It wouldn’t be true to say that we had heard glowing reports of Lagos before going there. Most of the tourists we met in West Africa thought we were mad for considering it. Nigeria’s immigration, customs and security personnel enjoy a special place in the horror stories of African travellers’ lore, and Lagos holds pride of place. Long before arriving in Africa, we had heard stories of heavily armed gangs rampaging with impunity through the Lagos streets. In the guidebook descriptions, the word ‘hellhole’ is alarmingly common. Yet there were compelling reasons to visit it. It is subsaharan Africa’s most populous city – nobody knows the population but estimates range from 6 to 13 million – dwarfing the other West African cities, and, as the region’s undisputed economic capital, we were resolved to visit it, at least briefly, to give us a more rounded picture of the region. Furthermore, after one too may brushes with stamp happy immigration officials, I found my passport full and the only Irish embassies in the region are in Lagos and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Since the war had just flared up again just outside Freetown, Lagos surely had to be a better bet for a replacement passport. Finally and reassuringly, none of the African traders we met seemed to think it especially ill-advised to go there, limiting their warnings to saying that it was a ‘fast’ place.

For months we had been mentally steeling ourselves for the challenges of this fabled city. Every time we arrived after dark in a town, allowed ourselves to be distracted by shady characters or excessively laden down with unwieldy baggage, we had said to ourselves: “we can make these mistakes now, but not in Lagos”. We reckoned that our arrival in the city was the most perilous part of our stay since we’d be new to the country, ignorant of the customs and layout, as well as being conspicuously burdened with juicy backpacks. Therefore we spent a few days in Cotonou, Benin preparing ourselves, before braving the 120 km trip along the coastal highway. We cut our baggage to an absolute minimum by posting all but the absolute necessary home, taking particular care to eliminate all politically questionable literature which might excite the suspicion of customs officers. We concealed our valuables in various secret pouches and pockets on our bodies. We filled our wallets with American single-dollar bills in preparation for corrupt border officials. Our camera and binoculars, evidence of the crime of ‘journalism’, were hidden deep inside our bags. The only part of our preparations which was incomplete was our accommodation since, despite many attempts, we had failed to achieve a telephone connection to any of the hotels listed in our guidebook. Nonetheless we set out from Cotonou bright and early to ensure we’d have plenty of time to find a hotel room before dark.

Lagos – route taken, May 2000 – full map

By 11 am we were at the Nigerian border. Our taxi dropped us off a kilometre short of the frontier and we walked the remaining distance through a multitude of traders’ stalls, towards the border post, an imposing concrete gateway spanning the road. Our sense of apprehension was heightened by the fact that we seemed to be a most unusual sight to the denizens of this frontier land. They stared in wonder, pointed at us and called out “tourists!” to their friends, as if we were some semi-mythical beast, unknown outside of ancient folklores. We were expecting a grueling series of interrogations and were prepared to follow the guidebook’s advice and simply dole out the bribes to whoever asked without quibbling. Thus we were amazed when we got through the entire formalities in 5 minutes with almost no expense. We handed our passports to the immigration man, gave him $2 upon request, answered a few questions about ourselves, specified that we wanted to stay for a month and promptly got our passports back. We moved from immigration to customs. The officer asked for a ‘dash’ but, as I was fishing for it in my pocket, another officer came over and told his colleague to leave us alone as we were tourists. Reluctantly he concurred and waved us through without the merest peek in our bags. We emerged in Nigeria to find, to our immense surprise, an almost total lack of touts, hustlers and hawkers. It actually took us some time to find a money-changer, but eventually we tracked one down, changed $10, enough to get us to Lagos, and found a taxi which was leaving at once with a mere 3 passengers and acres of space, a shocking phenomenon in West Africa where empty space in vehicles seems to be considered an offence against nature itself.

