When one speaks of Lagos, Nigeria, one could be referring to any one of three places – its most historic region, Lagos Island; metropolitan Lagos, which includes the urbanized parts of the island and the mainland; or Lagos State, which includes the urban and rural areas of the state. All these Lagos-es exist in a spatial relationship to one another, as well as a temporal one, meaning that one Lagos comes after another in a historical sequence. What follows, however, is not a comprehensive history but an outline of how Lagos began and what it has been.
The oldest settlements in Lagos State are Lagos Island, Iddo, and Ebute-Metta. The recorded origins of human settlement there date back to the 15th century, when these places were still marshy islands thick with wildlife and mangrove forests, and populated by small communities of fisher folk from the Awori ethnic group.
By the middle of the 17th century, Lagos had become a tributary state of the powerful Benin Empire. But as vassals at the outer reaches of the empire, the Obas of Lagos would inevitably erode as a result of this constraint on their full autonomy.
During the 18th century, Lagos came out from under Benin rule. During the reign of Oba Akinsemoyin, a more independent Lagos entered the Atlantic slave trade as a middleman state, trading goods for people with Portuguese slave traders. This new extractive economy enriched the elites, while also expanding the population of marginalized people in Lagos.
A monarchical feud in the early to mid-19th century would bring an end to Lagos’s independence. In the dispute between two claimants to the throne, Kosoko and Akitoye, Oba Akitoye entered into a treaty of protection with the British which involved trading Lagos’s full sovereignty for the backing of Britain’s military power. Akitoye’s victory won him the throne of Lagos, but in the process, Lagos was converted from an independent polity into a new British colony in West Africa.
The advent of the British colonial period witnessed another phase of growth and diversification of the population of Lagos. In the mid-19th century, migrant communities from Sierra Leone, Cuba, Brazil, and other Yoruba diasporas appeared and took up residency in distinct areas of Lagos Island, which was at that point also known as Lagos Colony.
In 1914, two neighboring British colonial territories, the Northern Protectorate and the Southern Protectorate, were amalgamated to form the single colonial territory of Nigeria. Against the protests of African nationalists, Lagos was named as the colonial capital of this new formation.
Within this new capital, colonial officials sought to practice racial segregation in political, economic, social, and even spiritual life. The development of Ikoyi, planned as a Europeans-only quarter, was a clear spatial manifestation of this racial ideology. The development of Ikoyi began to create a Europeans-only quarter in Lagos. To insulate Ikoyi from African presences, a canal with two manned bridges was carved into Lagos Island in order to separate the new European quarter from the African areas of the town. This project was completed by 1923.
Some of the justification that had been given for these spatial segregation policies had to do with concerns about sanitation and public health. Both segregation in urban planning and slum clearances were carried out in the name of public health concerns.
For example, between 1924 and 1930, the colonial state demolished a series of native settlements, citing a need to control the spread of bubonic plague. In the 1950s, the practice of settlement clearances was revisited, but this time by an African-led Lagos Executive Development Board.
Nigeria gained its independence from British colonial rule in the year 1960. With the independence of Nigeria, Lagos, whose population was about 700,000, was named as the federal capital territory. This made Lagos the seat of federal political and military power, as
well as a major center of media and economic power in the nation. The FCT was not a state however, and Lagos indigenes were denied the prerogatives of state citizenship that most Nigerians enjoyed in their home states. It was not until 1967, following the intensive lobbying of nationalists, that Lagos State was formally established as a state within the republic.
Over the latter part of the 20th century, the population of Lagos State continued to grow, as did its territorial reach. New bridges connecting the island with various parts of the mainland were opened in order to integrate Lagos State more fully. In 1975, Eko Bridge was opened. The Third Mainland Bridge followed in 1990. By 1990, the population was estimated to be almost 5 million.
It is important to note that during much of this growth phase, Nigeria was a military dictatorship. From 1966- 1979, and then again from 1983- 1988, Nigeria came under the control of a series of military rulers, interspersed with two brief periods of civilian rule. One was the four-year period of Governor Lateef Jakande from 1979- 1983. During Jakande’s time, a number of mass housing projects were constructed, as well as many public institutions like hospitals and schools.
From the time of the Benin Kingdom into the era of British rule and through to the birth of independent Nigeria, Lagos had been a seat of political and military power. All that was changed in 1991 when the federal capital was relocated to the new planned city of Abuja.
The more things changed the more they stayed the same. Clearances continued through the final years of the 20th century. One notorious case was the 1992 clearance of the Maroko community to create an exclusive Victoria Island extension.
In 1999, Lagos returned to civilian rule when Bola Tinubu became governor of Lagos State, inaugurating the current phase of democratic rule.
While Lagos has seen the growth of middle and aspiring classes in the democratic period, it has also seen the continuation of marginalizing practices. For example, in 2006, the Lekki Free Trade Zone was established and work began on creating a new city of gated estates for Lagos elites. In 2012, the Makoko community was notoriously razed to make way for exclusive waterfront real estate. In 2013, the Eko Atlantic City project was established and work began on constructing a new city that would bean outgrowth of Lagos, but also distinct from Lagos in that it was meantfor wealthy diaspora Nigerians and others.
The history of Lagos is long and complex and ongoing. The city has been influenced by several different kinds of regimes: the Benin monarchy, the independent monarchy, British colonial rule, the Nigerian federal republic, military rule, democratic rule. It has grown from a tiny collection of fishing villages to the most densely populated urban agglomeration on the continent. What next for Lagos?