5,000 WORD ESSAY – 2001: A Lagos odyssey past and future

TO MATCH FEATURE STORY TRANSPORT NIGERIA LIGHTS.The big yellow bus in front revved its engine. The blue smoke shot through the open window and sawed into my sinuses. The air conditioning in the car wasn’t working and it was too warm to wind up the glass so I sat there, coughing, almost retching and semi-blind from the poorly burnt diesel.

The bus didn’t move but then neither did any of the other cars, buses, mini buses or vans packed into the junction. Even some of the mopeds had got themselves wedged, stranded amongst the four-wheeled transport around which they usually flocked and mocked. Four roads slowly deposited traffic onto the roundabout where we were marooned.

They were being sucked into this painfully slow maelstrom of metal just as we had been ten minutes before. A tight woven ring of vehicles, no lane order discernable, each driver displaying the long term tactical awareness of a chess grand master, seizing every emerging inch of road and deftly manoeuvring to an advantage only they can perceive.

In the centre, the island, clouded with blue smoke like some Pacific atoll at the height of a sea battle, the cars on the other side, hazy through the fumes. The smoke is so thick even the number plates of cars a few feet in front are too indistinct to read. I pulled out my airline ticket and glanced at my watch. So far we’ve gone two miles.

The hotel manager’s words play through my mind. “The airport? Well I’ve done the trip in twenty minutes but then it can take four hours. This is Lagos, It’s impossible to tell. Leave as early as you can”.


Lagos. In the early 1960s there were 700,000 inhabitations, now no one knows how many people live here, guesses range up from 10 million with an estimated 1,000 more being added each day. Lagos is a Mecca, a magnet, a teat and a lifeline, not just for Nigerians but people from all over West Africa.

It is a place where there is a chance to make money in an entire region where such chances are not easy to come by. Unlike cities in the Developed World, where suburban sprawl has mirrored middle-aged spread, everyone wants to live in the centre not at the edges. To live in the centre means an increased edge, even if it’s a sliver.

Lagos is concentrated humanity, so many people live, thrive or just survive here that the city itself seems to be organic. The population are the cells whose endless energy gives life to the slow moving beast that is the Lagoon city.

The name means just that in Portuguese, renamed from the original Eko by traders that sailed the West Coast of Africa from the fourteen hundreds. The modern city starts on the beaches of islands that punctuate the Atlantic coast of Nigeria. The largest, Lagos Island and Victoria Island guard the entrance to a huge lagoon and a network of creeks.

Classic Cityscape

From a distance it’s a classic cityscape. High-rise office blocks mark an old central business district on Lagos Island, but its streets are not the concrete and tarmac canyons of New York and the City of London.

The towers are webbed at their feet by sheet metal shacks. Homes, workshops, factories, schools and stalls form a carpet of commercial activity that outstrips that taking place high in the sky. Much of the more formal business has moved away.

The swamp separating Lagos Island from the upmarket, old colonial residential area of Ikoyi has been filled in and a highway connects the two. Ikoyi is quieter, with more space between the buildings. High walls with broken glass and razor wire mark the boundaries for rich property owners keen on security and a sense of personal space in a city where elbow-room is rarer than gold paved streets.

Another bridge links to Victoria Island where much of the international and bigger local businesses have moved, swapping the crowded streets of Lagos Island for a new rapidly developing congestion. Here the embassies reside, thronged with crowds of visa seekers, human queues, softer, quieter, versions of the jams on the streets.

Across the water at the narrowest point from Lagos Island, the city continues to the horizon, a vast spread of humanity and human activity that extends into the shallow water of the lagoon with stilt houses and floating platforms. The whole area is flat, at its highest point, the city is fifteen feet above sea level.

Pick your journey time right and the network of highways speed you from one island to another, from meeting to meeting or house to office. But that rarely happens, most journeys are painfully slow. There are times when the highways flow free but leaving them for the streets invariably means not just a grinding go-slow but a no-go. It’s such a common factor of life that the phrase has entered the local lexicon.

Go Slow Boys

Unemployed entrepreneurial street hawkers wandering through the stalled vehicles are “Go Slow Boys”. They seem to appear from nowhere whenever a jam occurs. Some of the congestion is regular, but even when it is caused by a breakdown or crash, within minutes the tightly woven rope of traffic is weaving with Go Slow Boys.

