Over a period of more than thirty years, arc en rêve in Bordeaux has organized events and lectures, inviting guest architects and theorists, specialists and non specialists to share their ideas and discuss issues relating to urban design, architecture and communal living. It has thus contributed to the emergence of specific expertise and the dissemination of contemporary architectural and urban culture, stepping well beyond local boundaries.

arc en rêve la revue is a publication and republication medium designed to provide gradual access to selected archives, most of them previously unpublished. The idea is to mine the various strata of arc en rêve’s thirty-year history, so that the data can be activated and used to address relevant topical issues.

Inscrivez-vous pour être tenu-e informé-e des actualités de la revue et de la parution des prochaines éditions.

Projet conduit par Marie Bruneau et Bertrand Genier dans le cadre d’un partenariat avec le ppLab

Design, développement : Julien Bidoret

© arc en rêve centre d’architecture, et les auteurs / tous droits réservés


à la mairie de Bordeaux,
qui soutient arc en rêve depuis sa création

au ministère de la Culture et de la Communication / Direction générale des patrimoines / DRAC Aquitaine,
et aussi
à la communauté urbaine de Bordeaux
à la région Aquitaine

à nos partenaires privés :

Fondation d’Entreprise Bouygues Immobilier

et aussi
Château Chasse-Spleen
Tollens Materis Peintures


{Harvard Project on the City}

Harvard Project on the City is a seminar led by Rem Koolhaas in the Harvard Design School.

The program devoted to Lagos, Nigeria, was conducted by Pierre Belanger, Chuihua Judy Chung, Joshua Comaroff, Michael Cosmas, Sonal Gandhi, David A. Hamilton, Lan-Ying Ip, Jeannie Kim, Gullivar Shepard, Reshma Singh, Nathaniel Slayton, James Stone and Sameh Wahba.

It was published for the first time on the occasion of Mutations, cultural event on the contemporary city, created by arc en rêve centre d’architecture, in Bordeaux (24 November 2000 - 25 March 2001), in Mutations p. 651-699, co-edition arc en rêve centre d’architecture / Actar, Barcelona, 2000.

The fundamental conundrum of Lagos, considered as both paradigm and pathological extreme of the West African city, is its continued existence and productivity in spite of a near-complete absence ot those infrastructures, systems, organizations, and amenities that define the word “city” in terms of Western planning methodology. 

Lagos, as an icon of West African urbanity, inverts every essential characteristic of the so-called modern city. Yet, it is still-for lack of a better word-a city; and one that works.
 Rapidly expanding, transforming, and perfecting, the Lagos urban condition allows for the survival of up to fifteen million people.
Anguish over its shortcomings in traditional urban systems obscures the reasons for the continued, exuberant existence of Lagos and other megacities like it. These shortcomings have generated ingenious, critical alternative systems, which demand a redefinition of ideas such as carrying capacity, stability, and even order, canonical concepts in the fields of urban planning and related social sciences. The operation of the Lagos megalopolis illustrates the large-scale efficacy of systems and agents considered marginal, liminal, informal, or illegal according to traditional understandings of the city. This project is as much a study of Lagos as it is a study of more radical possibilities in the discipline of urban planning, and a proposal of new ways to examine the modern city. While the conditions identified in Lagos are extreme cases, such extremity is generally a very rational response to a dysfunctional scenario.
The material logic of Lagos is convincing.
We are resisting the notion that Lagos represents an African city en route to becoming modern. Or, in a more politically correct idiom, that it is becoming modern in a valid, “African” way. Rather, we think it possible to argue that Lagos represents a developed, extreme, paradigmatic case-study of a city at the forefront of globalizing modernity.
This is to say that Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos.
The African city forces the reconceptualization of the city itself. The fact that many of the trends of modern, Western cities can be seen in hyperbolic guise in Lagos suggests that to write about the African city is to write about the terminal condition of Chicago, London, or Los Angeles. It is to examine the city elsewhere, in the developing world. It is to reconsider the modern city and to suggest a paradigm for its future.
In short, we would argue, it is to do away with the inherited notion of “city” once and for all.


“Africans are constantly rearranging their social, economic, religious, and domestic lives in the process of consuming more than they produce… Shifting designations creates a seemingly permanent state of political ambiguity.” 1
Despite the presence of both land-use data collected at the regional scale and the national grid system, a boundary for Lagos has never been drawn or agreed upon. The lack of clear spatial boundaries has left open and unresolved the question of where authority over the land areas resides, leading to disputes in legal and political administration and the practice of census enumeration. Lagos Island is the only area in the city which maintained a fixed boundary between 1911 and 1962, at 155 square miles (while its population, according to written sources, multiplied threefold).2 For censuses taken between 1901 and 1962, the national area covered increased from 18 square miles to 2.722 square miles. The discipline of geography has failed to grasp the single fact that the nature of accuracy and measure in Lagos is negotiable. Geography and the settlement of property in Lagos cannot be assessed and measured according to the fixed definitions of the census and the aerial photograph. Property lines are continually being reassessed and renegotiated in accordance with intersecting land laws, taxes, claims, and interests. This structural skein camouflages its ordering system, but recognizes that one’s right to reside and work in the city is flexible and mutable. The negotiability of property lines means that there is no fixed typology in Lagos. Different types may be introduced or develop, but they are invariably subject to reassessment and reconfiguration.


