Driving at night in Nigeria is a dangerous affair. The dim and sparsely lit streets set the scene for criminal activities and ghastly car accidents. Most drivers rely on muscle memory and their car headlights (if they work) as they navigate through pot-holed and badly tarred roads. Pedestrians equally feel unsafe walking on the streets as they know danger could be lurking in a nearby corner.
Street lights are a crucial component of infrastructure in urban areas; providing safety and security for residents and businesses. However, in Nigeria installation and maintenance have consistently been a problem for the government.
Ornament or infrastructure?
Ironically, street lights are mounted on many streets in major cities. But, their purpose is limited to providing illumination for a few odd hours a day and housing campaign posters during election season.
While efforts have been made by the government, the results are barely visible. The Nigerian House of Representatives has already laid several complaints on what they described as “perpetual darkness” on major roads and streets in the nation's capital. Yet, little has changed.
Likewise, in 2018, the Lagos State government signed a contract with a UK-based energy firm to supply and install energy-efficient street lights across the city. This $6.9 million initiative was part of the Ambode "Light Up Lagos" project, despite some progress, major roads like the Third Mainland Bridge occasionally remain pitch dark at night.
Why is it so difficult to light up Nigeria?
Well, for starters, it is just not a priority, imagine having street lights when most of these roads themselves are in a dire condition.
A fundamental issue is the poor maintenance of existing street light infrastructure and the high cost of running generators due to the erratic power supply. The Kano state government revealed that it spends between ₦125 million and ₦130 million to purchase diesel for the generators powering the street lights in the city. The upfront sunk costs of grid connectivity and street light infrastructure like poles, lamps, and pavements are also large.
There are also social issues such as cable theft, especially in Lagos. Area boys know the positive implication of well-lit streets, so they work overtime to render the government's efforts useless. For the government to reap the benefits of streetlights and improved security, they have to put in place mechanisms to safeguard power infrastructure from neglect, abuse, and vandalism.
With climate change and environmental sustainability gaining currency in global policy debates, urban-lighting designs ought to consider the needs of both people and the natural environment. Arguably we should switch off the generators and look towards other alternatives like solar lighting; especially in the northern parts of the country - where solar is more viable. The city of Kampala, Uganda attests to the benefits of this approach.
More lights, less crime
Light is an integral part of security, you cannot fight crime in the dark.
In the past few months, the crime rates in the country have surged at an alarming rate. Car theft, kidnappings, and robbery have become the order of the day. Many blame the dire state of the Nigerian economy for this new development, but maybe street lights could shed light on the situation. Commuters have expressed their fear of moving around once it gets dark. Nowhere is safe, public transportation is a gamble and the streets enable perpetrators of crime to fade into the night without being identified or caught. Even police officers rely on a battery-powered torchlight, aggressively pointing the device to identify drivers and pedestrians when working night-shifts.
The story is worse when it comes to inter-state travel. The Abuja-Kaduna expressway, supposed to serve as a bridge between the north and the capital, has now become an accident centre and a kidnaper's haven. Even the almost completed Lagos-Ibadan expressway has not been able to sustain its street-lights, posing a risk for users.
Millions of Nigerians cannot afford the alternative of air travel, due to the exorbitant ticket prices, so road travel is their only option, regardless of how dangerous it is.
Improved visibility on roads will increase the possibilities for identification and apprehension of criminals and minimise the perpetration of criminal acts; assuring travellers and those working in public spaces.
Enabling the night-time economy
Lagos is on its way to becoming a vibrant night-time economy, but the dysfunctional street light system might dim its potential. Street lighting has immense economic and social benefits. The night-time economy is booming across the world. 18% of China’s and 27% of the United States' working population engage in night work between 10 pm to 6 am. As the popular expression goes, "time is money". In 2014, the UK night-time economy employed 1.3 million people and was worth £66bn.
The benefit of street lights for economic activity is clear; asides from the monetary value, It will also make the communities safer and secure, especially for women who constantly battle the fear of harassment and assault.
Let there be light
Cities should work for people, and urban street lighting is a key means of achieving that. Unfortunately, the Nigerian government does too little on infrastructure, until it becomes unsustainable.
Street lights may or may not have a profound impact on curbing crime in Nigeria, but one thing is certain, people will feel safer walking at night. Properly lit streets and districts would also make it more difficult for criminals to carry out their activities for fear of being caught. Beyond the issue of safety, lighting will improve the quality of life of citizens, encourage social interaction and enhance cultural experiences. These are welfare improvements that we can't ignore.
Life is already hard for the average Nigerian, so perhaps, lighting up streets could make a difference. Families can worry less about the safety of their loved ones when they are out at night, horrific tales of drivers running into parked trailers on unlit streets could become rare, children can play safely outdoors, women can walk on the streets with lowered anxiety of being sexually harassed and even police officers can do their jobs more efficiently without the burden of an epileptic flashlight. A brighter Nigeria is a safer, more productive, and prosperous Nigeria.
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