It has long been said that no one knows with any certainty the population of Lagos, Nigeria. When I spent time there a decade ago, the United Nations conservatively put the number at 11.5 million, but other estimates ranged as high as 18 million.
The one thing everyone agreed was that Lagos was growing very fast. The population was already 40 times bigger than it had been in 1960, when Nigeria gained independence. One local demographer told me that 5,000 people were migrating to Lagos every day, mostly from the Nigerian countryside. Since then, the city has continued to swell. By 2035, the UN projects that Lagos will be home to 24.5 million people.
What is happening in Lagos is happening across the continent. Today, Africa has 1.4 billion people. By the middle of the century, experts such as Edward Paice, author of Youthquake: Why Africa’s Demography Should Matter to the World, believe that this number will have almost doubled. By the end of this century, the UN projects that Africa, which had less than one-tenth of the world’s population in 1950, will be home to 3.9 billion people, or 40% of humanity.
These are staggering numbers, but they do not tell the full story. We need to zoom in closer. It is in cities where most of this astounding demographic growth will occur. Once we begin to think along these lines, what is at stake becomes even clearer. Much western commentary on Africa’s population growth has been alarmist and somewhat parochial, focusing on what this means for migration to Europe.
The question of how African nations manage the fastest urbanisation in human history will certainly affect how many millions of its people seek to stay or leave. A recent continental survey by a South African foundation, for example, found that 73% of young Nigerians expressed an interest in emigrating within the next three years. But given its scale, this is a story with far larger implications than population movements alone, shaping everything from global economic prosperity to the future of the African nation state and the prospects for limiting climate crisis.
There is one place above all that should be seen as the centre of this urban transformation. It is a stretch of coastal west Africa that begins in the west with Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, and extends 600 miles east – passing through the countries of Ghana, Togo and Benin – before finally arriving at Lagos. Recently, this has come to be seen by many experts as the world’s most rapidly urbanising region, a “megalopolis” in the making – that is, a large and densely clustered group of metropolitan centres.
When its population surpassed 10 million people in the 1950s, the New York metropolitan area became the anchor of one of the first urban zones to be described this way – a region of almost continuous dense habitation that stretches 400 miles from Washington DC to Boston. Other regions, such as Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka corridor, soon gained the same distinction, and were later joined by other gigantic clusters in India, China and Europe.
But the Abidjan-Lagos stretch now stands to become the granddaddy of them all. In just over a decade from now, its major cities will contain 40 million people. Abidjan, with 8.3 million people, will be almost as large as New York City is today. The story of the region’s small cities is equally dramatic. They are either becoming major urban centres in their own right, or – as with places like Oyo in Nigeria, Takoradi in Ghana, and Bingerville in Ivory Coast – they are gradually being absorbed by bigger cities.
Meanwhile, newborn cities are popping into existence in settings that were all but barren a generation ago. When one includes these sorts of places, the projected population for this coastal zone will reach 51 million people by 2035, roughly as many people as the north-eastern corridor of the US counted when it first came to be considered a megalopolis.
But unlike that American super-region, whose population long ago plateaued, this part of west Africa will keep growing. By 2100, the Lagos-Abidjan stretch is projected to be the largest zone of continuous, dense habitation on earth, with something in the order of half a billion people.
“I have worked in China and in India, and that is where most of the attention on cities has been until fairly recently, but Africa is unquestionably the continent that will drive the future of urbanisation. And it is that strip along the coast of west Africa where the biggest changes are coming,” said Daniel Hoornweg, a scholar of urbanisation at Ontario Tech University. “If it can develop efficiently, the region will become more than the sum of its parts – and the parts themselves are quite big. But if it develops badly, a tremendous amount of economic potential will be lost, and in the worst of cases, all hell could break loose.”
The first time I travelled along this stretch of coast was in the late 1970s, on a long road trip to Nigeria from Ivory Coast, where my family then lived. My father, who ran a 20-country healthcare training programme for the World Health Organization, had a meeting to attend in Lagos, and he decided to invite my brothers and me along for the ride. At the time I was a first-year college student in the US, but it was the summer holidays, and I was excited to jump aboard a clattering old-school grey Land Rover for the trip.