The unit of property in Lagos derives from the Yoruba compound. The compound is a collective property and consists of an assembly of dwellings arranged in physical proximity. It is not strictly a typology, representing instead a loosely bounded space wherein a group of interests coexist side by side and in agreement. Its collective ownership as understood by customary law was hence not communal in the sense of being communally built, managed, and used. Individual rights were protected, and once an individual’s land had been settled and built on it was ‘divested’ of its communal use, Thus, under customary law, land could be transferable as an individual saw fit.”3

Despite this original flexibility, the compound has urbanized in Lagos as a property bounded by a perimeter wall and arranged around a courtyard and a communal alley. The compound develops through provisional occupation within a series of boundaries, or as the proliferation of a single-cell compound. As finances, means, and labor permit, the compound develops incrementally in a variety of ways. The residential base is often supported by small-scale businesses that operate adjacent to or in front of the dwelling, the profits or materials of which are gradually transferred to residential additions and renovations. The physical result is a high heterogeneity of use and function at the scale of the compound, homogeneous and porous space at the scale of the neighborhood.
The compound has modernized into a lucrative form of rental property. 8’ x 10’ rooms can easily be built to accommodate a family or a few people.
Due to increased wealth and a new desire for individuality, the fission of t he single cell now contributes to a process of compounding. Compounding occurs as 1) the construction of new rooms, and 2) the making of new surfaces, vertical or horizontal planes, gratings, fences, and metal sheets in ever more incremental layers. Compounding thus increases the amount of building program, as new rooms collect more rent and new surfaces support new businesses or functions. Like fission in physics, this process diversifies the compound programmatically, minimizes exterior space, and densifies existing spaces. Compounding demands a constant reassessment of urban and property boundary conditions and of socially constructed space.


If the difficulty involved in establishing property led to its physical delimitation by walls, increased crime has transformed the property line into a means to exclude outsiders and to enforce and police one’s property. This phenomenon is not limited to the wealthy areas normally targeted for crime, but occurs across the socioeconomic spectrum of real estate, from Ikoyi, Mushin, to Surulere. Though these areas were built according to different spatial typologies, they have been homogenized by their shared physical continuity, leveling the city into one psychic environment. The wall is typically constructed out of CMU blocks , barbed wire , shards of glass. and pebbles. A security gate is used to cross its threshold. Not only Individual plots are walled this way; streets and districts policed by area boys and local vigilante groups, or neighborhood security are gated off with secure checkpoints. The construction of walls and security gates throughout the city has sparked an entire industry : steel reinforcing bars are regularly used to con struct gates and entry doors, while architecturally designed gates are sought after by wealthier home owners. The property line, originally a conceptual and abstract legal division designed to divide, enclose, and exclude, has materialized into a vertical wall whose surface has become an attractor for use, contamination, and the establishment of new economies. The wall has come to be taken for granted as an infrastructure that supports and serves a host of economies and small-scale indus tries. The wall itself can be used as the support for carpets, or security gates ; in conjunction with a drain, it forms a thickened swath of space between the plot/compound and the street. This space is occupied by vulcanizers, petty traders, and can even accommodate sleeping in its width. The wall can also become a three-dimensional barrier, with a depth of 3 to 4 feet, that can be used as a marketable space.


The explosive growth that Lagos has witnessed in the last two decades-the population rises by an estimated 1,000/day – has assigned to the wall a new challenge. Today the wall is a machine for guarding land against occupation by the poor, the masses. It has become more a way of controlling surface than a mechanism against violence.
In Lagos, public space is continuously being occupied in new ways.
Pavements have become crowded with hawkers, food merchants, mechanics, tailors, hairdressers, and all kinds of entrepreneurs. People jostle anarchically for turf, while ‘life’ seems to thrive in the congestion of the streets. It is not clear which comes first: the rather extravagant and perhaps greedy delimiting of land in order to exclude and construct one’s own interior ‘world’, or the density of Lagos street life.
The interior that the wall defines does not necessarily remain static.
Compounds regenerate and occasionally reinvent themselves, but, as with the large tracts of walled-in land that abound in Lagos, re-emerge as suburbia. In Lagos, suburbia is not confined to the periphery of the city, as is often the norm; it implodes in the city.
Is Lagos staged ? Could it be that Lagos’s urbanity is artificially induced, rather ironically by the same forces that seek to diffuse it ? Could it be that Lagos’s highly urban street life owes its existence to an implosion of suburbia ?