They sell anything and everything that can be carried. CD’s, magazines, garden shears, glasses to drink from, glasses to wear, washing up liquid, windsurfing posters, shower-curtains, sweets, toilet roll, perfume, spanner sets, light-bulbs. Each Go Slow Boy laden with his wares, walking up the line of cars, whistling, chanting, thrusting samples through wound down windows.

Catch their eye and it’s taken as a declaration of intent to purchase; expect change from a large note and watch them disappear through the fumes. Buying from them is a gamble. They have many tricks to up their profit margins – is that a bottle of car cleaning fluid or has it been refilled with washing up liquid? Are those batteries dead?

There’s no chance of refunds from a Go Slow Boy. If the traffic is a moving jam then the Go Slow Boys job becomes more hazardous; as well as the fumes, angry drivers and the complex and often violent interactions within their own community they also have to cope with moving metal. Drivers pay them scant regard. The engine does not yield even a concessionary amount to the soft fallibility of flesh. Despite the danger they stand with vacant expressions, like nonchalant matadors waving wares at bullish drivers.

Traffic Chaos

Traffic is not a new problem. Ever since the oil boom of the 1970s that brought a flood of cars and road construction projects, Lagos has been plagued by near coronary congestion. Although cars have inspired many lyricist to pen songs about rod trips and driving, only in Lagos could a musician sing about traffic. Whilst Americans were waxing over route 66 and the Californian open-top experience, the famous Nigerian artist Fela Kuti sang of cramped public transport, go slows and traffic police.

“Vehicles are coming from the north. Motor dey come from south. Vehicles are coming from the south. And policeman no dey for center. And there are no policemen in the center. Na confusion be dat o o. That certainly is confusion.”

One famous seventies Lagos landmark was an army Colonel by the name Paul Tarfa. He would stand in the street with his troops wielding bullwhips that they unfurled on terrified drivers that he justified as a, ‘means of resolving the perennial Lagos traffic problem’.

Fela immortalised him in the song Unknown Soldier. The locals call traffic police ‘yellow fever’ after their uniforms and the virulent tropical disease but I saw few in action on the city’s streets.

We’ve been stuck on this roundabout for 20 minutes now and it feels like someone is pushing hard on my temples. The fumes are pressing in from one side causing the nauseous wave that runs down my throat, hits my stomach and bounces back. Sound waves are battering their way in on the other side of my head. The big yellow bus is still pouring out fumes next to me.

The driver is using his horn to communicate with another big yellow bus driver stuck six cars in front. They either have some personal code, which translates the loud, hurtful series of blasts into a meaningful conversation or it is completely wasted, just more pollution in a refuse tip of noise. Everyone hears but no one is listening.

To hear each sound and not try to block it out would surely mean instant insanity. Someone in a nearby car suddenly loses patience. They lay on their horn for a full one minute seventeen seconds. I happened to glance at my watch when they start. Other horns add a constant backing track of peeps, beeps and screams. Someone’s car alarm joins the orchestra then finally a five-car police convoy, sirens upping the din, tries to muscle its way through the motoring mayhem.

In the end it takes us 37 minutes to drive round an average-size roundabout, and that does not take in to account the time it took to get onto the thing in the first place. Inexplicably, the road we exit on is virtually car free.

As we leave the junction I catch a glimpse of a man standing under the flyover that takes even more traffic past the frozen intersection. He’s bare-chested, bent over a rough work-bench. A carpenter, hands, tool and wood his world, not even a glance given to the anxiety, cacophony and insanity that surrounds him. For him it’s just another day at the office, an office that is a small dark space under a concrete roof covered in cars. An office that is probably also his home.

Space Is A Commodity

The streets of Lagos aren’t merely about transport; their role is far more complex and important. They provide a source of income and abode to a vast proportion of the people who live in the city. The streets really are alive. So many people live in Lagos that space is a very rare commodity. Like all things sought after it is also expensive.

Property and land may not cost that much in international terms but for the vast majority of the people living in Lagos, international terms are as relevant as Martian terms. Many of these people are as poor as it is possible to get. Walls run in every direction, marking out the precious space that has already been claimed, solid social divides between those that have and those that don’t.