He followed a route traced out on a well-worn, foldable Michelin map. It did not take long to discover that many of the routes marked on the map in red – supposedly signifying national or international highways – were little more than two-lane asphalt roads, some of which had long ago been chewed to oblivion by heavy trucking traffic, or eroded by years of seasonal rains. The secondary or tertiary roads, traced more faintly in yellow and white, signalled far greater challenges: jarring dirt paths that were more like trails than highways. These would leave our bodies aching and caked with dust. For long stretches, the west African countryside was so empty that we had to carry our own fuel in jerry cans.
One unfortunate artefact of this region’s imperial history is that, while the British and French built roads and railways to transport agricultural commodities and minerals from the hinterlands of their colonies to modern ports – where they could be shipped home for great profit – in their intense imperial rivalry, they did little to connect their respective possessions. But by 1992, when I took another long drive along this coast, a stretch of highway had been built on either side of the frontier between Ivory Coast and Ghana circumventing a coastal lagoon, and relegating the old picturesque but chancy border-crossing ferry to quaint memory. Back then, few could have imagined the full scope of the changes coming to this stretch of coast – though, in retrospect, some of the signs were already clear.
As late as 1980, Lagos had still seemed like a series of modest towns barely stitched together by its highways and bridges. By the early 90s, though, it had exploded in size, and was already choking on itself. It had become notorious for some of the world’s worst traffic jams, known locally as go-slows. Abidjan, the region’s second-largest city, had also begun to morph. Its suburbs were expanding, thrusting toward the border with Ghana to the east. The other national and economic capitals of this region – Accra in Ghana, Lomé in Togo and Cotonou in Benin – were likewise starting to mushroom.
But it was on more recent trips, in the 2010s, that I saw the urban revolution transforming west Africa coming into full view. By then, Ivory Coast had laid down a true highway all the way from Abidjan to its border with Ghana. Abidjan had gobbled up early colonial capitals like Bingerville and the postcard-pretty but long-stagnant beach town of Grand-Bassam, turning them into dormitory communities. The roadside scenery during a drive from border to border along the Ghanaian coast bore no resemblance to the lightly peopled landscapes of earlier decades. Towns and cities were strung together one after another along nearly the entire route. For long stretches, one scarcely ever left an urban environment.
As always in this region, Lagos is where the most dramatic changes are visible. As it swells, the city is shooting thick urban tendrils west toward the border with Benin – the slender, francophone nation of 12 million people next door – rendering much of that country’s economy a satellite not so much of Nigeria, but of Lagos itself. (If Lagos state were an independent country, its economy would rank as the fourth-biggest in Africa.)
Led by Lagos, as coastal west Africa’s urbanisation gathers pace, and populations and regional commerce begin to surge across old imperial borders, the lives of tens of millions of people along the coastal corridor are changing in ways that neither colonial designs nor six decades of independent government seem to have remotely anticipated.
Earlier this year, I returned to the coast, this time not for one long road trip, but for a series of shorter forays by car in Ghana, Togo and Benin. Everywhere I went, the speed and scale of the historic transformations under way were evident. In Ghana, I visited a place I had encountered on previous trips, Takoradi, and its conjoined twin, the railroad town of Sekondi. In 1980, the two towns together counted 197,000 people. This year, their population surpassed a threshold that only 14 American cities have ever reached: 1 million people, a more than five-fold increase in little more than a generation.
On the July morning I returned to Takoradi, it was the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, or Tabaski, and the narrow downtown streets were packed with young celebrants from the local Muslim minority, all dressed colourfully in flowing laced robes. When the centre of Takoradi was built, more than a century ago, the city was Ghana’s lone port.
It was here that Kwame Nkrumah famously returned by ship from England in 1947, emerging from obscurity to lead his country, then a British colony known as the Gold Coast, to independence 10 years later. In their fading pastel and dreary grey tones, the verandaed buildings of the old downtown looked like the set of a period drama. Just beyond here, though, the antiquated scene gave way to an enormous construction site, where a highway flyover was rising above dusty streets. Once complete, it will allow traffic to bypass the old, outgrown centre in favour of the much larger modern periphery, where most of the city’s people now live.
