Beautiful hats, and a shanty town: a portrait of Nigeria in Rio

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Earth Journalism Network, Rio de Janeiro

Once described in a 2007 global survey as the happiest people in the world, Nigerians very well understand how to get on with life, no matter how sordid the realities on the ground are. Here at the Earth Summit, known as Rio+20, they have been making their presence conspicuously felt with specially made Rio+20 hats. The hats bear the country’s coat of arms, and its national colours of green and white.

The beautiful hats, and the rave reviews they have generated notwithstanding, unsavoury realities have followed Nigeria to Rio. At an exhibition in one of the parks in downtown Rio, an unflattering picture of Makoko, a shanty town on the edge of the Lagos lagoon stands victoriously. This particular triumph stems from the tendency among many Lagosians, spared the drudgery of living in Makoko, to pretend it does not exist.

Yet, with its hundreds of shanty dwellings, this town essentially shares the same space with the 10km Third Mainland Bridge that links the mainland of Nigeria’s economic nerve centre to its business district on the island.

At times when mother luck smiles on them, motorists passing through the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos are usually able to put the disturbing picture of Makoko behind them. To do this, they simply step on the gas pedal and possibly, in 15 minutes, the benumbing picture of poverty, and the raw struggle for survival would be gone, only to return during another trip.

Most times however, the car owners find themselves stuck in the legendary traffic of a very dysfunctional city. In such cases, occupants of the largely posh automobiles, which would ordinarily have whizzed past, are compelled to face the sight of people living in terrible conditions. They also see, but largely ignore the repercussions for the environment as a result of unplanned and unsustainable living.

A note from the picture in the park, which is among others focusing on environmental problems in different parts of the world, describes Lagos as the biggest “town” in Nigeria and the main commercial and industrial centre.

“It does not have tourist attractions. The former capital of the country has been suffering from excessive demographic increase, since independence in 1960, and today, it has about 9million inhabitants. A 10 kilometre bridge, the Third Mainland Bridge that links the business quarters in the city centre on Lagos Island to the airport hangs over Makoko, a shanty town that stretches out into the lagoon.”

The note goes on to talk about how Nigeria, Africa’s first oil producer, with about 2.6million barrels per day in 2010, remains relatively poor.

“The country, which has the highest population in Africa (I55 million) inhabitants has an official (but much less) electricity production capacity of 5,900 MW for all its territories. Due to constant power cuts, factories and hospitals have turned to costly and polluting generators.”

While it is apt, this is not a portrait Nigerians and Lagosians would like to have of their beloved country and city in a place like Rio. Nonetheless, the verdict is akin to what anyone would get from looking into a mirror: what you see is what you get.

Here in Rio, optimism however abounds among some experts that it is possible to address gory realities like the picture of this shanty town in Lagos. For Kevin Urama, Director of the African Technology Policy Network, “green growth,” is a veritable tool for poverty eradication, and for reversing decades of unsustainable living. He is of the view that developing countries like Nigeria should see green growth as a way of using their resources better, and in more efficient ways. According to experts, the green economy is “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

“A feature distinguishing it from prior economic regimes is the direct valuation of natural capital and ecological services as having economic and a full cost accounting regime in which costs externalized onto society via ecosystems are reliably traced back to, and accounted for as liabilities of, the entity that does the harm or neglects an asset.”

But the green economy was one of the most controversial aspects of the negotiations in Rio+20 because of the fear of developing countries that it could become an instrument for stifling them in the areas of aid and trade. Moreover, concerns were raised about outstanding promises that are yet to be fulfilled by developed countries.

Urama however allayed fears of skeptics who hold the view that green growth is nothing but “green capitalism.” According to him, the failure of the developed world to deliver on its promises to developing countries in the areas of climate financing is not a sufficient excuse to jettison the benefits of green growth.

“There is a link in climate negotiations, and promises that were never kept, but one wouldn’t say he won’t take lunch because he was denied breakfast. If we (developing countries) don’t use green growth, we will lose through land grabs because it will be seen that we have no value for our resources, and others who have value for the resources will come and take them,” he said.