Lagos: ‘The New York of Nigeria’

Lagos: ‘The New York of Nigeria’
It is among the world’s fastest-growing cities, at once a chaotic megalopolis and a thriving center of entrepreneurship.
By Robyn Dixon, Times Staff Writer

June 25, 2007

LAGOS, NIGERIA — Away from the noise and hustle and stink, the shriek of energy, the never-ending buzz that is Lagos, a man reclines on a gravestone, serenely reading a book.

His name is Immortal, and he sells life insurance. He says he is waiting for an angel.

"I just come here to relax," says Immortal Emenike, 40, from his unexpected haven in Trinity Cemetery in Olodi Apapa neighborhood. "I like the serenity, the fresh air. It’s very hard to find in Lagos." Nearby, a goat named Sikira nibbles on the vegetation. Outside is a wall of sound: buzzing motorcycles, car horns and traffic.

Like many Lagosians, Immortal appears nonplused if you ask him what he loves about the raucous mega-city he calls home. He has a passion for Lagos, yet seems wary of questions, in case they’re not kindly meant.

"Lagos is like the New York of Nigeria," he says. "It’s a jungle where a lot of things can happen. Things that don’t happen anywhere will happen in Lagos: the unexpected."

Lagos is one of the planet’s fastest-growing mega-cities, with people drawn not only from rural Nigeria but also from all over West Africa to hack out a living. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a center of irrepressible entrepreneurialism or a nightmarish city of unplanned chaos, a cautionary tale on what not to do.

No one is sure whether the population is 9 million, as last year’s house-to-house census claimed; 16 million, as estimated by the U.N. Population Fund; or 17 million, as the Lagos state government insists. The United Nations agency has predicted that Lagos will be the world’s third most-populous city by 2015, with 23 million people.

It’s not a place for the fainthearted. From the first wallop of steamy air on alighting from a plane, Lagos is a plunge pool of intense exhilaration, jumbled with measures of shock, frustration, rage and boredom.

Despite poverty, intractable social problems, mind-boggling corruption and dire failures of planning and infrastructure, "I think this total doomsday scenario that Lagos is going to be this total Dickensian horror place is not right either," says Daniel J. Smith, a demographic anthropologist at Brown University. "Nigerians have lived with the failure of their government to provide leadership and infrastructure for a long time, and so they have adapted all these ways to make things work.

"There’s this incredible ethic and tradition of entrepreneurship, and maybe that’s related to living in a place where you can’t count on the government to provide services and amenities."

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has argued that the mega-cities of the future will look like Lagos: chaotic and spontaneous with planning solutions improvised on the run rather than following some master plan.

Even arriving can be a shock. "Lagos airport? In a word, don’t," cautions the Lonely Planet Bluelist of destinations to avoid at all costs.

Borne downward on the airport arrival hall escalator, international visitors arriving for the presidential inauguration at the end of May found themselves trapped, with a solid crowd bottlenecked at the bottom. They crashed into a wall of backs, tripped, stumbled, even leaped over the sides, literally falling into Lagos with a thunk.

Then there’s the metal jigsaw of rickety trolleys pressed around the baggage carousels and sometimes a wait of hours to collect as huge bags of traders’ goods are unloaded.

Outside, license plates proclaim that you’ve arrived in "Lagos: Center of Excellence."

The jostling thoroughfares are much more than mere arteries for the choking traffic. The roadside is an open-air market, a car sales yard, a photo studio; a truck depot, pool hall, butcher’s; a lumber yard, an office, a sheep yard; a place to hang laundry on the highway sidings, or to nap on any available surface.

There are some sights that strain credulity: A city skyscraper just folded like a house of cards one weekend.

Papered all over walls and suspended from any pole are advertising billboards and banners, as though the city were screaming out its own exuberant and often perplexing monologue: "Food is ready." "Slow down, bridge under investigation." "Plumber is here." "We paste posters." "Keep off the wall." "No parking no waiting no hawking." "Please pay your tax regularly." "Do not urinate here. It is prohibit." "Don’t offend our ancestors with fakes. Insist on the original prayer drink." "Overhead banners are prohibited." "It is illegal to have anything to do with touts. You may end up facing various miscellaneous offenses."

