Failing systems as opportunities

Infrastructural crisis creates jobs and business for many living in African cities

Failing infrastructure creates its own mode of production that has come to form the backbone of many African cities, and if things were working as intended the spine would crumble. NAI researcher Ulrika Trovalla reflects on African urbanity after watching the episode from Lagos in the broadcasted series on Megacities.

Josef is a man in his sixties and one of the Nigerian city of Jos’s millions of inhabitants, which I have had the pleasure to get to know through the years. He often talks about what Jos used to be like in the 1970s. He recalls the early days of independence, when the future was bright. Water was coming in all lines, electricity was constant, and the public transportation vehicles did not look like they were falling apart. Nowadays he prefers to use his own car, but petrol is in constant scarcity, and he does not like the possibly diluted petrol of the black market. The car is more often than not standing still. Living in the civil servants quarters with his family he has waterlines connected to the bathrooms and the kitchen, but there has not been any water running through them for many years. Instead the family gets their water from a well. His house is connected to the city’s electricity grid, but many days there are not more than five minutes of power.

‘Never Expect Power Always!’ So goes the popular interpretation of NEPA - the Nigerian National Electric Power Authority. We are reminded of this sardonic piece of wisdom in the episode on Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital, in the series ‘Megacities’ now being shown by the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company. This is one of many examples of a ‘national pessimism’ that has come to flourish in Nigeria, and is echoed all over the African continent. It is easy to make the mistake to think that urbanity is one and the same thing everywhere. There are, however, very few things that to such extent characterise and form African urban life as does the failing infrastructure, which has been part of its modern development since the economic decline of the 1980s.

The infrastructural crisis also brings forth its own mode production. The episode on Lagos picks up on the bustling business life that has come to flourish because of – not despite – the failing infrastructures. Lack of electricity has created a booming market for small generators. The congested streets has given birth to the booming industry of motorcycel taxis which can ovecome almost any obstacle. The congested highways are turned into markets moving along with the slow moving cars. The situation in Jos echoes that in Lagos. New opportunities arise in the voids left by failing systems. A constant lack of fuel keeps many small scale black market petrol vendors in business. Jos still has a train station and is connected to the rest of the country through the railway network, but there are no trains moving on the rails, but in the train station, instead of passengers, there is a shop selling second hand furniture. Existing technology is reassigned – power lines become clotheslines, refrigerators become rat-proof cupboards, and the GSM system becomes an alternative banking system; new uses that rely on the idea that things are falling apart. In 2007, a crudely made battery operated lamp consisting of LEDs, with a used CD as a reflector, could all of a sudden be bought at street corners all over Nigeria. Tellingly, the lamp goes by the name ‘Obasanjo ya Kâśa’, ‘Obasanjo broke it’, indicating that the previous president’s ambitions with regard to the infrastructure left a lot to be desired.

These are all examples of how the failing infrastructure creates its own production, but also of an alternative or parrallel infrastructure that has come to form the backbone of African cities; a spine that would crumble if things were working as intended. In the episode on Lagos we meet a women who works as a traffic director at a busy junction. If the traffic lights were to start working again, she says, she would be out of a job. In other words, a lot of people has come to depend on the detoriating infrastructure for their survival. Urban development initiatives often view these parallel and many times informal systems as redundant and parasitic, and this variety is often targeted for ‘clean-up’ activities. Thereby, they risk destroying the livelihoods of already vulnerable groups. For good and bad, African modernities and urban life are intrinsically linked to these processes.

By Ulrika Trovalla, researcher within the Urban Cluster at the Nordic Africa Institute
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