Nobody knows exactly how many people live in Lagos, but they all agree on one thing – Nigeria’s biggest city is growing at a terrifying rate.

The UN says 14 million. The Lagos State government thinks it’s nearer 21 million, as rural Nigerians are drawn by the hope of a better life to one of Africa’s few mega-cities. By 2050 Nigeria will have twice the population it has today, more than half will live in cities, and about 60% of them will be under 25. There are few good jobs and housing is in high demand, but at least there are opportunities.

Every week tens of thousands of people arrive in Lagos, heading to neighbourhoods where friends and relatives have come before – many end up in the slums. But Lagos State is planning tower blocks and transformation, reclaiming land from the sea for ambitious new developments.

In a rush to transform the city, the waterfront slums are being cleared, court rulings are being ignored, and luxury apartment blocks are springing up. In about 30 years Nigeria will overtake the US to become the world’s third most populated country behind China and India.

It contends with South Africa for the status of the continent’s biggest economy, but it’s now in recession – beset by a drop-in oil prices, and having to fund the fight against both Boko Haram Islamists and separatists targeting oil pipelines in the Niger Delta.

Like everywhere else in Africa trying to break out of poverty, Nigeria hopes fast population growth will bring it a ‘demographic dividend’ – a young workforce that can drive economic growth. If they can all be put to work. Already there’s migration north to Libya and on to Europe, and the young who are left idle and without much hope are easily radicalised by Boko Haram. More than half the population in Lagos is already under 25, and if there was work for them to do, and the birth rate was to slow down, the economy would get a welcome boost. This is where the ‘demographic dividend’ pays off.

It’s going to take great management, smart politics and increasing security and stability to turn rapid population growth into a positive and avoid the potential for disaster. Lagos is in an urban age and people are going to keep coming, they will have to start finding more creative ways to accommodate people.

Lateef Sholebo, head of Lagos State Urban Renewal Agency, has said “Lagos has no choice but to go up”. He has already completed one modern housing project. A multi-storey apartment block, gleaming and towering above the Eyo Parade Route. This however took years to build and was hugely expensive, too expensive for the Lagos government to continue to roll out across the city. Other countries like India, Mexico and even the UK experienced an ‘industrial boom’ of sorts. Rural economies that turned themselves around with a generation, mainly through manufacturing. However, the window of time to take advantage of the ‘demographic dividend’ is short, lots of jobs are needed now.

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