The people they keep out claim the exterior; rough wood and metal sheet shelters, lean-tos, carpets, cloth, tyres and other merchandise hang on display. The thicker walls are even mined to make cramped living caves, proving that you don’t need four walls for a home. Every useable space has its function. Raised highways give shelter for workshops and small factories, floor mats rolled out mark where people sleep below the wheels that run above.

Dead spaces in the centre of cloverleaf intersections are resurrected as markets, car parks and industrial yards. Go Slow Boys patrol the roads, trestle table stalls line the carriageways and streets selling food, offering haircuts or goods that can’t be carried amongst the traffic.

Bigger stalls, lean-to shacks and proper shops form the third line in the trading onslaught. Smoke from wood stoves dances with the plumed fumes of the traffic, smells that tickle the nostril, tantalise the tongue and turn the stomach, fight for attention. Smoked fish, fried fish, fish, dead fish.

Whatever the local aroma as you pass, the air has a heavy scent like a steam room filled with tropical plants. Sweet smells, pepper smells, sickly rotting flesh smells. When it rains these scents and countless other are washed into the roads turning puddles a milky coffee colour, obscuring the depths of pot holes and slowing traffic still more. Even lorries and buses have to creep forward down the lips of potholes that could easily claim a wheel up to its axle.

Like many cities in underdeveloped countries, basic amenities in Lagos are under enormous pressure. Needs become wants. Electricity regularly fails, water is only directly supplied to the privileged sections of society that can afford a house with plumbing and everyone else must make do with communal standpipes, if they can find one that works. The same is true of sewerage.

Breaking Down

Even if something is working today, there’s no way of telling whether it will tomorrow. More than a year ago, a fire at the telephone exchange in Ikeja destroyed all lines in the area. It’s a very busy residential and industrial area in what by most standards is a busy city, yet the lines are still down.

Nigeria received its first telephone line in 1886 but more than 60% of Nigerians have never made a call. Lagos has half of all the country’s phone lines, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better connectivity – one office I visited had twelve phones lines but only three were working and those were hit and miss. The mobile phone network is analogue and impossibly expensive to all but the very rich.

The Government has recently auctioned off GSM licences that have been bought by foreign telecommunications companies and although this offers the promise of improved phone use, it could be a vague promise. The licences were expensive, there have been no tax breaks for the high tech equipment the companies have brought into the country and the price of land in Lagos means building the infrastructure will push costs still higher.

In neighbouring Ghana, mobile phones have become almost as ubiquitous as in Europe. For Nigerians cheap mobile communications are viewed with almost religious expectation, but their perceived life changing potential may be a long time coming. The need for the investors to get a return on their massive outlay could mean that the service is still only available to a small section of the population for a while yet.

If the cheap mobiles don’t come soon then Lagos has little chance of waking from its traffic nightmare. A lack of working landlines and the inconsequential number of people with mobiles means that Lagos is a physical place. All communication, social or business, must take place face to face. Picking up the handset, if you have one, does not necessarily mean you’ll get through.

If you want to talk to a client about a deal then you get out of your chair, into a car, onto a moped or board a bus and travel to see them. Of course there’s no guarantee that they will be there when you arrive, they too may have had to journey to the other side of the city to pass on a message or hold a conversation.

And even if it’s only a couple of miles away, as everyone has to physically travel to communicate, the traffic can become grid-locked very easily. Anything you need to do that requires talking to someone else in another part of the city might well involve a road trip through some of the worst traffic of any urban area on the face of the planet. That could mean a four hour round trip for a ten minute meeting.

It’s not just people that move on the roads, for a city to function goods must flow. Most trade in Lagos is informal, small traders and individual hawkers buy and resell anything that might return a profit. Vegetables, fruit and meat from rural Nigeria arrive at huge lorry parks north of the city. A network of traders buy the goods and move them around the city to be sold in shops, stalls or by Go Slow Boys. Manufactured goods, local and imported, do the return trip.

To physically move the tomatoes, light-bulbs meat or air conditioning units, a trader will simply gather as much as they can carry and board a bus or taxi. The roads bear the burden in a city where the only option is the road, no matter how crowded. Infuriatingly sometimes the traffic jams are deliberate, local gangs or “Area Boys” have been known to block roads with spurious break-downs or repair work just so that the flow is directed through their patch, boosting trade and the resultant income from their shady activities.

