From Palm Oil to Petroleum

Lagos: the Liverpool of West Africa
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 4 - 2011


The complex mass of noise, traffic, business and humanity that is Lagos. Source: Alf Gillman Lagos is famous for its teeming crowds and chaotic traffic jams, full to the brim with noise, pollution and crime. As the commercial centre of Nigeria, it is home to at least 10 million citizens, a number predicted to grow to 25 million by 2015, which will make it the third largest city in the world. Before oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1956, there were less than 300,000 people living in Lagos, but as the economy grew, the population swelled rapidly as Nigerians were drawn towards their financial centre.  

However, Lagos was a central trading station within Africa long before oil was discovered. Being situated on the Bight of Benin, it became a popular trading spot for European ships, which were drawn to the large lagoon behind Lagos island where there was the opportunity to access the rivers flowing in from the north. By the 1500s, Portuguese sailors began trading across the lagoon, naming the area ‘lagos’, meaning ‘lakes’, and buying ivory, slaves and cloth from the local inhabitants. Before that, it had been called called Eko, which stems from either Oko (Yoruba: “cassava farm”) or Eko (“war camp”).  

Lagos was settled at various times by hunters and fishermen from the Awori sub-nationality, the southernmost of the Yoruba-speaking peoples. Yorubaland, of which Lagos is part, was involved in long-running wars which pushed the original settlers further and further south towards the sea in search of refuge, where the natural topography of the islands served to protect those seeking shelter from the internecine wars.  

Leading Slave Port

Lagos expects to be home to 25 million people by 2015. Photo: Alf Gillman However, this same shelter provided far less security for its people in the latter part of the eighteenth centuries. Although Lagos originally played a comparatively small part in the slave trade, the rising power and regulations of Dahomey (the Republic of Benin) combined with the abolition of the slave-trade in France (1794) and England (1807) forced the slavers to seek cover and abandon the exposed beaches of Dahomey and Bagadry for the camouflage of the Lagos lagoon. Additionally, proximity to the prolonged warfare and disruption to the north of Lagos in the first half of the nineteenth century created a vast supply of slaves for export, making it West Africa’s leading slave port at the time. The Trans-Atlantic slave voyage database put the number of slave exports between 1776 and 1850 at 308,800, with only 24,000 slaves shipped before 1801. The Lagos lagoon facilitated easy and quick movement as it was the only outlet to the sea in the Yoruba region.  

Slaving operations continued in Lagos until 1851 in spite of the British anti-slavery patrols. In 1841 Oba Akitoye ascended on to the throne in Lagos and tried to end the trade, but Lagos merchants, most notably Madam Tinubu (after whom Tinubu Square in Lagos is still named) resisted the ban, deposed the king and installed his brother Oba Kosoko. The British, however, supported Oba Akitoye, and aided him in regaining his throne in 1851. A decade later, these close connections helped Britain annex the kingdom, which had the dual effect of crushing the slave trade and allowing the British to control trade.  

When the Liverpool and Bristol slave traders were faced with abolition, they searched for new exports from Africa. Industrialisation in Britain and Europe created a new market for palm oil as a lubricant for machinery, in medicines and for soap and candle-making. Palm oil produced in the interior of Lagos was believed to be of the best quality in West Africa. The oil, along with other commodities such as ivory, led Lagos to become one of the centres of European commerce in West Africa, giving it the nickname ‘the Liverpool of West Africa’. In 1887, the remainder of modern-day Nigeria was seized by Britain, and Lagos was declared its capital. Ex-slaves, known as Creoles, returned from Sierra Leone, Brazil and the West Indies to Lagos, contributing to the Portuguese architecture on Lagos Island.  

Nigeria ultimately obtained independence in 1960.

Wealth Floods In

After the oil boom of the 1970s, Lagos expanded considerably, as wealth flooded into the nation. Where once a variety of goods such as palm oil and cacao beans had made up Nigeria’s exports, oil now accounts for between 95 and 99% of the country’s merchandise exports and 80% of its revenue. A member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Nigeria has proven oil reserves of 37.2 billion barrels, the tenth largest reserves in the world, most of which are located in the Niger River Delta. Nigeria ranks as the world’s eighth largest exporter of oil and the United States’ fifth largest source of imported oil.  

Reportedly, about 80% of Nigeria’s energy revenues flow to the government, a further 16% covers operational costs, and the remaining 4% go to investors. However, the World Bank has estimated that, as a result of corruption, 80% of the energy revenues benefit only 1% of the population. In a city where the nation’s wealth and economic activity is concentrated, with the headquarters of most of the country’s commercial banks and major corporations, two-thirds of the population live in slums, with up to 65% of the city living below the poverty line. With a population density averaging 18,150 people per square kilometer (2007), the city cannot keep up with its frantic population growth. A 2006 report estimated that less than 1% of households in Lagos were linked to any closed sewerage system.  

However, in recent years, Lagos has become involved in an on-going rehabilitation of the infrastructure in the heart of the city. At the centre of this stands Eko Atlantic, an artificial island the size of Manhattan, being built from scratch to house 250,000 people, which it is hoped will ease the exhausted infrastructure and overpopulation.


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