Unilag Housing Centre


COVID-19 Lockdowns in Africa: The Informal Economy at the Fore in Lagos




Ademola Omoegun

Lecturer, Department of Architecture, University of Lagos

oomoegun@unilag.edu.ng omoegun22@yahoo.com


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, temporary lockdowns became arguably the most popular large scale strategy adopted by government authorities globally to control the spread of the virus. Amongst other things, the pandemic and subsequent Lockdowns served to reemphasise the importance of cities. Due to their nature as highly dense and globally connected centres of social interaction cities became a hotbed of infection[i]. As lockdown restrictions are increasingly being eased in various parts of the world it is a good time to begin to reflect on the impacts and implications they portend for urban management, especially in Africa where the usefulness of lockdowns remains questionable.


Whilst lockdown measures could be argued to have been relatively successful in their aim of controlling the spread of the virus in many Western cities, questions persist as to their effectiveness in many cities of the Global South, particularly in Africa. So much so that some critics have questioned whether “coronavirus lockdowns in Africa make sense”[ii]. Furthermore, the easing of lockdown measures has generally been in line with a declining rate of new COVID-19 infections in most parts of the world, but curiously in parts of Africa restrictions have continually been eased as the rate of infections continue to rise.


This is particularly the case in Nigeria where the highest daily infection rate of the COVID-19 virus was witnessed on the same day the easing of emergency lockdown measures commenced[iii]. This fact further reinforces the critique regarding the usefulness of lockdowns in Africa. A key point in these arguments being that the success of any lockdown is dependent on the widespread availability of “emergency assistance measures” as being witnessed in the UK and America, but to a very limited extent in Africa where governments are unable to sustain such measures[iv]. Due to the absence of any social safety net for most Africans, many who are self-employed, daily earning informal economy workers chose to ignore lockdown measures in order to somehow earn money to survive[v].


The link between the informal economy and the lack of social security systems is not new. Studies have long shown a strong connection between the absence of social security systems and the growth of the informal economy. Palmer (2004)[vi] highlights that in many developing countries where no form of social security exists, especially in terms of unemployment benefits, people out of necessity engage in various income-generating activities usually in the informal economy in order to get by. Omoegun (2015)[vii] also identifies that the absence of a social security system in Nigeria has contributed significantly to the large scale of its informal economy with many unemployed people resorting to work in the informal economy as a form of social safety net for survival. The informal economy therefore plays a crucial socio-economic role, especially in the African context.


The informal economy in Lagos

Lagos with a population of about 20 million is the largest city Nigeria and its economic hub, comprising a huge and deeply entrenched informal economy[viii]. The informal economy broadly defined as all enterprises, activities and workers operating largely outside government/legal regulation and protection comprises a wide range of sectors including street trading, waste collection, and informal transportation[ix]. Historically, Lagos has always been synonymous with trade and commerce. Commercial activities both formal and informal have always been very strong in Lagos, with the informal economy shaped by locals and accepted as part of indigenous culture[x].


However, over time both the formal and informal economy have grown significantly. Changes in the Nigerian economy have significantly magnified the prominence of the informal economy in Lagos. Notably, the uptake of structural adjustment policies (SAP) in 1986 led to the closure of many industries, large scale retrenchments and widespread unemployment which combined with the lack of a social security system resulted in large numbers of the unemployed, moving into the informal economy[xi]. The informal economy in Lagos has steadily grown over the years, with government estimates indicating that between 50-75% of the workforce in Lagos are informally employed[xii].


Urban management and the informal economy in Lagos

There is a significant history of efforts towards the management of informal activities in Lagos. Strategies and policies have generally focused at the compulsory formalisation of informal economic activities with a central aim of environmental cleanliness and capturing informal workers within the tax net thereby increasing government revenue[xiii]. This is best captured by the history of the management of street trade in Lagos.


Policies and laws regarding street trade in Lagos include the Lagos State Government’s 1984 Street Trading and Illegal Markets Edict which stipulated harsh penalties for illegal trading including a monetary fine in addition to three months imprisonment with hard labour for a third offence[xiv]. This edict which was amended in 1996 and seemingly evolved into the Lagos state street trading and illegal market prohibition law 2003 which prohibits street trading and illegal markets in all public spaces in Lagos state, prescribing a monetary fine or imprisonment to both buyers and sellers.


