Policy and Legal Perspectives on Actualizing the Right to the City in Nigeria



In common with global trends, the number and size of cities in Nigeria has been growing with the result that the urban population is estimated to be at least 43% of the total national population of 140,000,000. This may rise to 50% by 2010 and clearly represents a significant increase from 1952, when the urban population was less than 20%. The scale and rapidity of these metropolitan changes, both in spatial and demographic terms, has fuelled the high demand within cities for land, housing and services such as water and sanitation. However, the concept of a city government to address these metropolitan challenges is not one that has been adopted in Nigeria, because the 1999 Constitution only recognizes three tiers of government, Federal, State and the Local Government Area Councils (LGAs), the last-mentioned being the lowest level of government.

This three-tier approach to defining levels of political governance has several consequences for Nigeria’s cities. First, their boundaries are usually not congruent with those of the LGAs; and secondly, these cities will be comprised of more than one LGA. The right to the city embraces the adoption of values and the implementation of practices aimed at bringing about socially inclusive cities through democratic participation in city life; accountability in city governance; equal treatment of city dwellers; and poverty reduction. It represents a paradigm shift in planning and managing cities. However, the right to the city is not a regime of specific rights although it draws its inspiration from human rights systems that enshrine civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. In the light of a number of promising developments since the inception of democratic governance in May 1999, this paper assesses the policy and legal issues that arise in connection with actualizing the right to the city in Nigeria.

Introduction of new urban policy

In 2002, after extensive consultations nationwide, the Federal Government introduced the National Urban Development Policy (NUDP) with the goal of developing “a dynamic system of urban settlements, which will foster sustainable economic growth, promote efficient urban and regional development and ensure improved standard of living and well being of all Nigerians.” The NUDP essentially prescribes strategies and actions to be implemented at all levels of government in the short, medium and long term. Crucially, it recommends the devolution of adequate powers to LGAs as well as improved revenue and financial arrangements. Furthermore, the NUDP recognizes that the present structure of LGAs is not conducive to “the practice of democracy and good urban governance” and that there is a need to “re-connect urban local government in Nigeria with the citizens which it is expected to serve.” Consequently, the NUDP calls for a categorization of Nigeria’s urban centres into towns, cities, metropolitan centres and mega cities and the provision of appropriate powers, structures and resources for these various types of urban centres so that they can meet the challenges that they are respectively faced with.

Sub-national competence in the planning of the city

Nigeria’s federal constitution divides legislative powers between the Federal Government on the one hand and the thirty-six State Governments on the other. Some of these legislative powers are exclusively vested in the Federal Government by virtue of the Exclusive Legislative List and others are shared between the Federal and States Governments in accordance with the Concurrent Legislative List. Until 2003, it had been widely accepted that the Federal Government could legislate for the States on urban planning and the Nigerian Urban and Regional Planning Act (NURPA) had been introduced for this purpose. However, after a legal challenge that was filed before Nigeria’s highest court, the Supreme Court, by the Lagos State Government, it was finally settled beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Federal Government cannot legislate for any of the 36 States on urban planning and to the extent that NURPA claimed to do so, its provisions were void although they would still continue to apply to the Federal Capital Territory, which is under the direct administration of the Federal Government. The Supreme Court decision effectively displaced any centralized national planning of cities and has led to the entrenchment of local planning autonomy even in respect of Federal Government-owned land. Many States have further devolved their planning powers to the LGAs through the establishment of Local Planning Offices.

Support for social accountability mechanisms

The clamour for transparency in public institutions and public finances has intensified since the return of democratic governance. This has manifested in legal reforms in connection with government procurement and budget processes especially at the federal level, with the passing in 2007 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act and the Public Procurement Act. On account of the division of legislative competences under the 1999 Constitution, these federal laws do not automatically apply in the States and it is for the States to pass equivalent legislation within their territories. Some States have taken the necessary steps. Essentially, fiscal responsibility legislation guarantees public participation in budget processes and access to budget documents and the public procurement legislation standardizes public procurement through the mandatory publication of contracts and tenders so as to present a level playing field for all interested parties. Equally important has been the advocacy by civil society for the introduction of freedom of information legislation at all levels of government. This has not yet been achieved at the federal level and only a few States have introduced or have committed to introducing this type of access legislation.

Future Prospects

The introduction of the NUDP is a significant development although it neither specifically refers to the right to the city nor rights-based approaches in general. The NUDP is also not comprehensive by any stretch. This is evident in its failure to address environment-related themes such as energy use, waste reduction and access to urban services. The NUDP further lacks measurable targets for evaluating progress in its implementation. As a result, its value is more descriptive than normative. Nevertheless, its recommendations on urban governance mirror some of the components of the right to the city. For example, the categorization of Nigerian urban settlements is long overdue and for the purposes of meaningful urban development, the re-alignment of LGAs needs to be congruent with urban centres. This is the responsibility of the State Governments but in the face of the high political stakes involved and the constitutional hurdles that have to be overcome, very few States have been willing to take up this challenge. The exception is Lagos State, which had introduced thirty seven LGAs to supplement the existing twenty LGAs recognized under the 1999 Constitution. Following a face-off with the Federal Government on the constitutionality of the thirty seven LGAs, these were subsequently re-classified as Local Council Development Centres.

In conclusion, actualizing the right to the city in Nigeria will need to take into cognizance the separation of powers between the Federal and State Governments. To some extent, some of the components of the right to the city are already emerging with the devolution of city planning powers and the growing support for social accountability but a lot still needs to be done. The responsibility to lead change mainly falls on the State Governments rather than the Federal Government in view of the legislative powers that the States enjoy under the 1999 Constitution. For civil society, the focus should be on improved advocacy for the actualization of the right to the city as public awareness and understanding of this new city planning paradigm is still fairly limited within and outside policy and decision making circles.


  • Brown, A, and Kristiansen, A. « Urban Policies and the Right to the City: Rights, Responsibilities and Citizenships, a policy paper for UN-Habitat’s Management of Social Transformation », March 2009.

  • Federal Republic of Nigeria. « Government White Paper on the Report of the Presidential Committee on Urban Development and Housing », 2002.