The lack of clear zoning for industrial uses beyond the compounds of the multinational companies, and the incessant compounding of the entire city, has pushed the labor market to occupy the boundaries of private property and urban infrastructure. Road embankments, the underside of flyovers, railway tracks, and the city’s multiple shorelines have been colonized by a host of secondary industries and services-cement block factories, vulcanizers, roadside mechanics, hairdressers, roadside markets, and so on. This lining of the road system, most evident in the filling of the circular voids of cloverleaves, demonstrates the basics of space-planning: highway columns are used as spatial dividers, foundation pads as workable surfaces, and open areas serve for the markets or the collection and storage of materials. The undersides of flyovers are used for a range of purposes from industry, to storage, to car parks which can be conveniently fenced off between road columns. These land pieces belong either to the federal military government of Nigeria or to state government. This type of territorialization of space represents a temporary but legal occupation of land without ownership, a general lining of the urban fabric. Near Jankara, Lagos’s largest market, four cloverleaves have been taken over as a recycling exchange. The recycling market has been located on the land since the 1960s, except for temporarily displacement by the Federal government during the construction of the highway (1973-78) ; the government has respected its land rights in exchange for a tax. The market has adapted the new highway infrastructure to its highest use potential. The order of the highway is in line with the production processes that take place there: small assembly operations take place beneath the flyover, where groups of young men assemble lanterns, cooking pots, and other metal wares. Others work as scavengers throughout the city, collecting scrap metal and plastics and assorting them into material piles. Storage and warehousing of these scraps takes place in the open area of the interchange. From scrap collection to sorting to design to assembly to re-sale, the entire chain of commodity production occurs within the highway interchange. The Jankara interchange services various corporations – Universal Steel is a regular purchaser of scrap metal, and major plastic manufacturers are also regular customers – suggesting that the transactions between lower and upper levels of the economy are converging on temporarily settled federal land. In fact, the gradual institutionalization of facilities such as Jankara suggests that the urbanization of capital in Lagos follows a different and more efficient logic than that of the redundant and inefficient highway construction.


The terms ‘go-slow’ and ‘no-go’ are part of a popular lexicon replete with nomenclature that expands the scope of traffic and movement to the level of urban consciousness. Go-slow describes the ubiquitous traffic jam : lulled in congestion, captive to the road’s breadth, and thriving with entrepreneurial activity. The go-slow is a transient condition, swelling diurnally with the usual peaks of urban movement. The no-go, on the other hand, is less a condition than a place. Defined by failed planning, bankrupted initiative, regular banditry, or physical collapse. the no-go stalls circulation in a space of maximum vulnerability. As such, the Incomplete road or constricted intersection is In a way recuperated, becoming controllable-and extremely valuable-real estate. Jam-space, the totally negotiable, usually illegal and hugely productive space of the traffic jam, is not something to fix, solve, or even rationalize. Jam-space cannot be controlled or short-circuited, only bypassed. Rampant entrepreneurialism charges the bottleneck’s enormous physical friction with an even greater social traction. As roads jam, their traffic spills into surrounding areas, expanding motorable terrain by default. The road hemorrhages at points of maximum Inutility, subjecting neighboring communities and adjacent landscapes to the perils and opportunities of dispersed road traffiC. Bottlenecks encourage detouring, turning ‘neighborhoods’ – the white and gray space on the map between thickly drawn expressways – into an infinity of potential routes. Any road can be a feeder road, a collector, or an arterial. The detour is an inverse of positive proximity theory : rather than relying on proximity to fixed infrastructure for residual economic benefits, the detour redirects the infrastructure’s patrons to under-served areas. lams and detours allow more of the city to be accessed more of the time.

Groups normally neglected by road traffic sometimes take advantage of the detour. Area boys, for example, purposefully destroy road surfaces to redirect road traffic into ‘ambush areas’ or under-patronized commercial districts. In 1996, the 600 km Onitsha/Owerri road East of lagos “caved in on several spots, making motorists detour in selected places, driving through farmlands and remote villages, crisscrossing abandoned terrain to reconnect to the highway. Many lives were lost in the process, vehicles endangered and many lost theIr way In far flung communities. Drivers drifted across the landscape like in the olden days.”4 Lagos’s detours are usually subtle, sometimes dramatic, but never merely coincidental. Sometimes the detour is a self-administered flood that forces people off an expressway and into a neighborhood. Sometimes the diversion might be a roadway fire. At other times it might be coded as an arrangement between drivers and distributors, whereby the drivers stop in traffic so that jammed passenger cars can be subjected to roadway hawkers.

Lagos’s slowness has hardened. The expressways, originally dumped on the city to bind disparate destinations and origins, are now almost completely unrecognizable to the planner’s eye. On a map they still look like they organize the city. The view from above seems to make sense – ‘the city is interconnected’. But at each of the plan’s intersections this omniscience collapses. The Lagos ‘street’ is inadequately described by throwaway terms like ‘channel’, ‘communications artifact’, ‘flow space’, or ‘arena for social expression’. Lagos has no streets ; instead, it has curbs and gates, barriers and hustlers that control separate landscapes. Some areas might look like streets; they might even look like superhighways. But even the Lagos superhighway has bus stops on it, mosques under it, markets in it and buildingless factories throughout it. Lagos is as much a system of circulation as it is any particular place. The spaces of the city are popularly described in terms of stoppages, shortages, storage, stalling, overcompensations, and material depositions. Its roads are not plan lines between points, but perhaps its most elastic and variable scapes, made more enabling by local modifications which deny the road’s insistent linearity – guardrails are removed, jersey barriers put aside. At all bottlenecks, the road is converted to allow movement in a maximum number of directions.