Taxis are plastered with biblical verses and homespun advice: "Love everyone Trust no-one." "Watch and See." "No controversy."

Businesses grab attention by turning to religion: "God is Able Store." "Heaven Economics." "Miracle Outfits." "Divine Ultrasound." Then there are more the bizarre appeals, such as the "Peculiar Beauty Salon," or the "Cholesterol Hair Conditioner" found in some outlets.

The exuberance is reflected in Lagosians’ flamboyant clothing and the startling towers of bright material that women wear on their heads like flames of color. There are nightclubs where patrons fling all the plastic tables and chairs into the air when things are really humming.

Taiwo Adeyeye, 19, arrived alone from the town of Ogbomosho in Oyo state in April.

"I love it because it’s a commercial city. It’s a place where you get a lot of buyers for your wares," says Adeyeye, who lives in a room behind a baker’s shop and walks all day in the sauna-like heat selling bread from a tray on her head.

"It’s not really everything that I’d want," she says of her room and job. In the little leisure she has, "I just walk around the area. I feel good walking around. The things I see all around excite me."

Smith, the demographic anthropologist, says that despite government failures and corruption, Lagosians have developed small trusting business networks, allowing them to survive and profit.

"People look at a place like Lagos and some of them think, ‘Why would anyone ever want to go there, because it’s so big and populated and there’s so much poverty?’ " he says. "But people are carving out a living better than they would have been able to had they stayed at home.

"People have managed to cobble together an informal economic infrastructure that enables them to carry out all these commercial activities somehow. Everyone’s getting water for their homes somehow, and every business manages to hire a generator to keep their business going."

Ezekial Charles, 38, a pastor and businessman who arrived seeking his fortune in 2001, sits in the shade of a tree surrounded by litter a few yards from a busy highway.

"I think you get used to it. When there’s no light it sometimes is painful, but still I feel happy," he says, referring to the long and frequent power outages. "I love the population, the way business is flowing. A few people are honest, let’s say a quarter of them. People here can help you and make life easier for you."

Even the rich cannot escape the city’s notorious traffic jams. But for the poor, opportunity knocks with every "go-slow." Buyers collect their purchase before paying, in case the traffic moves along. Then, according to local etiquette, it’s up to the seller to run thundering along to collect the cash and give change. The traffic lanes are always busy with the sound of flip-flopping feet in cheap Chinese footwear and the shout of traders plying their goods.

Everywhere there are entrepreneurial openings: Two boys put up a traffic cone blocking access from a clogged artery to a highway, demanding money to pass. When one driver refuses to pay, he and one of the boys scream at each other, waving arms and blazing with fury. Just as it seems someone will pull out a gun, the row abruptly evaporates. The cone is removed. The driver passes.

"Roads are the worst planning problem," Lagos state government planner Benedict Kehinde says. "I can say that there wasn’t any planning. The government would acquire land, and people just moved on and constructed buildings, so it becomes difficult to build roads on that land. So you have to wind your way around the existing structures."

At times the city is visual anarchy, with piles of uncollected trash, mountains of jumbled timber, abandoned car skeletons, tires. Lagos produces half a million tons of trash a day, according to a recent environmental report to the state government, and much of it is collected and dumped anywhere by freelancers.

A train drifts by with people crowded on the roof. Traffic buzzes the wrong way up a one-way street, spreading across the lanes like waters in front of the opposing traffic flow.

Lounging near two dusty outdoor pool tables on a recent election day, civil servant Kola McCauley, 30, waxes lyrical about his hometown.

"I love my city. I love Lagos. It’s very lovely. The people, they’re very intelligent. They’re very versatile. They’re very hospitable and accommodating," he says as a screaming match erupts between voters and polling officials a few yards from where he sits and police have to be called in.

Mostly, Lagosians know when to stop. But not always, says Immortal in the cemetery, taking a break from his book.

"You have to be cautious all the time. Maybe I’m walking and I step on your shoes, even if it’s by mistake. It can cause a big fight, and in the end the police arrive. It’s because of the pressure of society.

"You see it every day. Things that should be cooled down are blown up like a volcano. The serenity here helps me to mellow and think of good things."

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