Our car tore along the multi-lane highway, giving us little chance to examine the 80 km of countryside which separate Lagos from the border. The onset of the city is gradual, indicated by thickening traffic which slows to a crawl at least 10 km before the city centre. The city was originally based on islands in the coastal lagoons but nowadays the vast majority of the population live in sprawling suburbs on the mainland. Our taxi inched its way through this sprawl, along a 3 lane highway where the cars, immobilised by the perennial ‘go slow’, are thronged by itinerant salesmen hawking a vast array of produce. The highway snakes through a bleak, unrelenting, urban landscape, populated by countless rust-roofed apartment buildings and ramshackle commercial stalls, interrupted by massive, creaking factories, desolate warehouses and increasingly rare patches of wasteland, part rubbish dump, part tropical jungle. After about one hour of slow progress, our taxi ejected us at the major suburban intersection known as ‘mile 2’, where acres of buses, taxis and indeterminate motorised vehicles flank the road. Here we learned to our dismay that the taxi trip to the centre would cost as much as the 90 km from the border. This was especially disappointing since we had only $4 left and it required an agonising series of negotiations before we found a taxi driver willing to take us to the hotel that we had picked from our guidebook for this small sum.

The hotel’s address was on Lagos island, the commercial centre of the city. The trip there took us along an impressively modern system of highways, linked by stilted, twisting access roads, across bridges, over lagoons and swamps, elevated above the rusting hulks of the city’s power stations and major industry. The skyscrapers of Lagos island loomed behind this scene of desolate pollution like a fairytale city in the clouds. We zoomed unimpeded through this industrial zone and finally emerged onto the final bridge to Lagos island, with the city towering, unobscured before us. Here we learnt why the taxi drivers had been so unwilling to take us. Half way across the bridge, market stalls started appearing towards the side of the road, by the bridge’s end, only the centre lane of the 3 lane road was available for cars as the stalls advanced further into the road. A few feet further on, the street disappeared altogether, devoured by the market’s insatiable lust for commerce. We crossed the bridge at approximately 2pm, by 2:20 we had advanced about 20 feet when the road suddenly turned into an illegal motor park. The narrow passage that existed between the market stalls was filled with parked minivans, each trying to attract passengers from the market. Thus all traffic had to wait for a van to fill to advance the length of one minivan. We were stuck in the back of the taxi, the driver was getting increasingly annoyed at us for making him come this way, the sun was beating on our backs amplified by the windscreen glass and worst of all, we were penniless and thus unable to buy any of the frozen yogurts that vendors were pushing in the windows. For the next 2 hours we advanced one minivan length every 20 minutes or so. The monotony was only relieved by the approach of a policeman who waved completely ineffectually at the traffic for a minute or so before demanding and receiving 50 cents from our driver in appreciation of his help.

It was 4:20 pm when we finally emerged from the market and turned down the road where the hotel was supposed to be situated, a narrow street thronged with pedestrians. When our hotel proved not to be at the address claimed in our book, the driver was in no mood to continue the search and unceremoniously dumped us and our bags out onto the street. We strapped our backpacks on and set out to search the locality for the hotel, knowing that our guidebook frequently gives slightly inaccurate locations. We backtracked along the busy street to roughly the area where it should have been and to our relief saw a small wooden sign pointing down a narrow sides-treet. We jostled our way down this street along the thin passageway between traders’ stalls, ignoring the astonished stares and shouted questions from bystanders, in a dismal attempt to appear as if we knew where we were going. 6 metres further on, another sign for the hotel appeared, pointing down a dark, narrow alleyway, maybe 5 feet wide, between two tall buildings. It seemed like a poor location for a hotel, somewhat risky for evening strolls, but we had little alternative but to press on. 10 metres or so down the alley an even smaller alley branched off to the right. A few metres down this alley we could just about see, through the gloom, the name plaque of the hotel pointing towards the doorway of an apparently derelict building with broken windows and boarded up doors. A young woman emerged from a dark entrance opposite and pointed us towards a grimy staircase which rose into unfathomable darkness. We turned and fled, back through the alleys, enduring the bemused looks of the stallholders, back onto the street whence we had come.