Everybody seems to agree, albeit for different reasons, that Oshodi embodies Lagos’s identity. Despite having escaped historical accounts, today Oshodi Is the most intense marketplace In all of Lagos, and perhaps In all of Nigeria. located at the Intersection of the Apapa Oworonsoki ring road and the city’s north-south spine, Agege road, it has transformed existing sites of the city’s transport infrastructure – an incomplete on-ramp and an almost defunct railway.
At the precise point in the metropolitan diagram where the northern half of the ring road meets the railway spine, the micro-scale of the plan hemorrhages. The two ends don’t quite snap together. Oshodi is a failure of construction mechanisms to connect closing segments, a cloverleaf intersection with only two-and-a-half leaves. The aborted Oshodi cloverleaf system respects the right of way of the Nigerian Railway Corporation but ignores the logic of the flow of vehicular traffic between perpendicular axes. The dysfunctional off-ramps, otherwise impediments to circulation, have been recuperated as programmed cul-de-sacs. But Oshodi somehow works. Tentative and even officially temporary, Oshodi’s ‘incomplete’ layout in many ways increases the number of things it can do. Taking advantage of the interplay between the two different traffic patterns – a fast-moving upperlevel overpass, and the slow-moving pedestrian along the rail line-many services and amenities have colonized the off-ramps and roundabouts. Taken together these form a complex overlap of programs : a train station, urban and suburban bus stations, hauling stations, several different markets, auto garages, a school, at least one church, and hundreds if not thousands of service stalls. Left incomplete, the intersection has a deleterious effect on metropolitan traffic ‘ride-times’. But when measured in terms of efficiencies other than speed, the intersection is enormously functional : its no-go turns congestion into destination. Oshodi is probably – who really knows ? – the longest continuous ribbon of private/public property in Lagos5. All along its length, the roadsides have been annexed and overrun with trading activities. An independent consulting group, MetroBusiness, reports that almost half of the roads at Oshodi have been taken over in this fashion. Oshodi’s traders and transport businesses have literally annexed the transport infrastructure, the rail-line and Agege road, and have even taken measures to construct new roads and new right-of-ways. They have turned infrastructure into a marketplace, non-place into productivity. Claimed by multiple interests, traders, councils, hawkers, and agrebos (area boys), as well as the NRC, Oshodi effectively belongs to no one. Continually interrupted by the train, Oshodi sustains itself in a state of flux. On a twenty-four-hour cycle, it continually remakes and replenishes itself through the accumulated exchanges of naira and goods and by the movements of it s individual mobile traders. The swath of territorialized land has been divided into anywhere from twenty to thirty parallel strips, each with varying degrees of temporariness, permanence, and flow. Book-ended by more permanent concrete markets – on the west the electronics market, on the east the distribution point – the market becomes more temporary as it condenses towards the center. Though its typology is visible in other Lagos markets, the linear organization at Oshodi makes it particularly succinct. Due to the instability surrounding ownership or claims on the land, the degree of permanence of trading infrastructure corresponds to degrees of mobility. In previous accounts by planners and geographers, Oshodi has symbolized the dysfunctional city – the aura of the last remaining but dying colonial institution, the railway. Today, however, Oshodi provides further proof and evidence for the city’s collective resistance. Targeted for ‘public enlightenment’ (read Operation Sweep) by LAWMA, blacklisted by trafficologists (read enforcement), and recently in the process of being repossessed by the Nigerian Railways Corporation, Oshodi persists in spite of all these regulatory incentives, transforming defunct railway bars into the city’s most productive market.

In 1978, Alaba International Electronics Market was squeezed out of Lagos, dumped on a swamp and left to Its own devices. Since then, the market has grown to include 50,000 merchants that net over USD 2 billion annually. Officially described as an ‘unorganized sector’, Alaba accounts for 75% of West Africa’s electronics trade. like most of Lagos’ peripheral markets, Alaba is an orphan. Begun as part of Mushin’s Alake market, Alaba had little significance until its electronics merchants started selling speakers in the 1970s. As music amplification became more popular, the market took off, moving loads of original, reconditioned and sometimes bogus Panabis, Gibson and Philips speakers through its many stalls. The ‘77 FESTAC event raised demand for audio speakers at the same time that it put pressure on the market to move away from its busy neighbor, the National Stadium. So Alaba began a westward exodus. First, it went to Mile 2. But that location only exacerbated the event’s effect on the market because by increasing the traffic exposed to the merchants at the same time that it increased the merchant’s proximity to the Apapa Port supply. Later that same year, the market was moved further west along the Badagry Expressway, to the small jungle-enclave of Ojo. Chief Magnus Ubochi, chairman of the market association, says that the move to Ojo was crucial, giving Alabans “a place where they could grow to infinity”.6 And they nearly did. ‘Little Japan’ – as Alaba has been dubbed – was adopted by the Badagry local Government Area in 1979. Combining itself with the local electronics market, the 2,800 displaced Alaba traders soon had the second largest market in Lagos State, and far and away the most profitable one. A large fire and the austerity measures of the 1980s weakened the market’s activities as the importation of consumer goods was minimized. But parallel trade with Benin and new concrete lock-ups buoyed Alaba through the eighties, establishing an operating formula based on circumvention of traditional supply chains and vigilant self-defense. In the mid 1990s the Nigerian Port Authority relaxed its import tariffs, enabling Alaba to benefit from two supply sources nearly equidistant from the market site : the (official) Apapa Port and the (unofficial) Benin border town of Seme. Straddling the two sectors maximized the market’s responsiveness to supply-side opportunities, and it soon became the largest electronics market on the continent.

