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Panoramic view of Lekki, south of Lagos, and soon connected to Abidjan?

The world's largest megalopolis is coming

Publié en mai 2024

No longer the stuff of science fiction, the coastal corridor linking these two mega-cities, via Accra, Lomé and Cotonou, could have half a billion inhabitants by the end of the century. A giant urban territory, which raises countless questions, starting with logistics, transport, and energy.

Today and tomorrow, the road and the car will remain the benchmark on this corridor.
Today and tomorrow, the road and the car will remain the benchmark on this corridor. KEHINDE TEMITOPE ODUTAYO/SHUTTERSTOCK

‘This land is not for sale.’ On the side of the road between Abidjan and Assinie or the one that leads from Cotonou to Porto Novo, there are countless signs on land that appear to be lying fallow. However, as Swiss urban planner Alice Hertzog Fraser, author of a thesis on urbanisation and migration in the Abidjan Lagos corridor, points out, “This greenery can be deceptive”. Indeed, these tracts of land have become the site, not of agricultural activity, but of ongoing real estate speculation which, driven by urban sprawl, where order and anarchy live side by side, is in the process of engendering a future conurbation stretching along a thousand kilometres of tarmac. Expected to encompass Accra, Lomé, Cotonou and eventually Lagos, it is set to become home to 51 million people by 2035. According to estimates cited in an article in the Guardian in October 2022, this coastal strip, on which all eyes are focused, could even have a population of almost half a billion by the end of the century, making it one of the most densely populated and fastest growing urban areas in the world. In the space of twenty years, the population of West African capitals has doubled, according to the OECD's Africapolis database: Abidjan (excluding its suburbs) had nearly 6 million inhabitants in 2020 (compared with 3 million in 2000), Accra 4.6 million (compared with 2.1 million), Cotonou 2 million (compared with 845,000), and so on. And given these demographic trends, we can expect the surface area of our cities to double in the next twenty to twenty five years. This means tackling all the social, urban, security, industrial, energy, water treatment and waste management issues on a dizzying, hitherto unprecedented scale, requiring formidable financial resources and an ironclad political will. The aim: to avoid chaos.

According to the african development bank (AfDB), 70 million people live around this corridor, which concentrates nearly 75% of the region's commercial activities. Some see in it the promise of a future megalopolis, like those that have sprung up between Washington and Boston, Tokyo and Osaka or around Shenzhen. The crowning touch is that a repeatedly announced and then postponed project to build a 1,028 kilometre Abidjan Lagos motorway, designed to boost trade and halve the travelling time between each city, was put back on the agenda in 2022 by the AfDB, which intends to raise $15.6 billion. Calls for tender are underway. Some observers see this as part of a fad that has no geographical reality. “Donors like to work on corridor concepts, which enable them to set up regional projects in many areas that they wouldn’t be able to propose on a country by country basis. This can be a catalyst for investment. But in terms of governance, will it work between five states, each of which has its own cards to play?” asks Swiss architect and urban planner Jérôme Chenal, director of the excellence in africa centre at the ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne.

A thriving Economic Zone

In the context of regional insecurity, investors may see a windfall effect, with the nascent market benefiting from the african continental free trade area (AfCFTA). Alongside the economic giant that Nigeria is becoming, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin and Togo have become havens for many regional financial interests from the Sahel and Guinea, attracted by their stable governance, the Franc zone and security. Unable to repatriate their funds to Lebanon, many investors from the region's Lebanese community, for example, want to take advantage of this economic and demographic boom, and are investing their cash in new property projects. The flow of trade and capital is increasing between Abidjan and Lagos. The improved standard of living coupled with the growing middle class is fuelling new needs and consumer behaviour, driving demand for travel. This can already be seen. Big cities have swallowed up their suburbs, to the point where they can almost hold hands. Sometimes forming distant suburbs of concrete and dust, made up of new residential developments for the middle or upper classes as well as dormitory towns, shanty towns and warehouses of all kinds, Abidjan has pushed its walls as far as Bingerville and grand Bassam, while Accra is on a first name basis with Takoradi and Lagos is holding hands with Oyo. Ouidah is ever closer to Cotonou, which now has nothing separating it from Abomey Calavi. “Cities are increasingly moving closer together, developing from their outskirts towards the borders, and no longer from the city centres towards the outskirts”, says Alice Hertzog Fraser. In just a few years, the construction of bridges and expressways in Côte d'Ivoire's economic capital has stimulated the emergence of 10 storey plus social housing projects for civil servants and middle managers, and new districts, such as Riyadh city in Bingerville, Grand Bassam and Songon, which are now 30 minutes from the city centre. New upper and middle class residential areas have also sprung up, like zone 4 in Marcory, Riviéra and deux plateaux. In Lagos, prestigious business districts have emerged, such as Victoria Island and Eko Atlantic, which was reclaimed from the sea and repositioned to appeal to the upper middle classes as well as the more privileged. After a difficult decade, around forty projects are now under development. These are all neighbourhoods that have to contend with the risks of flooding and erosion that threaten the coastline as a result of global warming.

