Mathias Agbo, Jr.

Design researcher and built environment designer. Agbo Jr. runs a small design-build consultancy in Abuja, Nigeria, and periodically writes on design and architecture.


How Madagascar Is Confronting Climate Change

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Madagascar is an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa that, despite its lush vegetation and unique flora and fauna, grapples with formidable environmental challenges, from rising sea levels to the excessive exploitation of natural resources. Joan Razafimaharo is an architect deeply involved in sustainability, climate change, and adaptation efforts in Madagascar and the broader Indian Ocean region. Razafimaharo is also one of only about sixty architects in the country, serving a population of 28 million.

Recently I spoke to her about environmental activism in the face of climate change, curbing the exploitation of natural resources, the role of architects in resource-scarce societies, and empowering women in isolated areas. The interview, originally conducted in French, has been translated and edited for length and clarity.

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It’s Time for Africa to Chart Its Own Climate Change Agenda

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Last November, the annual climate conference COP 27 came to a close in Sharm el-Sheikh with a tentative agreement, reached at the last moment, to set up a “loss and damage” climate fund for Africa and other developing countries. For Africans, this was cause for muted celebration, because for generations the continent has built its climate change agenda almost exclusively around the pursuit of climate justice, a desire to enforce liability on the industrialized nations responsible for the bulk of global carbon emissions. All of this has unfolded, in a sort of willful blindness, while a majority of Africans struggled with the most prosaic challenges: inefficient urban sanitation; poor stormwater management; a paucity of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities; willful and unabated deforestation; and environmental degradation.

Nigeria’s Ambitious Climate Agenda and Its Misplaced Fixation on Carbon Footprint

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

A few days ago, the world gathered at Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, for its annual climate change summit: COP27. Like the rest of Africa, Nigeria is represented by its retinue of bureaucrats, climate advocates, and other interest groups. Since the last meeting in Scotland (COP26), Nigeria signed the Climate Change Act into law, setting a target of attaining net-zero greenhouse gas emissions between 2050 and 2070. In the interim, Nigeria has developed an ambitious energy plan that would see it transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, using its vast reserve of natural gas as a hedge. The country is at the forefront of the African Carbon Markets Initiative and plans to raise at least $500 million from carbon crediting trading to offset emitted carbon.

African Urbanism: Preserving Cultural Heritage in the Age of Megacities

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In spite of the lull in the global construction industry over the last couple of years, megacity projects in Africa have continued unabated, as new developments are springing up in major cities all over the continent. Though we’re inspired by the growth of modern African cities and the opportunities offered to city residents, we shouldn’t ignore their shortcomings, the glaring disconnect between the utopian visions of local city officials and the economic and cultural realities of the local populations who live here. Many questions whether these new cities could be built in other ways, or if Africans will ever have an alternative to the current model of placemaking, hodgepodge urbanism foisted on it, largely by colonialists.

Public Protests and the Urban Legacies of Colonialism and Military Dictatorship in Nigeria

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

For the past two weeks, cities across Nigeria were hit by protests against the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit setup in 1992 to fight armed robberies. The anti-SARS protesters are calling for the unit’s disbandment, due to its high-handedness, extra-judicial killings, extortion, and numerous human rights abuses.

Tragically, the protests came to a brutal climax on October 20, with the shooting of protesters at the Lekki Tollgate by gunmen believed to be agents of the Nigerian state. This led to casualties, which are currently a subject of controversy: the Lagos State government concedes that two persons lost their lives; groups like Amnesty International insist the figures are much higher.

Letter From Nigeria: Coronavirus and the African City

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, I, like most of the world, have spent the last few months quarantined at home, perturbed and uncertain about the ramifications of it all. I will spare you my predictions for the Post-Pandemic Future of the African City (there’s presently no shortage of those), but instead, I want to offer up some observations about our current situation. As an African, my perspective is both unique to our continent and universal to everyone. It is, afterall, a global pandemic. 

Why the Fire at Notre Dame Elicited Few Tears in Africa

This article was originally published on Common Edge on Dec 23, 2019.

As 2019 winds down, the media has started its annual ritual of taking stock, compiling lists, looking back. In the architecture world, the year’s biggest news story was arguably the Notre-Dame fire. The image of the cathedral’s burning roof—a wrenching sight—filled TV and computer screens around the world and occasioned an outpouring of grief, especially in France, where the building holds a central place in the nation’s collective consciousness. It was an architectural tragedy as well as a cultural one. No doubt: the April inferno struck at the very heart of France.