At Takoradi’s western edge, I stopped at a new shopping mall where, on the shelves of a busy supermarket, I found South African wines, Swiss chocolates, cellophane packs of the same brand of fresh blueberries I eat every day in New York, and – an even more surefire sign of disposable income – expensive canned dog food. There were also Portuguese and Chinese restaurants, a beauty salon, mobile phone shops and a bridal gown dealer doing brisk business.
It is not immediately obvious where the income necessary to sustain this kind of commercial strip comes from. Some surely derives from work in the offshore oil business based nearby, some from a recently expanded regional port, some from a combination of old-line cocoa farming and new jobs in tech. And this points to the reality of what makes this megaregion so distinctive from earlier ones.
Since at least the 18th century, as the writings of Hegel and Hume show, Africa has been widely regarded in the west as if it existed outside the flow of history – scarcely a participant in the global present, and even less relevant to the future. This has never been true, but those who cling on to such misapprehensions would do well to visit this stretch of coastline. In Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, or even in much smaller places like Takoradi, meanwhile, globalised enclaves with strong links to the rich world jostle with expanses of ragged urbanity, half hopefully striving, half congealed in poverty.
On another morning, I drove from the heart of Ghana’s capital, Accra, to the city of Kasoa, less than 20 miles away. Kasoa is sometimes touted as one of the fastest-growing conurbations on the continent. When I made my first trips along this coast in the 70s, it was little more than a shambling collection of rural roadside traders’ stalls. In 1984, Kasoa had 3,000 people. Scarcely a decade ago, its population was just shy of 70,000. Now it is home to roughly half a million people, equal to Edinburgh or Tucson.
The view from an overpass above Kasoa on the coastal highway is a reminder that cities throughout Africa have tended to sprawl outwards, rather than upward. There is little high-rise housing here, and few tall buildings of any kind. From up high, Kasoa has a rough-hewn, unfinished look. The newborn city lurches outward from the highway junction in all directions, its roads jammed with traffic. For many experts, this is a problematic feature of much of west Africa’s urbanisation: it is almost entirely unplanned.
Kasoa’s streets are frenzied with jumbles of wooden stalls and incessant trading of all kinds. In the dusty byways beyond the highway, young people were everywhere: hawking sachets of cold water, running after cars to sell mobile phone credits and cheap plastic toys, crying out the prices of sweet, puffy bread or plantain chips from beneath beach umbrellas on street corners.
Most noticeable of all were the schoolchildren walking the streets in their uniforms and backpacks. By 2050, about 40% of all the people under 18 in the world will be African, a proportion that will reach half by century’s end. On the streets of Kasoa, statistics like these come to life. Everywhere there were billboards for daycare centres, kindergartens and “international schools”. The only real competition for school ads came from church ads, which offer promises of success in this world as much as in the next.
Most of the people who fill the streets of places like Kasoa are recent arrivals from the countryside, and live in ramshackle cinderblock dwellings. Julius Ackatiah, a 55-year-old, recently set himself up in business here after many years in Italy, where he had already realised the African dream of emigration, legally acquiring a new nationality in a rich European country. I met him as he peered out from the unfussy sidestreet storefront where he sells secondhand housewares he has shipped from Italy.
Why had he chosen Kasoa, I asked him? Accra has recently become overbuilt and too expensive, Ackatiah said, but Kasoa was on the rise. “There are lots of people here, and they are trying to set up new homes for themselves and make new lives in this town. That makes for good business.” As Ackatiah spoke on the stairs of his shop, he was engulfed by his used-goods stock in trade: cheap plastic chairs, living room couches and tables, computer monitors and household appliances, small and large, from refrigerators and microwaves to laundry irons.
One of the biggest challenges for Africa’s emerging megaregions remains its weak transport networks. In 2018, more than 40 nations agreed to create the African Continental Free Trade Area, an arrangement that economists say could boost African GDP by $450bn by 2035, mostly thanks to increased intra-African commerce. Since then, another 10 countries have joined, including Nigeria, making for a truly continent-wide agreement. “At its crux, outside the World Trade Organization, it is the biggest region of free trade in the world,” said Astrid Haas, a Ugandan independent economist based in Kampala. “What it is intended to do is unlock the benefits on the continental scale for African countries to be able to trade with each other; to eliminate both tariff and non-tariff barriers.”