Petrol Shortages

Lagos is dependent on road transport but the go juice that fuels the flow of traffic is not always available. Petrol shortages are frequent but annoyingly irregular. One resigned Lagos resident described them as “a thief in the night – they can sneak in at anytime so you can never rest easy.”

The recent petrol protests and blockades in the UK caused queues, flared tempers and a near national crisis. But they were a demonstration, people stopped the flow, the flow wasn’t stopped. In Lagos and throughout Nigeria petrol has often just not been available. This may seem surprising for a country that is the sixth largest oil producer in the world, pouring out two thousand million barrels a day but simple equations don’t always balance easily.

Nigeria has four oil refineries; all in a poor state of repair and at one point all were out of action at the same time. Even if working at their full capacity, Nigeria still has to import refined fuels from overseas to meet demand. The reasons for this are mired in the complex relationships between the underdeveloped world and the global political economy. It is also down to corruption.

During the military regime it was in the vested interest of some of those in power to ensure that the repairs to the refineries were never completed, that way there was more money to milk from the foreign contractors doing the work. On the streets of Lagos this means that when the pumps run dry the city grinds to a halt. The petrol ceases to propel the cars and fuels the fires of anarchy instead.

Queues stretch kilometres, people abandon their cars at petrol stations, tempers flare, fights break out, and people die. In one incident a fight at a pump sent petrol from a hose spewing all over the forecourt. It caught fire and fried twenty people, including a pregnant woman. There have been other deaths like these.

The desire not to be caught short led many cars and vans to be fitted with home made reserve fuel tanks that promptly exploded when the vehicles were involved in the near inevitable accidents that occur on the roads of Lagos. At the moment the fuel is flowing, the refineries are being repaired and there have been no queues for months, but now that the pumps are pouring petrol on demand, that demand is soaring up. A year ago 18 million litres per day was bought by Nigerians, at the moment the figure is up to 25 million litres. At that rate, it can’t be long before the thief pays his next visit.


In the book, Mutations, Rem Koolhaas of the Harvard Project on the City, suggests that the lack of planning and seeming chaos of Lagos means it’s difficult to believe that the city functions at all, let alone as well as it does. This in itself he sees as a message for the future, that far from being just an enigma, Lagos could be the way that all cities will eventually develop as pressure on them increase.

We’re moving. We’ve left the Islands behind, heading north for the first time, the nose of the car pointing in the same direction as I’ll be travelling all night. I take out my plane ticket again, vaguely hoping that I read the check-in time wrong and that I’m not really late. I was right first time. I fold the blue KLM envelope and put it back into my pocket with my passport.

I finger these two pieces of paper that allow me to move from one world to another, from the First to the Third and back again, vaguely in awe of their power to determine the type of life I lead. I look up and we’ve leaving the Third Mainland Bridge, a huge snaking spine that stretches over the Lagoon and onto the mainland. \

The free flow of refreshing wind through the open window eases to be replaced by the blue grey smoke of another go-slow. It presents me with a snapshot of Lagos, I’m sitting in an old Merc on a bridge in a traffic jam, looking down on a street at an old Merc jammed in traffic. If you ever wondered what happened to that car you owned in the eighties or early nineties, it’s sitting in a traffic jam in Lagos.

The Nigerian currency, the Nira is far too weak to make buying a new car a realistic proposition for all but the very rich. Most cars on the roads of Lagos are second hand. The relative strength of the Nira compared with other West African currencies meant that for years there was a very healthy trade in car imports. Old European cars were driven or shipped to countries in West Africa and then taken across the border into Nigeria.

In the 1970s, VW and Peugeot established assembly plants in Nigeria but these eventually closed down as it was cheaper to import second-hand cars than to buy one build in country. Recently the government has attempted to stimulate the purchase of new vehicles by putting a 100% import tax on second hand imports. This will have the effect of forcing people to rely more on the existing pool of vehicles in Lagos.

Cars that by European standards are well past their serviceable life will have the elixir of youth poured into them by skilful mechanics. In fact the car mechanics in Lagos are miracle workers. The Datsun that just passed could well have a Peugeot engine and a Toyota gearbox. If your brakes fail and you can’t afford new parts or the specific ones you need are not available then someone will have a solution.