Room with a view

So we found ourselves in the middle of one of Lagos’s poor neighbourhoods, with no local currency, nowhere to stay, no idea where we were or where we could go and little over an hour of daylight left. We panicked. We rushed randomly through the streets, several times finding ourselves at places where the crowds thinned and thus we turned back, believing ourselves safer among the masses. Pushing through the throng with our homes strapped to our backs, we felt as vulnerable and trapped as a tortoise among a pack of leopards. Never have I felt so conspicuous. Shoppers stopped and stared, idlers pointed and shouted; we seemed to be an entirely novel sight. Our headlong progress brought us into the commercial district, banks housed in towering skyscrapers rose all around and still no hotels. What’s more, unlike all the other commercial capitals of West Africa, we had not yet seen a single white person. On several occasions we decided to enter a bank to try to change some money but couldn’t figure out how to get past their heavy defences around the doors and so kept going, deciding it was a bad idea to ask help and reveal the full extent of our muggability. We decided to attempt to pay a taximan in dollars but the few taxis that we saw all had passengers. Our guidebook had a rough schematic map of the city on which another hotel was marked. We tried walking there, but soon came to a point where all the streets looked empty and dangerous. We turned back in despair and then, mercifully, saw a parked taxi with the driver leaning against the door. He knew of the hotel and agreed to take us there for 3 US dollars. 5 minutes later we heard the happy words, “yes we have rooms”, our white skin persuaded them to forgo the ‘payment-in-advance’ rule, and our ordeal was over. We deposited our bags and celebrated our survival with Guinness and Harp in the bar, comforting memories of home.


Although we had originally planned for only a few days in Lagos, events contrived to keep us there for more than two weeks which did at least give us a chance to balance our initial terror with more sober assessment. In daylight hours we wandered around much of the central commercial area on foot, as well as through various suburban areas and while we were always very conscious of our security and avoided unpopulated streets, we never felt threatened. The hustle and bustle of the market areas is certainly overwhelming, the sheer volume of people can intimidate, but tourists, being extremely rare, have no place in the economy and are treated as unusual curiosities rather than potential customers or criminal targets. After dark was a different matter and we generally stayed close to home, seeing little of Lagos by night.

The city is very much conceived and laid out on a European model. There is little physical evidence that one is in Africa among the skyscrapers, flyovers, apartment blocks and slums. Glaring poverty sits cheek to cheek with flamboyant wealth. Makeshift plastic and scrap metal homes crowd the patches of scrub beneath the soaring motorways. Recently arrived rural immigrants line the streets, selling all manner of goods, swarming through the traffic, among the numerous shiny Mercedes. In the shadow of the gleaming skyscrapers many of the buildings are decayed and falling down. In heavy traffic small beggar children cling to the rear doors of cars and run alongside, for as long as possible, trying to squeeze out a few cents for their persistence. While much of this is common to all the big cities of the third world, Lagos does have a few distorted reflections of the surrounding African society; the lagoons are fringed with stilt-shanty towns, constructed from scrap over the water since no land is available. However, the area where Lagos is most unique, most outstanding, surely unparalleled in all of human history, in in its dysfunctionallity which reaches epic, mind-boggling proportions. Lagos simply doesn’t work.


The most immediately obvious aspect of this dysfuntionality is in the provision of basic utilities. Lagos has, to all intents and purposes, no electricity supply and only occasional running water. For the first two days of our stay in the city I recorded the coming and going of power:

Day 1: arrive 5pm – No power. 7pm – power on. 9pm – power goes and remains off until next morning except for a brief spell sometime between midnight and dawn which I noticed as the lights came on and I had to get up to turn them on.

Day 2: No power until 4pm 6pm – power off 8pm – power on 8:30pm – power off. 11:30 pm – power on, remains on until morning allowing us to use our air conditioning and sleep without sweating profusely!