But realising its full potential will require much more intense cooperation between neighbours, and especially on improving physical infrastructure. Algiers and Cairo remain the only African cities with underground commuter lines. (In recent years, inspired citizen designers have carefully sketched out potential subway networks for cities such as Kigali and Port Harcourt, but these remain hopeful ideas for now.) Abidjan and Lagos are building surface light urban rail systems, but both are small-scale and behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the lack of decent roads continues to hold this region back. The four-lane highway between Accra and Kasoa aside, almost the entire 600-mile stretch of coast consists of an undivided two-lane road that passes slowly through small towns and villages. Drivers sometimes find themselves having to dodge daring pedestrians and errant animals.
Then there are the predatory police and soldiers who stop drivers in order to extort money under the pretext of traffic safety checks or the fight against crime. Last summer, on the outskirts of Takoradi, I was waved down by a portly, peanut-chewing police officer who asked, as if it was the most normal thing in the world: “What have you brought for me?” West African travellers face holdups like this, smiling or not, on a daily basis. On a trip in Ghana in the 90s, when I travelled 340 miles from the northern town of Bolgatanga to the central city of Kumasi, I counted 72 roadblocks. If anything, international borders in the region have long been even worse hotspots for this kind of predation.
Yet there is some reason for optimism. In May, the African Development Bank announced it had raised $15.6bn to fund the construction of a new coastal highway from Lagos to Abidjan. “We are talking about something like the road between Baltimore and New York – a toll road,” said Lydie Ehouman, a transportation economist at the bank, who told me the target for completion of the highway, which will be four to six lanes wide throughout, is 2026. “It will be free-flowing, with a chip in your licence plate so you don’t need to stop at toll gates. It will be a modern highway.” Economists at the African Development Bank argue that the West African Highway, as the new road will be called, will increase cross-border trade among the participating countries by 36%.
“If people are confident in the availability of reliable, rapid transportation, other things will begin to change dramatically, too,” said Hoornweg, the Ontario Tech professor. “Property values will rise sharply along the major transportation axes, and that will encourage people to build upward, with highrises, rather than building out with more and more sprawl. The cities will also become much more efficient and environmentally friendly, and that makes their development more sustainable.”
On the ground today, a vision like this isn’t so easily conjured. It’s true that in Lagos a collection of impressive modern highrises is slowly taking shape. And in downtown Accra, a dazzling new real estate scheme – high-end apartment towers, office buildings, fancy shopping plazas, luxury hotels – is planned for the waterfront. But such projects are catering to the needs of the already wealthy, and not to the growing millions of people in the region who will soon urgently need housing. Here, the contrast with China, where huge clusters of residential high-rises ring every large city, could not be more striking. Rather than avatars of the future, in fact, the easiest thing to conclude from projects like these is that the region’s governments are setting their sights far too low to address the sweeping demographic and social changes on their way. This may even be true about the coastal highway system.
“The best thing that could happen to west Africa would be if someone could convince these countries to seriously consider the experience of Asia,” said Alain Bertaud, a senior fellow at the Marron Institute at New York University. As a former World Bank official who specialises in urbanisation, Bertaud advised China about developing one of the world’s most successful megaregions, in the Pearl River delta.
“Density itself does not create prosperity,” Bertaud told me. “You will have to have lots more transportation, including new rail lines, new roads that link the coastal highway to the hinterlands and to small cities, where the cheaper land is.” He pointed out that this requires a lot of building across national borders, which is not easy in any part of the world. “In India, we have seen that even building a corridor that crosses several states within the same country is difficult. In Africa they will need much better coordination.”
Haas, the Ugandan economist, agreed. “Africa faces a need for $20-25 billion annually in infrastructure investment, plus $20bn more each year for housing. Trying to convey the scale here is very hard. We are talking about ballooning numbers, and people need to be shocked into action.”
Toward the end of my trip, I took a three-hour drive from Accra to the border with Togo. As we drove, Accra soon gave way to a grimy industrial zone that stretched for miles. From here all the way to the border, about 120 miles, the landscape was filled with peri-urban sprawl, its most distinctive feature being the ubiquitous roadside schools where children played sports or milled about.
