockdown measures by the government has brought untold hardship. For many, the prospect of missing a day of work could result in nothing short of starvation. And, for the thousands who live underneath the city’s bridges, and the millions crammed in face-me-I-face-you houses across Lagos, social distancing or self-isolating is an option that has never been on the table for them in the first place.

About the Author

Ini Dele-Adedeji is a Global Challenges Research Fund Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science (Centre of African Studies).

Ella Jeffreys is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London (SOAS) and a Scouloudi Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.

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