Architect Rem Koolhaas and his team from Harvard regard Lagos as an extreme and pathological form of the city in Africa and as a paradigmatic case of a modern avant‐garde city. In rehabilitating the informality at work in Lagos, they put forward a romanticized vision of a self‐regulatory system working outside state regulation and political influence. In this article I consider that the crisis of urban infrastructure in Lagos is less the result of the weakness of the Nigerian state than of a historical opposition between the Federal government and Lagos State leaders, especially concerning the allocation of resources to the city. I also suggest that informality and state decline analysis are inadequate theoretical frameworks for detailing the way Lagos has been planned or governed since the end of the colonial period. Instead, this article, based on empirical research covering local government, motor parks and markets, considers that the city’s resources have been used to build political networks between state officials and a number of ‘civil society’ leaders. This process and the reinforcement of taxation in the last 30 years are not so much a manifestation of informality and state decline as part and parcel of the historical state formation in Nigeria and in Lagos.