At the border, as soon as I climbed out of my car I was surrounded by touts eager to sell me taxi rides, exchange currency for me or help expedite my visa and vaccination checks. I proceeded alone, expecting complications, but was pleasantly surprised at how straightforward the procedures were on both sides of the border. My first question to the driver I hired on the Togolese side was how far it was to the capital, Lomé. He laughed. “You’re already in Lomé,” he said. “In 15 minutes, you will be at your hotel.”
The next day, a Sunday, I drove 30 minutes east from Lomé to a small town with Royce Wells, a 30-year-old American IT professional who wanted to inspect the progress on a beachside house he is building. Togo is an unusually narrow country – wedged between Ghana and Benin, it runs about 430 miles north to south, but has only 31 miles of coastline. For this reason, local elites and foreign investors alike have long dreamed of building it into a kind of entrepot trading state that profits from various kinds of arbitrage, from sharp currency fluctuations in Nigeria and Ghana to varying levels of corruption and political risk among its neighbours.
Togo maintains a democratic facade through regular elections, but has been tightly controlled by one family since 1963. In contrast to Nigeria, though, the electricity works, the internet is fast, and everyday life is not plagued by insecurity. With its commercial future in mind, Togo has built a port with capacity much larger than its domestic needs, and also produces cement, steel and other industrial and consumer goods for its larger neighbours. On this basis, Wells sees the country as a good bet, and hopes to make money building hotels there. “The places that learn how to create the right tax incentives and legal protections [for investors] will basically be able to arbitrage on Lagos and its dysfunction,” he told me.
Others are much more sceptical that this vision will ever be realised. After all, it relies on canny decision-making at the top of government. Bright Simons, a prominent Ghanaian political analyst and entrepreneur, called this five-nation megaregion “one of the most administratively broken landscapes on the planet”. Its governments are “unbelievably un-strategic”, he said. “I am always puzzled by the enthusiasm of elites for creating chambers of commerce with Mexico, or some other distant country, rather than with their own neighbours.”
Here, the needs of west Africa’s booming population collide with the stubborn realities of the nation state, and specifically with contrasting colonial histories. Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo are former French colonies, and Nigeria and Ghana were colonised by Britain. This has left different official languages in place, whether English or French, as well as a currency in the French-speaking states, the CFA franc, that is a relic of colonisation – it was once tied to the French franc and is now attached to the euro. Perhaps the most important imperial legacy, though, is the insular national elites who, because of colonial history and the near-checkerboard way the countries alternate between English and French, pay scarce heed to each other. A Nigerian I met in Accra, for example, told me: “It wasn’t until I started spending time in Ghana recently that I realised Ghana isn’t our neighbour. Benin sits next to us, followed by Togo.”
Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin (separate from but very close to its national capital, Porto-Novo), lies 20 miles from the border of Nigeria, and 76 miles from Lagos, but there is no immediate sense of the behemoth next door. The city of 700,000 (on its way to 5 million by 2100) clusters around a small and tidy administrative centre, complete with a modernist presidential palace built largely in glass, whose large size belies the diminutive nature of Benin itself, the corridor’s second-smallest state. With its low-rise buildings and heavy scooter traffic, much of Cotonou feels scarcely different from a big town or village. Whether Benin likes it or not, Lagos’s accelerating expansion seems destined to one day swamp this place.
When I asked a longtime acquaintance, a successful businessman from Benin, whether people in his country, including its leaders, sustain close relations with Nigeria, the answer was no. “The elite here still flatters itself with talk about being the Latin Quarter of the region, due to our French chauvinism,” he said, referring to the pre-independence era when France made Benin a regional centre of colonial education. “Our leaders are very poor at thinking ahead … If you tell the president he has nice shoes, he’ll be swimming in happiness. With Nigeria next door, what we should have done long ago is make English a compulsory second language in school, but no one has ever thought of that.”
This kind of pessimism, built upon a scornful assessment of governance at the national level in west Africa, is widespread. “We are going to need to have a functioning Ghanaian state, functioning states in Benin and Togo, and at least a minimally functional Nigerian government all at the same time in order to make this hugely urbanised future livable,” said E Gyimah-Boadi, the 70-year-old co-founder and former CEO of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, a thinktank.
“Part of me wants to believe that the youth of west Africa can be their own saviours, and that it is not because of the failures of my generation that they are necessarily doomed. The nation state has been a huge curse. It worked very well for some of us, but we have left very little behind for the young. Basically, we have cheated them.”