They may not have any engineering qualifications, they may not even be able to read and write but a good mechanic in Lagos will have boundless ingenuity and an instinctual ability to make things work, even if the original manufacturer would swear blind that it was impossible.

Workshops are often large open spaces that at a glance look like car parks for scrap. Enter the gates and the maze of half repaired hulks takes on a form. An association will run the area. Organisations are big in Nigeria. Each mechanic will have an area and usually a specialisation. Panel beaters, electricians, engine specialists, van men, motorbike boys and upholsterers will all be represented. Some of the cars will come in for repairs and be back on the road within hours or days, others take up near permanent residence.

If an owner cannot afford the work that needs doing to his car he can pay a small fee and it will be kept on site, on blocks and half dismantled, until he can scrape together the necessary cash. This can take months, hence why these compounds often look as much like a breakers yard as a repair shop. I’m standing next to a pink Beetle perched on cinder bricks and greasy wood.

A mechanic, Pastor Thomas is showing me around his area of a yard in Ikeja. I point to the VW.

“It’s been here for a while. I charge him one Nira a day until he can pay for it to be fixed”

He sees my expression and adds, “Yes he’ll be back – I can make it work if he can pay. It’s a good car.”

In the UK you’d have to pay a scrap dealer to come and tow it. In Lagos it’ll be a runner when the wheels go back on.

Despite the total reliance on wheels, most people could only dream of owning a car or even a moped. Public transport is essential. Colours can define a city’s roads, London is red and black, Lagos is yellow. Close your eyes. Open them again. You will see something yellow.

Driving along the highway from the port to Lagos Island and every forth vehicle is yellow. At the huge informal market on the mainland buses and mini-buses are lined up like an invincible banana invasion fleet. The buses are called Muolwes. Most of them are long wheel base Mercedes vans. They run set routes, usually long distances within the city or around the urban region. They are crammed with passengers, three to a seat and more standing than a London underground carriage at rush hour.

More prolific but smaller are Danfos, mini buses, often old Volkswagen Kombi’s. These are just as jammed with passengers, luggage and wares as the bigger buses. They also run set routes but the distances tend to be shorter and the stop more often. Then come the taxi’s, official ones are painted yellow and can be hailed and hired to any destination, provided either you or the driver has any clue about how to get there.

Unofficial taxis, or Kabukabu also abound, these are usually Peugeot 505 estates with three rows of seats and boot space that can squeeze in a few more luckless travellers. Unlike the rest they are not yellow but hold out your hand and one will eventually stop.

As the traffic in Lagos has got worse, tricycles and bikes have joined four-wheeled public transport. Yellow painted Tuk-Tuks are the smallest official vehicles, named Madua, after the former head of Lagos State who introduced them in a valiant but vain attempt to ease the city’s cancerous car problem. More effective is the informal response, Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda mopeds that zip through the traffic carrying as many as three people and luggage. The locals call these Okadas after an internal airline.

Okadas are the only thing that ever flies through the traffic in Lagos. Few moped drivers have licences and to jump on the back of one means a desperate need to get somewhere fast. But even they are not immune from enforced immobility. If you want to sit in relative luxury while stalled in traffic, private cars can be hired with a driver. I picked my Driver Sonny Oseyin up at the Hotel I was staying in, the small, luxurious oasis run by Sofitel in Ikoyi.

Sonny is the secretary of the local driver’s association. He drives a Mercedes. Each major hotel has a fleet of cars that service the guests and anyone else that can afford the European prices. Like Sonny, they all belong to a well-organised formal association that pass vehicle and driver’s licences onto the hotel management for verification.

Many associations also insist their cars undergo regular roadworthiness tests, making them exotic beasts in a herd of aging cattle. Most of the cars are Mercedes, air conditioned and piloted by drivers who know their way around town and around the traffic. Without Sonny or someone like him, the white business executives that visit Lagos would probably never leave their hotels.

We’re in a moving jam. A car beeps it’s horn, the driver issuing a warning that he is just about to pull off a suicide manoeuvre which could well result in collateral damage. A pedestrian responds with the slinky hips of a Latin dancer, the side-step of an international rugby player and the footwork of a chamois.