After this we moved to a hotel with a generator and ceased to notice the power outages except on the 3 or 4 occasions when the generator broke down. In our first hotel there was no running water at all, we were given 2 buckets full every morning. In the second the water worked most of the time but was liable to go for hours on end. The extent of the problems that this situation causes in such a massive city is hard to fully appreciate. Anybody who relies upon any electrically powered item must be able to generate their own power. This is feasible, if inconvenient, for large businesses. The commercial areas of Lagos hum with the almost constant sound of thousands of diesel generators. Some large companies go further: Cadburys Nigeria have their own power stations and private distribution network. The situation is much worse for small businesses and artisans. Welders, providers of photocopying or word processing services and many others who could never afford generators are completely immobilised by the situation. As an example of how the unreliable power supply has a wide reach, I wasn’t able to get my haircut while in Nigeria for fear that the razor would lose power midway through and leave me with an even sillier haircut than the one that had sprouted on my head since my last haircut in Dakar. Only the richest individuals can afford generators for their homes and thus the city’s millions are constrained to endure the intense humidity and heat without as much as a fan to cool them.


The telecommunications infrastructure is also barely operational. I wanted to contact the Awareness League, Nigeria’s anarcho-syndicalist organisation, while in Lagos. I had been given three telephone numbers for them and, as soon as we arrived, set out to try to phone them. The first problem was finding a phone. All over West Africa there are small telecentres where one can call and the charge is registered on a meter. Not in Lagos. Here there are only a small number of phoneboxes, sparsely scattered about the town. Having located a phonebox, you discover that a prepaid phonecard is needed which is again not easy to find. We spent a large part of a day searching for somewhere to buy one before finally succeeding at the headquarters of the phone company. The cards only come in large denominations and the smallest one, 100 units, is in short supply so we were obliged to buy 200 units for $15, although we only wanted to make one 10 cent call. Having expended considerable effort to track down the card and phonebox, we were disappointed to learn that none of our numbers appeared to be valid: sometimes the phone started beeping before the number was fully dialled and at others a long silence terminated by a continuous beep followed dialling. After trying all 3 numbers several times each, we came to the conclusion that we must have made a mistake in copying the numbers, so we set out to verify this. The numbers had been sent to me in an email, thus we needed an internet cafe to check them. Whereas little Cotonou, a couple of hours drive away, has several cybercafes, reasonably priced, easy to locate, with modern computers and fast connections, Lagos is different. It took us a full day to find any cybercafe, the price was high, the connection was very slow and the computers were barely operational – it took about 10 seconds for the screen to draw. Nonetheless we did eventually manage to retrieve the telephone numbers only to find that they were identical to those which we had tried. Having nothing else to go on, we decided to try the numbers again in a different phonebox, both with and without the area codes. This time, to our surprise one of the numbers yielded a ringing tone but when it was answered, the person seemed unable to hear us and hung up after a while. Encouraged by this, we tried again, but several more attempts yielded nothing but various sequences of beeps. Finally, on about the 10th call, we got through and were able to leave a message for our contact. Unfortunately it took two more calls to arrange a meeting, again with a connection rate of about 1 in 10. Initially I assumed that this poor strike rate must be caused by something I was doing wrong. It took some time for me to accept that this was simply the way the phone system worked, an eye-opening realisation which contradicted many of my assumptions about the way the world works. Although communication was rendered extraordinarily difficult by the fact that one had no guarantee of achieving a connection at any given time, we did finally succeed in meeting the Awareness League members.

A to B

Electricity, water and communications in Lagos may pose problems but what really takes the biscuit, particularly to the newly arrived, is transport, the problem of getting from point A to point B in the city. If the places are close together, one can walk but even this is no simple matter. There are no footpaths. The driving surface often extends right to the edge of the roadside sewers, forcing pedestrians to walk among the traffic, dodging in and out of the narrow channels which temporarily open among the myriad flows of traffic. Where there is a raised verge between the driving surface and the roadside buildings, this gives no safety to pedestrians since, unless the terrain is so rough as to make it physically impossible, cars will swarm all over this area. It is not unusual to see a car, driving along the road’s edge, tilted over at a steep angle, with two wheels high up on the verge and two wheels on the road. Driving on these unconventional spaces, reserved for pedestrians in most cities, has no effect on the drivers’ speed, except that it is perhaps easier for them to go fast since there are fewer cars to get in their way – pedestrians are no reason to slow down. This all means that walking around Lagos, pushing through the crowds, dodging cars which can appear suddenly from any direction at great speeds, while rebuffing hawkers and beggars, feels like participating in a huge, deranged, futuristic game where the only aim is to survive.

