Enugu's journey to resilience

This is my first post that is not focused on Lagos, Nigeria's most populated city and its commercial hub. Today we travel hundreds of miles eastwards, to the city of Enugu, capital of Enugu State, and one of the 35 cities that made this year's '100 Resilient Cities' (100RC) list.

The 100RC project is a Rockefeller Foundation-funded initiative, worth in excess of $100m, that aims to "help individual cities become more resilient."

100RC defines resilience as "the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow, no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. Shocks are typically considered single event disasters, such as fires, earthquakes, and floods. Stresses are factors that pressure a city on a daily or reoccurring basis, such as chronic food and water shortages, an overtaxed transportation system, endemic violence or high unemployment."

100RC offers a suite of partnerships (NGOs, government agencies and private companies) and consulting support to selected cities, who have to go through a competitive selection.

It's an interesting concept, and Enugu has made history as the first Nigerian city, and one of only six African cities, on a distinguished list of more than sixty cities so far. Dakar (Senegal) and Durban (South Africa) are the African cities that made the inaugural list, released in 2013, while Accra (Ghana), Arusha (Tanzania) and Kigali (Rwanda) made the second batch (2014) alongside Enugu. (Far more famous cities, like Paris, Sydney and London, also made the 2014 list).

Coal City

Enugu is a city of about 1.1 million that blossomed following the discovery, by colonial (British) scientists, a century ago, of abundant reserves of coal in the area. For that reason it is also known as 'Coal City'. The British, then colonial overlords of Nigeria, built a railway line to connect the town with the port city of Port Harcourt a few years after that initial discovery. In its heyday five decades ago Enugu was home to thousands of miners. Today that coal-mining industry is long dead.

Enugu is one of a number of Nigerian cities/regions whose names denote a hilly/rocky geography; Enugu means, in the Igbo language of the area, "hill top." It is home to the forty-year-old Institute of Management and Technology (IMT), (which a resident told me was modeled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States), and one of the two campuses of the University of Nigeria, the second oldest University in Nigeria (founded shortly after Independence from the British in 1960).

I visited Enugu for the first time in October 2014, and then once again in November. First impressions left me sufficiently impressed (even though critics of state governor Sullivan Chime say his focus on infrastructure development in the city has come at the expense of other parts of the state). One taxi driver told me that the city was a safe place to be in at any time of the day or night. Five years ago the story was a very different one. The major streets are brightly lit at night, and the official 'No Begging' signs I saw hinted at an underlying sense of bureaucratic attention-to-detail. In 2013 the city's airport was upgraded to international status; an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa made history on August 24, 2013 as the airport's first international flight. The emergence of that groundbreaking international connection has been greatly celebrated by residents of Eastern Nigeria; before then they had to travel to Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt to catch international flights.

Challenges, possibilities

The 100RC website lists energy shortages, high unemployment, infrastructure failure, lack of affordable housing and civil unrest as the "resilience challenges" facing the city. "Unreliable power has driven manufacturing away from the city, and new building developments have remained energy intensive, putting greater strain on the system and the environment... Transportation infrastructure has also presented challenges, as Enugu's insufficient road system struggles to meet the city's needs."

This could be any Nigerian city randomly selected. Enugu's good fortune lies in its selection as part of this prestigious class of cities that will receive support to tackle its challenges. Hopefully it will become a model for the rest of Nigeria, and Africa, regarding urban management. Enugu is going to get a Chief Resilience Officer, paid for by the 100RC.

All of this is great news, and will hopefully bring Enugu to global attention, not for its problems as a city but for its possibilities – innovative solutions, investment potential, etc. For far too long Nigerian cities have not commanded the sort of attention one would expect from a country of our demographic and economic potential. Nigeria’s population makes it the most populated in Africa, and one of the ten most populated in the world; it also has one of the fastest rates of urbanization in the world. Also, several of Nigeria's states – there are 36 states in all – have bigger economies than many African countries. Yet, apart from Lagos, Port Harcourt (hub of the oil and gas industry) and Abuja (the sleepy 'Federal Capital Territory’), not much is known outside Nigeria about the country's cities.

For the future

In February 2015 there will be an election that will bring a new Governor – and a new set of bureaucrats – to office in Enugu State. I hope that they will not abandon this project in the way that incoming public officers often do to their predecessors' legacies in Nigeria.

I don't think Nigeria's cities are doing a good enough job planning for the future. A lot of thinking is done for today, and by the time the projects are completed population growth has overtaken them. "Usually planning in cities is [done] around the egos of city managers who have [only] five years in office," Mike Sutcliffe, then City Manager of Durban, South Africa noted in 2009, as the city prepared to host the 2010 World Cup.

There are plenty of lessons for Enugu to learn from the long-term failings of urban commercial Nigerian hubs like Lagos and Port Harcourt. Lagos was supposed to get a railway system more than thirty years ago, but the ambitious plan was aborted very early on. At that time the city held 4 million residents. Today that number has quadrupled, and still the city has no functioning city-wide rail system as I write this. Cities like Enugu with a relatively modest population size currently have an opportunity to learn from Lagos' fiascos (and not only in transportation but in every other area of urban planning) and stay well ahead of the inevitable growth spurts.

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