Lagos: Person of the Year 2020

By Niyi Akinnaso


An enduring tradition was born in 1927, when Time Magazine named Charles Lindbergh as Man of the Year for his historic trans-Atlantic flight in that year. The goal was to feature and profile a person, a group, an idea, or an object that “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year”.

However, it was only twice in its 93-year old history that the Person of the Year was awarded to inanimate objects—The Computer (as the Machine of the Year) in 1982 and The Endangered Earth (as the Planet of the Year) in 1988. I follow this tradition today by naming Lagos as The Mega City of the Year 2020.

The pre-eminence of Lagos has colonial origins. Following its annexation on August 6, 1861, it was declared a Colony on March 5, 1862. From Lagos, the colonial influence spread across the South, with Lagos as the capital. The Colony and the Southern Protectorate were merged in February 1906. By January 1914, when the Southern and Northern Protectorates were merged, Lagos emerged as the undisputed capital of the Protectorate of Nigeria and carried that status into independence in 1960 and beyond.

Although Abuja was created as the new Federal Capital Territory in 1976, Lagos did not cease to be the nation’s capital until 1991. Today’s Lagos must be viewed against the backdrop of this rich history, which allows the City to house the first of most structures in the country—City Hall, High Court, Police Headquarters, Airport, Seaport, and so on. The movement of the capital to Abuja notwithstanding, Lagos remains the commercial, media, and social nerve centre of the nation.

This award is not necessarily for the city’s sprawling and still growing size or its estimated population of between 23 and 25 million. Not for the abundance of options it offers for lodging, dining, shopping, and relaxation. Not even for its notorious traffic congestion that makes it difficult, if not impossible sometimes, to visit two places over five miles apart in the same day. And not for the notorious Area Boys, who claim to own open spaces from inside the overcrowded Ladipo market in Mushin to the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. And not for the bravery, courage, and persistence of the smart and energetic Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who shouldered the City’s difficulties throughout the year like a giant.

Rather, the award is for the City’s incorporation of all these characteristics and much more into its role as the epicentre of three major problems, which beset the City in 2020.

First, as the location of the first and busiest airport in the nation, Lagos became host to the index case of COVID-19 from Italy on February 28, 2020. The early adoption of mitigation measures notwithstanding, the City soon became the epicentre of the pandemic and remains so till today. At the time of writing, Lagos had recorded nearly 27,000 cases, accounting for about 34 percent of the national total, and 236 deaths, representing about 19 per cent of the national total.

True, Governor Sanwo-Olu exhibited exemplary leadership in leading the state’s COVID-19 team, but the City could not escape its susceptibility to the pandemic, given the various open local markets; the garrulous gatherings at motor parks, and other crowded spaces; the myriad artisans, professing various skills; and the back and forth movement of people from other states and foreign lands. Among these groups are the “no koro” people and those who would wear their masks below the chin. For these and other reasons, COVID-19 found good hosts in Lagos.

But Sanwo-Olu pushed on, imposing and lifting bans, issuing warnings upon warnings, distributing palliatives, and keeping the people informed. Isolation centres, with adequate bed spaces and necessary equipment sprang up all over the place, even in the middle of a stadium. To prevent running out of bed spaces, some private hospitals were equipped and approved as Isolation Centres. Even those who could isolate at home were assisted in doing so. Lagos soon became the model for combating COVID-19 in the country.

Just as Sanwo-Olu’s efforts were turning into a huge success story, with infection rates going down significantly, the #EndSARS protests marched in to afflict the otherwise resilient City, occupying primarily Alausa, Lekki Toll Gate, and even express ways. The protests were well organized alright, but motorists suffered because roadways were blocked and businesses suffered because customers could not reach them. Lagos was in the middle of another nightmare.

Sanwo-Olu stepped in again, mingling with the protesters and listening to their demands. In his T-shirt and boyish look, he could be confused with the protesters. He didn’t mind. They threw things at him. Yet, he trudged the crowd of protesters. He even volunteered to be their messenger, by taking their demands all the way to Abuja. He got a presidential nod for them. But things were about to turn uglier for Lagos.

A miscue about the timing of the curfew imposed to ward off the continuation of the protest beyond October 20, 2020, led to the early arrival of the military at the Lekki Toll Gate. Although the event of that night remains controversial, its aftermath is not. Lagos was bombarded by hoodlums, miscreants, looters, and all. They burnt structures, looted stores, ruined businesses, killed police officers, and much more.

Within 48 hours, many notable structures had been destroyed or looted, including the High Court, City Hall, the Palace of the Oba of Lagos, TVC, The Nation newspaper, Lekki Shopping Mall, 84 BRT buses, several bus terminals, LGA Secretariats, and at least 25 police stations.

Remarkably, within hours, Governor Sanwo-Olu was at it again. He inspected all the sites of destruction and ordered the immediate cleanup of the City. Within days, Lagos opened its eyes again. The Old Fat Lady could not be prevented from singing.

At the end of the day, having traversed and surmounted the City’s difficulties, Governor Sanwo-Olu became Lagos. Just as the infection rate in the City began to spike on the advent of the second wave of COVID-19, he tested positive for the virus and went into isolation. Like Lagos, he too will soon rise again to share this award with the City he so loves and serves so well.