What’s Behind Ethnic Conflicts In Lagos?

Another day, another sad story of violent ethnic conflict in Lagos. But this one feels all too familiar. I remember the violent clashes that erupted in the same Mile 12 market and its surrounding neighbourhoods in November 1999. This was where I spent most of my teenage years and the memories of those two days are still jarring.

Mile 12 Market

All hell broke loose on that sunny Thursday the 25th inside the said market from origins that remains anecdotal to date. Lives were lost. Houses, properties, businesses and places of worship were destroyed. The underlying causal narrative, however, is as it was back then, always the same. Volatile ethnic relations in the market. A market (not to be confused with the generic economic term) that is messy, dirty, crowded and poorly maintained. The horrors of witnessing such violence can scar, or minimally be deeply confusing for a young mind. As I am sure it is the case for both old and young in other parts of the country prone to such persistent tensions.

One common causal explanation is politics. This has some elements of truth to it. People at the center of the political theatre never shy from stoking tribal and identity sentiments of ethnicity for political gains. But as easy as that seem to connect, it still remains baffling to me why it would work every time; and why would Nigerians who share the common woes of poverty and a harsh life of menial labour will quickly resort to killing out of an emotional reservoir of ethnic suspicion of the next person. There is also the problem of general social lawlessness and poor law enforcement. But one is an effect and the latter is an inadequately deployed treatment. I think there is something deeper, perhaps even simpler that can explain the problem

A Most Probable Cause: Migration

In a previous post, I highlighted the subject of urbanization in Nigeria. Urbanization in Nigeria is one of the fastest growing in the world, even among rapidly growing emerging economies. The simple practical implication implicit in this fact is that after the economic mismanagement of the 70s, and the consequent plunging of the average standard of living which resulted in growing poverty, a lot of people from all ethnicities moved to the cities where they can get better paying jobs. This further increased as poverty worsened over the intervening decades. How does this lead to ethnic violence? Well, not straightforwardly.

Nigeria as giant of low-income Urbanization

Most of these migrants are mostly low-skilled workers. This means they usually seek manual jobs that require no experience, no training, physical back-breaking work. In a relatively high-income city like Lagos, this supply of labour was absorbed with relative ease. There was very little competition in this labour market and most tasks were largely complementary. It was common to find a construction site with Hausa workers clearing weeds and bushes, or fetching water, Egun workers digging water wells, Yoruba bricklayers and Igbo electricians. But as the economy got slower, the dynamics of the low-skilled labour market started changing.

Native Reserves

The rate of urbanization means the changing nature of the labour market I am describing is not a static phenomenon. In the article mentioned earlier, I talked about the ‘’structural transformation’’ of the Nigerian economy due to urbanization and the almost exclusive reliance on oil exports. The basic point is that income has not keep pace with urbanization because the proceeds from oil (and other natural resources like cash crops) has altered the fundamental nature of the economy.

The expansion of government, population growth and the demand for more services led to the ongoing ‘’de-industrialization’’ of the economy and the growth of non-tradable services. The essential connection to the low-skilled labour market is that the capital inflows from resources raises the wage of ‘’native’’ labour. Political-correctness will not help my point, therefore sensitive readers should bear with me. Distribution (or redistribution) of receipts from resource exports have notoriously nativist elements. Government employment is usually offered to natives of the state or of similar ethnicity, even low-skilled positions like janitors. Think state government contracts and subsidy millionaires and the horde of ‘’local boys’’ on their payroll, and you get the point. Unfortunately, the cyclical nature of such inflows means there is little job security, the entitlement sensibilities means they are mostly unwilling to work for less than their ‘’entitlements’’, and a dearth of large employers like manufacturing means they eventually form what I will call a ‘’native reserve’’ of the unemployed.

Services are racing ahead

To take another example. A little less than twenty years ago when the commercial motorcycle (Okada) craze took over Lagos, largely in response to failure of transport infrastructure to keep up with exploding population. The percentage of riders who are migrants was low. The picture, however, looks rather different today, as they now outnumber the natives in most neighbourhoods. And where have all the native labour in the commercial motorcycle market gone? They now form a reserve which has largely morphed into ‘’union members’’ who basically extort the riders. My conjecture is that this labour market dynamic has contributed immensely to tensions amongst ethnic groups, some on scales large enough to lead to violence.

Low Mobility, No Integration

The second major underlying cause is low mobility of labour, and thus income. Migrant workers who make up the large part of the low-skilled labour market can be stuck in that income bracket for decades despite sending remittances to their home communities. This is due to costs of living outstripping standard of living in cities. Lagos is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Supply constraints, inadequate public goods and errant policies have conspired to make life very difficult for low-wage earners.

According to McKinsey, people living in Lagos can spend up to 93% of their annual earnings on transportation, food and housing. Facing such high costs, migrant workers simply rely on the existing networks members of their ethnicity for basic needs like shelter and informal insurance against certain losses. And this can sometimes persist for decades. This reinforces ethnic identities in an economic environment that would thrive better on integration and cosmopolitanism.

Fixing these problems will not be easy but it is imperative that we do. Sporadic violence is not only morally regrettable but bad for business. I firmly believe we need to build new cities all over the country to absorb labour migration and rebuild the current city-slums we have. Cities are the ideal engines of growth due to the low-cost of connecting people and thus building better economic networks. A lot has also been said about economic diversification.

We must eschew this mantra of ‘’self-sufficiency’’ and adopt an export model of growth. This needs to be approached sensibly, particularly because it involves public investment. People of my generation have the wrong ideas. I asked a few friends some time back what kind of companies they would like to see emerge from Nigeria. Most of the answers converged on Google, Amazon and Facebook. These are lovely individual dreams but should never be pursued with public money.

Nigeria at this point needs Foxconn not Facebook. We need to diversify into high-tech manufactures that will rapidly improve technical know-how while creating a lot of jobs in the process. In the long-term, we need to fix education. Our human capital needs to be ready for the future.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.