Even if one wanted to, it would be impracticable to rely exclusively on one’s feet to get around the city since it spreads over a large area and the different parts are connected only by elevated highways, particularly dangerous to walk along. Therefore it is often necessary to take some form of motorised transport to get around. Taxis are one possibility. However, they are expensive, often difficult to find and, due to the appalling traffic, they can be painfully slow. Even at the best of times, one can find oneself stuck in agonisingly slow jams, especially around major intersections. During the morning and evening ‘go-slows’ this becomes almost certain. After heavy rains the situation is still worse. The city is built on low, swampy coastal land which floods easily. Heavy rains cause large pools to form on many roads, too deep to drive through, which cause traffic to be completely immobilised for hours. On a couple of occasions we saw huge ponds, 2 or 3 feet deep, blocking traffic in the heart of Lagos island. The traffic blockages, whether caused by flooding or otherwise, are not helped by the behaviour of some of the motorists. In Lagos, although traffic police seem fairly numerous, there is effectively no enforcement of regulations, since they are all busy seeking opportunities for extortion. Therefore, whenever there is a blockage of traffic, although most of the drivers wait patiently in line for the cars to start moving again, invariably a few people decide to try their luck and pull out to recklessly drive down the wrong side of the road or up on the verge. This generally has the consequence of aggravating the situation since, with rogue drivers on either side of the blockage, total deadlock ensues, made ever worse as more and more drivers lose patience in the motionless queue.

To get around the problem of the go-slows, motorbike taxis, known as ‘ochadas’ are the favoured means of transport. These motorbikes have the advantage of cheapness, about one fifth the price of a taxi ride, and availability, since they are never hard to find. On the negative side, they are extraordinarily dangerous and, consequently, terrifying. Unfortunately, due to budget restraints, this was our normal form of transport around the city. We had come across these motorbike taxis before, in Togo and Benin, but there, although a little nerve-wracking, they had been an exhilaratingly novel way to travel. Here they somewhat lost their charm. The bikes are normally 80 cc Yamahas, 100 cc Suzukis or 125 cc Hondas, all with long padded seats. Helmets are unknown and, in Lagos, the bikes routinely carry 3 people. The driver sits on the fuel tank while the two passengers squeeze onto the seat, the foremost one using the footrests while the other holds their legs suspended in the air. We generally chose to travel 3 to a bike for security as well as to weigh down the bike and thus limit the speed. Nevertheless the drivers often still manage to coax terrifying speeds out of their small, heavily laden machines, weaving in and out of traffic, up and down onto the verges, switching back and forth between the two sides of the road, leaning into corners at acute angles like racing drivers, ploughing into dense crowds with their hand on the horn. They ochada makes any roller coaster look laughably tame. Any projecting limbs are liable to collide with cars and people; on one trip with a particularly reckless driver, I hit my knee against 3 different cars and our bike collided with two pedestrians. The stretches on the highways between the islands are the worst since the bikes have limitless room to accelerate and swerve across lanes. I will not miss this form of transport.


As well as the problems with the basic services, there are a number of other factors which detract from one’s stay in Lagos. Being such a large city, one expects a good range of facilities, at least on a par with Abidjan or Dakar. After the disappointment of Ghana we were desperate for English books and after months of seeing only films dubbed into French, we hoped to watch a few mindless Hollywood blockbuster films in their original language. Thankfully there were some non-religious bookshops here but they were all small and poorly stocked with ancient, yellowing paperbacks. The best among them would come some way short of a typical small, suburban, second-hand bookshop in the West. Cinemas, shockingly don’t exist in Lagos. Apart from occasional showings at foreign cultural centres, there is no public cinema. Supermarkets and restaurants do exist but are generally located far out in the affluent suburbs and require a car for a visit. However, by far the most inconvenient aspect for the tourist is the matter of dealing with the local currency.