Alaba used this success to build a town around itself. Generating huge revenues for the Ojo local Government Council, the market has earned a reputation as the region’s source for ‘second-class or fake electronics’ imported from Asia. This reputation, however, has not handicapped business. The Alaba Market Association recently raised N5O million to build Ojo an “ultra-modern secretariat and car park”. The Association also donated the books and television sets that fill the market-funded local library. Ojo’s fire station, electric substation and even telecommunications tower were constructed at the Market Association’s expense.7 Outsourcing domesticity to the surrounding area, Alaba has effectively transformed its host town into a bedroom community.

Left alone, Alaba International Electronics Market has sustained rampant growth. And, left alone, it has had to reconcile this runaway expansion with increasing vulnerabilities. After an initial big-bang and several years of capitalism-without-Keynes, the market is becoming self limiting. It is now building its first fence – a 23 million naira wall to separate the mark.et area from its host city. Having consolidated its edges, the market has had to adopt alternative strategies to grow. In addition to building vertically, Alaba is metastasizing : mini-Alabas have turned up at Oshodi, Mile 12 and, most recently, Abuja. Backed by an American investment company, the 600 plot Abuja electronics market is being laid out on 20 hectares along the capital’s spine, Airport Road. It will be named ‘Alaba New’.


Alaba looks like a city. A ‘total self help effort’, the market has generated its own system of address, its own type of street, its own provision of churches, its own banks, its own brand of democracy and even its own form of justice. But it is a city without housing, without women (the market is almost exclusively male) and without children. It has no nightlife because it has no night : its ‘hours of operation’ are from 8am to 6pm. It is, of course, closed on Sundays.

As a business, Alaba acts on its own prerogatives. The Market Association funds itself with a monthly security levy, donations by executive members, and fines collected from unscrupulous merchants. In turn, the association gives money to the local government, the poor, and even takes care of its past leaders. The DIY effort funds borehole drilling, latrine construction, and public telephone booths. The association is paying for the new perimeter fence, television towers, street gutters, electrical transformers, a telecom system and even a security vehicle to patrol the market. But the Association does more than just service the market with infrastructures ; It’s also building a new secretariat and courthouse. Members of the group have developed new, more vertical building typologies to increase market densities. New stall types integrate a warehouse on the first floor with an office on the second; merchandise is kept in the first floor lock-up from where it can either be loaded directly onto transporters or set out on display. That is, the shops are both wholesale and retail outlets. The market site is organized in three divisions: the ‘fancy section’ (lights, lampposts and electrical fittings) ; the ‘electrical materials area’ (transformers, wiring, bulbs and spare parts) ; and the ‘pioneer market’ (appliances, generators and circuitry). Nearly 50% of this merchandise is secondhand – brought in from clearinghouses in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. The preponderance of used goods has led to parallel industries of near – manufacture that operate across the market’s sections. Reducing the bogus, spent, or out-ot-order appliances to heaps of circuitry, transistors, and plastic shells, entrepreneurs organize whole alleyways into mechanical assays. A production line of electricians, welders, painters and technicians then works in tandem to produce electronic hybrids of pieced together radios, TVs and generators. Not so much a factory, the secondary market is more a disassembly field within which all things have different values assigned to them: mechanically functioning BUs (Built-Ups) and nonfunctioning but potentially valuable parts or CKDs (Complete Knock Downs)8 These material movements occur between sections, across streets and alongside buildings. As the market thickens, its interstices become increasingly productive.

These gaps aren’t just leftover slack space. Alaba never had a plan to abandon, or a spectacular failure to celebrate. Perhaps this is because Alaba is predicated on terrain, not streets; its structures are more closely tied to landscapes than cities. Although It is provisionally bound to the line of the highway it straddles, the market benefits from patterns of circulation and communication that are irrespective of any road. Many of the market buildings are not fronted by a sidewalk or curb. Instead, all scape is equally navigable by pedestrian, wagon or truck, Material movements in the market vary tremendously in scale : huge shipping containers vie for space with circuit-filled buckets. The indeterminacy of the road’s breadth allows a maximum number of things to happen on it. At Alaba, a road might have generators, aggregate piles, parked cars, inventory, waste and even a portable prison adjacent to one another.

A disciplined skyline matches the free-for-all on the ground plan e. The first generation lock-ups are single-storey CMU structures with 10x10 and 10x20 footprints. The lock-up performs only one function: it protects merchandise. In turn, merchants bring their own infrastructures to this basic shell. Alaba is said to have the highest concentration of generators in the world. Portable generators are propped up on tires just outside the lock-up doors, while larger fixed units are put in welded rebar security cages and left in the street. Communications systems are also left up to the stall owner. On approach, the market first appears as a thousand makeshift radio towers swaying way above the rooftop’s satellite dishes. All hoopla about cellular toting nomads leapfrogging into the twenty-first century is immediately checked. The Alaba system is as successful as it is perverse : because communication is the crux of trade, merchants spend huge sums on private radio-wave towers to insure cellular access. Attempts by telecom operators like EMIS to consolidate the market’s network with base stations and shared antennae are met with skepticism.9 In a business that directly sources inventory from markets in Singapore, Taipei, London and Dubai, the telecom masts are a necessity. If networking has formal consequence, this is its apotheosis.