Rebuilding Nigeria: When Architecture Is About Restoring Culture

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

For the past decade, Nigeria has lived under the crushing specter of attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram. From Maiduguri to Abuja, bombs have exploded intermittently, killing hundreds, destroying thousands of homes, and crippling public infrastructure. In recent years, the Nigerian military has liberated several captive communities and begun reconstruction work in a number of them. Sadly, the aftereffects of these violent convulsions have profoundly reshaped our cities. The attacks utterly upended lives: shattering basic civic amenities, disrupting livelihoods, and forcing residents to rebuild from scratch while still grieving for family and friends.

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What Urbanism Needs to Learn from Dubai

In the past three decades, Dubai has grown from a dusty desert town to a strategic hub for international business and tourism. As a result, several cities in the developing world have been competing to outdo one another in the race to replicate this development model—an urbanism largely built around the automobile, luxury villas, gleaming skyscrapers, massive shopping malls, and ambitious “smart” cities, designed and built from scratch. Across Africa, these new developments go by different names: Eko Atlantic City Nigeria, Vision City in Rwanda, Ebene Cyber City in Mauritius; Konza Technology City in Kenya; Safari City in Tanzania; Le Cite du Fleuve in DR Congo, and several others. All are mimicries of Dubai.

Ornament, Crime & Prejudice: Where Loos' Manifesto Fails to Understand People

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "African Architecture: Ornament, Crime & Prejudice."

Why African Vernacular Architecture Is Overdue for a Renaissance

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The Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali. Image © Wikimedia user Ruud Zwart licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 NL

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Making a Case for the Renaissance of Traditional African Architecture."

Last September, Nigerian Afrobeat musician Wizkid played to a sold-out house at the Royal Albert Hall in London, joining a growing list of illustrious African musicians, such as Selif Kaita, Youssou Ndour, Miriam Makeba and others, that have performed at that prestigious venue. This event affirmed the unfolding cultural renaissance across the continent, but it also signified the rising global influence of African music, movies, fashion, cuisine and the arts.

Sadly, traditional African architecture, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, has not profited from this renaissance and has instead steadily lost its appeal across the continent. In spite of its towering influence in the pre-colonial era, it has largely failed to develop beyond the crude earthen walls and thatch roof architecture; for this reason it has remained unattractive to homeowners who often associate it with poverty. Consequently, the neglect of indigenous architecture has resulted in the dearth of skilled craftsmen knowledgeable in the art of traditional building, a reality that has further dimmed hopes for a revival of this architectural style.

How African Cities Are Failing People with Disabilities (And What Architects Can Do About It)

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Africa’s Undeclared War on the Disabled."

Recently I spent part of a week in the company of a multidisciplinary group of academics and researchers from Europe, the US, and Africa, at a workshop entitled “The Practice and Politics of DIY Urbanism in Africa.” Jonathan Makuwira, a professor from the Malawi University of Technology, delivered a compelling paper on “Disability and Urbanism in Malawi,” highlighting the many challenges of the continent’s disabled population, using that city as a case study.

The lecture reaffirmed my sentiments on the gross inadequacies of urban public spaces for the disabled. It’s an issue that formed the basis for my 2016 entry for the Richard Rogers Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), where I had proposed to use the fellowship to develop a prescriptive accessible design blueprint for public spaces in the city of Abuja.

The Tragic Human Cost of Africa's New Megacities

This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Tale of Two Cities: Unravelling the Brutal Backstory Behind Africa’s Emerging Megacities."

In the last two decades, the African narrative has changed phenomenally. The tired, age-old storyline—largely woven around the stereotypes of poverty, disease, and bloody civil wars—has been replaced with one celebrating the continent’s unprecedented economic growth and relative political stability. This new narrative is also about Africa’s gleaming skyscrapers, massive shopping malls, and ambitious “smart” cities being designed and built from scratch: Ebene Cyber City in Mauritius; Konza Technology City in Kenya; Safari City in Tanzania; Le Cite du Fleuve in DR Congo; Eko Atlantic in Nigeria; Appolonia City in Ghana, and others.

There are currently at least twenty of these new cities under construction in Africa and about twice that number in the works. These developments have permanently altered the continent’s urban outlook, and have offered it something different from the bland pastiche of colonial architecture that it was once known for. As a designer, I was initially excited by the quality of some of the architecture. Though I must admit that these new cities are eerie mimicries of similar developments in China, Singapore and even the UAE, and that they’re largely bereft of any cultural connection to Africa.