Despite billions being poured into the area, kilometres of coastline are swallowed up by the sea every year, forcing the authorities (like in Abidjan) to evict thousands of residents, often the most vulnerable, and to plan developments as far away from the coast as possible. There is a real risk of the Cotonou Porto Novo road being submerged by the waters, and of part of the economic capital disappearing.

Urbanised suburbs

Sometimes, however, the suburbs of a capital city spill over the neighbouring border, like Lagos on Sèmè-Podji, between Cotonou and Porto Novo, where the PK10 district has been entirely taken over by Nigerian migrants, who have even financed a university there. Here, people eat pepper soup, pay in naira and build in Nigerian architectural style. “When the naira is very strong, these people move and manage to live comfortably on the CFA franc, but then leave again”, continues Alice Hertzog Fraser. “Their way of life is temporary and precarious. They'll be working in one place, but living in another. It’s a highly mobile population, who manage to trade, work and transfer money informally from one border to another, skirting linguistic, monetary and customs constraints, and who come to invest their capital earned in the land. And just because there is a building doesn't mean it's occupied”, stresses the researcher. However, alongside these migrant populations are other middle-class residents who, because of the high cost of land, are no longer able to live in the Abidjan, Cotonou or Lagos city centres, and find themselves pushed further towards the outskirts. Nationwide programmes to build low cost housing have failed to live up to their promise. The shortfall is estimated at 800,000 homes in Côte d'Ivoire, but last November the government announced the construction of 500,000 units and 25,000 emergency units under a €762 million plan. Benin and Togo have both launched programmes to build 20,000 low cost housing units each. In the Abidjan metropolitan area, the property market is struggling to keep up with the surge in housing demand, mainly for property registration reasons. This is because it is often necessary to purge land titles from properties, which are based on traditional law, in order to avoid any disputes. And when this is done, many buildings remain empty, often due to the difficulties of accessing mortgages, which are not long enough (three to five years, compared with fifteen in Europe) and are more akin to consumer credit. “Unfortunately, when it comes to property loans, the payment facilities don't come from the banks, but from the developers, who can join forces with public bodies (such as the Ivorian CNSS, the army, etc.) to deduct the monthly instalments at source”, explains Ivorian Lebanese analyst Karim Ezzeddine, from SkyKapital.

Transport and property: sectors under pressure

The Ivory Host Tower, in Abidjan. Hospitality is a sector of the future.
The Ivory Host Tower, in Abidjan. Hospitality is a sector of the future. ZYAD LIMAM

Developers are also faced with other difficulties, such as the need to connect plots of land to water and electricity services. In the past, the State would have carried out this kind of thing, but now it adds 15 to 30% to the building cost. And while building higher is essential to curb urban sprawl, it comes up against, firstly, middle class aspirations to own their property and live in a detached house, and secondly, the difficulties faced by building managers in recovering condominium fees from co owners. This housing shortage is compounded by transport problems. The more the city spreads out, the further away people live, and the longer it takes to get to their place of work in the city centre, using increasingly congested roads. For the residents of these isolated areas, it's a double dilemma: finding affordable accommodation means getting up at the crack of dawn to go to work. To date, Jérôme Chenal points out, “the car remains the yardstick for all urban development on the Abidjan-Lagos corridor”. Lagos (population 16.5 million in 2023, 24.5 million by 2035 according to the United Nations) is leading the way, with the inauguration in february of its second urban train line after the first one came into service last september. Between them, they should be able to carry 750,000 people. Five other lines are planned over the next few years. To ease traffic congestion, Abidjan has launched the construction of its first metro line, due to open by 2027 and capable of carrying 500,000 passengers a day on a north-south route. But with a projected population of 8.3 million by 2035, and a population that doubles every twenty years, soon this line won’t be enough to meet demand. “We'd need 10 or more lines,” says Jérôme Chenal. But what about the funding?