At Alaba’s center are its two most public institutions, each imposing different aspects of discipline – one psychological and one political. The first, a blue Pepsi (‘The Choice of a New Generation’) ship container riddled with Irregularly shaped, rebar-grated holes, is the town prison, It sits conspicuously on the main street that passes through the market. The second, a simple shop, houses the International Market Association Electronics Alaba (lMAEA) court. It is inconspicuously located just opposite the prison. 
A legion of uniformed and plain-clothed security personnel operates between the punitive and judicial branches. The IMAEA has put the two ends of Nigerian law enforcement trade to work on the same beat : the vigilante and the rent-a-cop. What in other contexts would remain at opposite ends of the legal spectrum are here brought under the same umbrella, Having the two systems in place increases the market’s stability by keeping the two patrols suspicious of one another. What’s more, the association regularly cycles through both area boys and private security companies to keep temporary alliances from forming between criminals and the patrols. When infractions are identified, perpetrators are either held in the prison or taken directly to the court and dealt with by representatives of the IMAEA. Hearings are held on Fridays. It follows, then, that the largest committee of the Market Association controls punitive measures : the IMAEA calls It “The Task Force”. But this committee is only one of a long list of IMAEA groups that regulate market activity ; it should not, for example, be confused with the Similarly named “The Tax Force”. Although a chief leads the market, it is hardly a tribe. The chief is elected for a three-year term, and is allowed a limit of just two terms. The larger organization is made up of a 40 member executive council consisting of business leaders, the more authoritative elders council and 10 elected officials that head the various ‘departments’. These include a development committee, a finance committee, a public relations department, a publications department, an electricity committee, the tax and task forces, a works and development committee, a security department, and even quality control groups and trade organizations.10

These council groups are, of course, complimented by sub-committees, The Electrical Dealers Association of Nigeria, EDA, a trade group associated with the IMAEA, was formed to pressure the Apapa Port Authority to control the number of counterfeit and fake products coming into the country. Fake products are bad for business – or at least the publicity associated with them is. Mr. Celestine Obioguatu set up a sub-committee within EDA to tackle the PR problem. To get at the problem directly, he insisted on creating a third tier of acronym – the Anti-Adulteration Committee (AAC) ; the AAC reports to the EDA, which in turn reports to public relations department of the AIEA. The AAC has the power to enforce market laws against fakery. In its first year of patrols, the Anti-Adulteration Committee seized and then burned over 185,000 naira worth of bogus electronics. The EDA implores prospective buyers to visit their secretariat for inquiries into the pedigree of the market’s products, and even offers limited warranties on electronics bought from its member stalls.11

In “A New Paradigm for Urban Development”, a paper delivered at a World Bank conference in 1991, A. L. Mabogunje proposed that the lines between the informal and formal sectors contained the greatest potentials for new urbanisms. Calling for ‘institutional radicalization’ the very figure of old-guard African urbanism suggested that temporary fusion between informal processes and ‘mature’ institutions might be read as a blueprint for progressive urban strategies.12 As ambitious as such a suggestion might be, Alaba is already there. In fact, Alaba doesn’t just enable the ‘temporary’ sector-bridging that Mabogunje proposes, it hardens such arrangements. They become durable, not radical ; the IMAEA is everyday evolving a more and more dynamic relationship with mature institutions.

Banks, for example. In the last ten years, 21 lending institutions have formed In the market. Aside from providing seed loans and micro-credit services for aspiring electronics dealers, the banks have become part of the market’s operating system. By maintaining a database of each vendor’s performance, the lending institutions are able to alert the IMAEA of its member’s activities, Transgressions and discrepancies can be identified and punished, and successes rewarded. The market association depends on these databanks to make forecasts and develop policy. In turn, the banks rely on the market to design and establish loan structuring schemes specific to the area’s merchants.


The Japanese experience in imitative technology cannot be easily duplicated but is instructive. The country should be prepared to pay the high cost of modern technology and management. Our laws on patents and copyrights are premature. We should, with a sense of urgency, encourage and condone industrial espionage and piracy.”13
Mimesis is part of the Alaba formula : find your best men, give them plane tickets to Taipei, Moscow, Singapore, Mexico city, Sao Paolo and Dubai (the Klondike of free market success) and have them take notes. To go to Redmond, Palo Alto or even Tokyo (in 2000 at least) would be a waste of time. Chief Ubochi calls these mercantile prospectors his ‘boy scouts’. The scout scans the globe on market-funded missions of capitalist reconnaissance. In this way, the IMAEA continually updates its operations with emerging models of late/post capitalism based on other sector-straddling markets in Southeast Asia, Russia, and, most recently, the Middle East. These markets are all at the forefront of what Mabogunje had termed ‘fusion’ and what others might call corruperation.
Alaba has long recognized the advantages of being between sectors.
Even geography reinforces its position. Being between Apapa port and the Benin border means that it can be between official and unofficial – direct and parallel – trade routes. This increases the number of supply channels it can rely on. As good as these sources are, however, the last ten year’s phenomenal growth is more the consequence of a third channel: the airport.