No Pavements

It is the obligation of all pedestrians to avoid hitting moving vehicles. It takes a while as a passenger in Lagos not to wince when approaching someone who’s on foot, to realise that they will shimmy and shave past the car. Pavements aren’t always present and when they are stalls claim the space forcing walkers into a no man’s land of dust verge, drain and the tarmac edge.

To walk here is to dance with death or injury. This is the space annexed by mopeds unable to interlace through the cars or drive against the traffic flow. This is the space cars use to swerve past a certain crash. This is the space where taxis, Danfoes and Muolwes dart to drop passengers. This is the place where walking demands your full attention.

It would be easy to assume that Lagosian drivers are bad. They certainly do not obey the same rules of the road that operate in most other cities, the direction of flow on a carriage way or street is more of a suggestion than a hard immutable fact. If it works better to drive in the opposite direction to everyone else and you think you can do it without dying then why not give it a go.

Their abeyance of road rules may be negligible but their car handling skills, especially when it comes to steering through convoluted gap only millimetres wider than their vehicle is astonishing. Cars move as if each were a needle threading intricate brocade, embroidery being worked on simultaneously by a hundred different hands, each following their own pattern.

At speed their car handling becomes much more frightening. The roads are under tremendous pressure and so are the vehicles. Pressure on roads means quicker decay and more delays. Poor surfaces and mechanical failure mean that fatal accidents are a frequent fact of life. No matter how good a driver is there are too many bullets in this gun to play Russian roulette with the roads of Lagos.

I once listened to Ola Moses, an elderly hotel driver, who’s been working the roads of Lagos for years, extolling the virtues of those brave enough to take the wheel and navigate around the city.

“Lagos drivers are the best in the world. We are fast and smart. If you can drive in Lagos you can drive anywhere. “

I had to agree.

Just Like London and New York

A flat bed truck thunders past with a large cargo container on the back. It is not fixed on but tied at each corner by rope. It bounces visibly on the deck of the trailer. A van has broken down at the side of the highway. There are no hard shoulders so it takes up a lane that other vehicles are thundering along.

The driver has walked back 20 feet and placed a small rock in the road to warn of the danger. A similarly inadequate calling card of impending doom, a small yellow rag tied to a brick marks a pile of chippings blocking the inside lane. Potholes loom, shredded tires and abstract car parts litter the road. At 70 miles an hour, avoiding these obstacles focuses the mind.

To live in Lagos all these trials must be dealt with countless times a day, every day. The people that live in this city are often considered harsh, brash, rude and aggressive. Some of them are, but then what about Londoners, Parisians and New Yorkers? All urban areas can be a struggle to live in, Lagos is worse than most, it’s a constant fight for survival.

But despite incredible pressures that would squeeze the air from the lungs of many in the privileged world, the vast majority of people living in Lagos still manage to be honest, considerate and humane. Quite how they do so beggars belief yet is inspirational. Fun seems to be the main antidote, “Live hard play hard” could be a maxim invented for Lagos. Kunle Tejuoso, publisher of the Glendora Review a cultural magazine based in Lagos told me:

“Lagosians will use any excuse for a party, and when they have fun they have it to the full. There is a lot of tension in this town but it is elastic, it doesn’t seem to snap.”

Music, alcohol and religion are the release valves that keep Lagos from exploding.

The ingenuity and humility of many people that live thrive and survive in Lagos is one of the modern world’s few true examples of the tenacity of the human race. There is a Yoruba saying which says: “Force a Nigerian against a wall and he will break through the wall”

Such determination to find a way is what defines a citizen of Lagos.

The Future

We’re nearing the airport. It’s dark now. No street-lights, few lights from the teaming residential areas we’ve passed, even some of the cars are blind eyed. A final go-slow. This one is different, the black night is pricked by flickering flames from the naked oil lamps on road side stalls.

The Go Slow Boys loom at the window, light from dim headlights shining on their wares. As I sit I realise that Lagos could be any city, even the shining metropolises of Europe and the States. I think about the words of Rem Koolhaas: “Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos.”

Modern life in the Developed World rests easily on a dense complex web of technology and economy. If only a few of these strands were broken the cradle would fall and it would land somewhere like Lagos. If the purveyors of doom are only partly right and modern consumption and expansion cannot continue forever, then Lagos is the city of tomorrow. Lagos is the future.

Huw Williams (1 Posts)