More recent efforts by Lagos State Government (LSG) aimed at curbing the activities of street traders includes the establishment of a special environmental cleansing enforcement body, the Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) task force set up within the state Ministry of the Environment, which is virtually dedicated to the eradication of informal activities, particularly street trading[xv]. The positioning of the KAI taskforce in this Ministry indicates that street trade is classified as an environmental problem, rather than an economic development or social issue. Curiously, efforts at restricting street trade and the informal economy in Lagos have largely proven unsuccessful over the years as is evidenced by the continued abundance of informal activities in the city. A major reason behind this continued failure is the neglect of the socio-economic importance of the informal economy which has again been brought to the fore in the seeming failure of the COVID-19 lockdown.


Time for change?

Despite the huge scale of the informal economy in Lagos and many other African cities its management has been largely intolerant with efforts persistently directed at the restriction of informal economic activities. Government authorities have mainly focused on environmental control and revenue generation with little attention paid to the less obvious but vital socio-economic importance of the informal economy to the detriment of many informal workers and their livelihoods despite existing arguments against this approach. The downside of this narrow view of the informal economy has again come to light in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, as the failure of the lockdowns in Lagos and many African cities highlights the socio-economic importance of the informal economy and emphasises the need for a more tolerant approach towards its management. An approach which will place more emphasis on the transformative potential of the informal economy especially to the urban poor as against income generation and environmental considerations of political and economic elites. International debates based on this perspective and over 20 years of research demonstrate the vital contribution of the informal economy to urban economies[xvi]. Amongst other things the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a timely and powerful reminder that without adequate consideration of the informal economy, especially its socio-economic importance in Lagos and many other African cities there is a high likelihood that collective city-wide strategies such as emergency lockdowns, effective and inclusive urban management, and sustainable and resilient urbanisation which require a collective united front will continue to prove unsuccessful.

[i] Astrid, H. 2020. Shaping Africa’s urban areas to withstand future pandemics [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.com/amp/shaping-africas-urban-areas-to-withstand-future-pandemics-135104?__twitter_impression=true

[ii] Pelz, D. 2020. Do coronavirus lockdowns in Africa make sense? [Online]. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/do-coronavirus-lockdowns-in-africa-make-sense/a-53228689

[iii] Aljazeera. 2020. Nigeria reports record infections hours after lockdown was eased. [Online]. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/nigeria-reports-record-infections-hours-lockdown-eased-200505072423557.html

[iv] De Waal, A. and Richards, P. 2020. Coronavirus: Why lockdowns may not be the answer in Africa [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52268320

[v] See IV

[vi] Palmer, R. 2004. The informal economy in Sub-Saharan Africa: unresolved issues of concept, character and measurement. Edinburgh: Centre for African studies, University of Edinburgh.

[vii] Omoegun, A. 2015. Street Trader Displacements and the Relevance of the Right to the City Concept in a Rapidly Urbanising African City: Lagos, Nigeria. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.

[viii] See IX

[ix] Brown, Alison and Roever, S. 2017. Enhancing productivity in the urban informal economy. Nairobi: UN-Habitat.

[x] Peil, M. 1991 Lagos; The City is the People. Belhaven: London.

[xi] Abiodun, J. 1997. The challenges of growth and development in metropolitan Lagos. In: Rakodi, C. ed. The Urban challenge in Africa; Growth and management of its large Cities Tokyo: United Nations University press, pp. 191-222.

[xii] Lagos State Government. 2013. Lagos State Development Plan 2012-2025. Lagos: Ministry of Economic Planning and Budget.

[xiii]  Adesanya, A. 2015. Understanding Business on the Streets of Lagos. Lagos: Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

[xiv] Immerwahr, D. 2007. The politics of architecture and urbanism in postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986. Journal of African Cultural Studies 19(2), pp. 165-186.

[xv] Basinski, S. 2009. All Fingers Are Not Equal: A report on street vendors in Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos: CLEEN Foundation.

[xvi] See xi

No 14 – This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.