“We are connected globally”, says Ubochi, pointing to the sky. If a lot of cheap Sanyo stereos comes up for bid in Singapore, Alaba’s corps of scouts goes to Singapore. If a wholesaler folds in Delhi, they go to India to clear any remaining stock. The 30 to 50 containers a day that arrive at the market are filled with new and used goods from Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Italy (gas cookers), Spain (freezers), and the United Arab Emirates (video games, generators). Japan used to be on the list but has been dropped for the simple reason that Lagos-Tokyo flights have become prohibitively expensive. To compensate, Alabans get their Japanese products in the United Arab Emirates.


On Friday, Jan. 30, 2000, a Kenyan Airlines plane carrying 134 Nigerian passengers crashed in a lagoon outside of Abidjan. Coming inbound from Nairobi, the plane was unable to land in Lagos because of the Harmattan dust hat forced it to continue on to the Ivory Coast. Five Nigerians survived the crash. The casualties were victims of an increasingly popular and important air-route between Lagos and Dubai. Most of those on the flight were merchants of the emerging ‘suitcase trade’ between Africa and the free trade zones of UAE’s commercial capital.14
In the last five years airlines have dramatically stepped up their frequencies of flights between Dubai and the major suh-Saharan trade areas of Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi. The UAE’s own Emerates Air is leading this market : the carrier’s freight division, Emirates SkyCargo, has projected a 24 percent increase in both revenue and tonnage for the 1999-2000 financial year on routes that can move goods from the Far East to East Africa in less than 24 hours. Cubai’s logistical prowess has actually led to a regular flow of Eastbound vegetables in one direction and Westbound electronics in the other.15 Similarly, Kenya Airways is planning a 100 percent increase in frequency, with a total of four weekly flights, from Dubai to Nairobi with connecting flights to Lagos and Johannesburg. And, Nigeria Airways made Dubai its regional hub in 1997.16 Air travel between Lagos and Dubai is largely the domain of the Igbo businessman – the Alaban or spare parts dealer attracted to the Gulf’s enormous secondary of used computers, peripherals, and other electronic goods. Dubai papers are filled with lists of second-hand goods for sale. Such merchandise has a kind of mythic status in Lagosian markets. Called ‘tokunbo’ – Yoruban for a child born abroad – the used goods instigate many secondary and tertiary material cycles that recuperate or recycle products. Like Alaba, Dubai’s many Free Trade Villages have high percentages of out-of-date electronics. Just as Alaba fashions Itself after Dubai, Dubai once fashioned itself after Singapore. The development of Dubai dates back to the 1960s.

As Sultan Ahmed Sulayem, chairman of Jebel Ali and managing director of Dubai Ports Authority puts it : “(at) that time, we were fascinated by what Singapore was doing in developing its port. So we sent people to Singapore towards the end of the 1960s to see what we could learn.” The plans remained on the drawing board as the country did not have the necessary funds to ‘translate them into reality’ until the discovery of oil. Money generated by the country’s abundant petroleum reserves was sunk into huge infrastructure projects including the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone.
Like Alaba, Dubai’s only real asset is its relative position : halfway between Singapore and London, halfway between Moscow and Nairobi. The city couldn’t help becoming a hub ; and, of course, all hubs can’t help becoming duty-free cities. Shopping replaced petroleum as the country’s distinguishing feature as Dubai put itself on the map with both the world’s largest shopping festival and the world’s tallest hotel.

Dubai’s geography, once its greatest advantage, is now actually limiting its growth. But at the moment of its apotheosis, the Emir has rescued his emirate with a new geography – electronic space. In the year 2000 Dubai will launch itself into an electronic infinity with the christening of dubaielectroniccity.com.
Like Alaba, Dubai’s population is mostly male (70+%) and mostly from afar. Expatriates are far and away the majority in the UAE, mostly coming from the India, the Philippines and Pakistan. And like Alaba, Dubai benefits from a branded, if unbridled, form of capitalism. To attract investors, the Dubai government did the usual : the standard urban cocktail of the ‘pro-business package’. But to keep clients in the desert they took the off-the-shelf business package and hyperbolized its every promise. In Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone, foreign investors are not only assured 100 percent ownership, but also enjoy a renewable tax holiday forlS years during which they do not have to pay income, corporate, building or land taxes. The Airport Free Zone has an almost identical pro-everything gist, but promises an exemption on import duties and allows the free movement of capital in addition to the standard list of freebies.


Clifford Geertz once wrote that the informal market was doomed to archaic inefficiencies. “The trader, said Geertz, is perpetually looking for a chance to a make a smaller or larger killing, not attempting to build up clientele to a steadi y growing business.”17 Geertz was troubled by the bartering, haggling and ‘inefficient’ price structuring mechanisms of informal environments. Since 1963, social anthropology has spent enormous amounts of energy describing how such systems are, in fact, based on enormously powerful and effective social organizations that are nothing if not efficient networks. The most recent cases – the Alaban conditions – present the most terrifying potentials. Unfettered, and unleashed, Alaba’s severe social program is matched by an incredibly compelling post-urban example : “Within the globalization regime, there is an emphasis on speed, incessant signification, unimpeded capital flows, the hyper-reality of credit and fiscality, and the amplification of micro-dynamics as keys to profit. Accordingly, the deployment of new modalities of organization acting outside juridical, parliamentary and ‘moral’ constraints are increasingly required. The consolidation of all institutional life produces its marginality that is a space outside the rules and norms which must be turned to at times when the norms are unable to do so. The marginality constitutes a locus through which disparities, problems, power conflicts and procedures can be ignored, mediated or circumvented. Globalization has provided a vast new range of opportunities for economic and political actors to operate outside increasingly outmoded laws and regulatory systems, as well as to spawn new relation ships among them. African cities exude an availability to these opportunities precisely because they appear outside of effective control, and thus anything could happen.18 Alaba is almost nothing. Its most striking feature is its flatness. Only recently has it had to bother with the maison domino. But its skyline is still somehow striking. All around, 30 meter antennae sprout from between the market stalls. Huge satellite dishes sit precariously on puny rooftops. Cell phone ownership is incredibly high, and the country’s greatest concentrations of what would otherwise be called Mail Boxes Etc. can be found at Alaba. In fact, on an off day, when the market is empty, it looks more like a communications center than a commercial one.


In The Coming Anarchy, Robert D. Kaplan contends that the contemporary West African condition is sufficiently radical, unfamiliar, and intense to warrant a new round of postcolonial ‘exploration’, with different intentions and a more intensive methodology than the nineteenth-century campaign prosecuted on the same turf. Lagos, Nigeria is an ideal first port of call. A pressure cooker of scarcity, extreme wealth, land pressure, religious fervor, and population explosion, Lagos has cultivated an urbanism that is resilient, material-intensive, decentralized, and congested. Lagos may well be the most radical urbanism extant today, but it is one that works.
In the past, Lagos has been the beneficiary of the best and brightest minds of Western planning ; with a few exceptions, all have determined that Lagos has none of the infrastructures, systems, or even environmental resources to support population levels considerably below current levels. People and products move, networks are maintained, shifted and hardened, and made resilient. The survival strategy of the Lagos agglomeration might be better understood as a form of collective research, conducted by a team of eight-to-twenty-five million. The hypothesis and purpose of this ‘investigation’ is debatable, but statistical analysis shows an asymptotic condition. Every graph of the city population (resource usage, ‘urban safety’) takes one of two turns in the last ten years charting Lagos: either off-the-chart explosion or a newly horizontal, infinite approach to zero. Asymptotic behavior seems to indicate a terminal condition, a steady state, suggesting that the Lagos condition might simply be twenty, fifty or a hundred years ahead of other cities with more apparently familiar structure and lifestyle. If the terminal condition of urbanization, or of capitalism, has been a long-awaited milepost, the subject of fantasy, then the scenario and strategies to be found here may be instructive to other urban isms following Lagos to the asymptote.

1. D. Hecht & M. Simone, Invisible Governance ; The Art of African Micropolitics (NY : Autonomedia, 1994, pp. 83)
2. P. O. Ohadike, “Urbanization : The Case of Lagos”, Urban Affair Quaterly, vol. 3, nº 4, June 1968, pp. 72
3. M. G. Yabuku, Land Law in Nigeria, London, Macmillan, 1985
4. “Perils of the Onitsha Expressway”, in The Vanguard, Lagos, 9:01 : 1999
5. D. Aradeon, “Replanners Options for a subcity”, Glendora Review, v. 2, nº 1, pp. 51-58.
6. Chef Magnus Ubochi, in personal conversation.
7. Ojo LG, “Attributes Financial Strength to AIaba Market”, Post Express. 21 May 1998.
8. Peil, Lagos, The City is the People, p. 87.
9. Kelechi Obasi, “More Lints from Emis”, Africa News Service, 27 September 1999.
10. “Alaba electronics dealers rally against sub-standard products”, Post Express, 16 juin1999.
11. Uchendu Wogu, “FG indirect ober influx of fake electrical products”, Post Express, 9 November 1998.
12. Mabogunje, A.L., Proceedings of the World Bank Annual conference on Development Economics, 1991.
13. FormeR Nigerian Secretary of Finance Allison Ayida, The Rise and Fall of Nigeria, Malthouse Press, Lagos, 1990, p. 47.
14.“Kenya Airways Crash : Unending Tears for Nigerians”, The Vanguard, 5 February 2000.
15. Jimmy Yeow, “Emirates can help put the buyers in West Asia and sellers in Uganda through Emirates’Skychainnetwork, “Business Times [Malaysia], 5 April 2000.
16. Middle East News Items, 30 September 1997.
17. Geertz, Peddlers and Princes, Social Change and Economic Modernization in Two Indonesian Towns, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1963, p.35.
18. Abdou Maliq Simone, Urban Processes and Change in Africa, p. 105.