We carry our money mostly in travellers’ cheques and had hitherto no real problems in exchanging them, although we had to carefully plan ahead since banks are limited to major towns. In Lagos we spent an entire day looking for a bank that would exchange such a thing. We travelled up and down several skyscrapers, through heavily guarded vaults where machines counted hundred dollar bills, throughout the strip of shiny bank headquarters, only to be constantly redirected elsewhere, passed around like a hotcake until we finally gave up. The private bureaux de change and street money-changers would change them for us, but only at about 60% of the cash rate. For our first few days we subsisted on the small stash of cash dollars which we had brought, but, after trying practically every change business in town, we came to realise that we weren’t just being taken for mugs, but travellers cheques were worth far less than cash here. After 3 days searching we managed to get 80% of their value and had to content ourselves with this although it did make our stay excessively expensive.

Nigeria works on a cash economy. Cheques, credit cards or any sort of cash substitute are almost unknown. The widespread occurrence of financial fraud – known as ‘four one nine’ after the legal decree which deals with it – ensures that even the biggest, most expensive businesses balk at accepting anything other than cash. Therefore it is unfortunate that cash is so unwieldy. The Nigerian Naira, in 1980 worth over a dollar, is today worth less than one cent. During our stay in Nigeria, the 100 Naira note was just being introduced, although it was yet to enter general circulation. Therefore the biggest note was worth less than 50 cents and even these were hard to find, 20 cent notes being most common. When you take a relatively expensive city, an economy based entirely on cash, a largest denomination of 50 cents and a renowned crime rate together, it is not surprising that there are some problems. One finds oneself walking around with huge wads of cash to pay for the smallest things. Each evening we’d spend quite some time counting the rent on our hotel room. First we’d count it, then they’d count it, if there was any discrepancy we’d have to start again. The whole thing could easily take 10 minutes. The act of money counting starts to take up sizeable chunks of one’s day, never mind the time spent concealing huge wads of cash on your person in such a way as not to attract a mugger’s attention.


Soon after arrival we contacted the Irish embassy by telephone and explained our need for a new passport. They seemed shocked that we were here, tourists, in Lagos and were very concerned for our safety, counselling us to change hotels to one of the exclusive suburbs. The embassy was located in Victoria Island, the most upmarket neighbourhood in the city, populated by embassies and luxury residences, all defended by massive walls, kilometres of razor wire, armed guards and high-tech security systems. Here, for the first time in Lagos, we came across members of the expatriate community. On the streets they were visible in fleeting glimpses, as they sat in the back of their chauffeur-driven cars or walked between car and house. Within the confines of the four star hotels, embassies and western-style supermarkets stuffed with imported delicacies, they could be seen in greater numbers in less brief installments. We had only a very small exposure to this community, however, even in this short time, we were able to observe a few striking features. In general they live in a self-contained world which has almost nothing in common with the city in which everyone else lives. This separation is reinforced by an exaggerated fear of the dangers of the surrounding society. People were horrified that we were travelling by public transport, expressing the opinion that this was very dangerous for whites since ‘they’ would hassle us and generally torment us on account of our skin colour. On the contrary we found that people were inclined to take a protective attitude to us on public transport and went out of their way to explain how things worked. Horror stories of banditry and roads strewn with corpses also circulated within the expat community, with reference to the great wilderness beyond the city.

This attitude of exaggerated fear seems to be created as a means of justifying the separateness of the expats, to assuage their consciences, troubled by living on an island of opulence among a sea of misery. It allows them to avoid, and thus ignore, the realities of the city where they live and for many of them, employed in the oil industry and in other jobs basically involving the extraction of wealth from the country, this requirement for security allows them to avoid confronting the uncomfortable fact of their exploitative role in this society. Nonetheless, despite being slightly rattled by our contravention of the carefully constructed system of separation, the ambassador and embassy staff proved very helpful, preparing me a fresh passport on the spot and supplying us with letters of introduction to assist our applications for visas.


There was now only one thing left to deal with in Lagos. When we arrived in the city we had inspected our passports and were surprised to learn that, despite having a visa valid for one month, the immigration man at the border had only granted us a stay of one week. Therefore we would have to get an extension before travelling across the country. We assumed that this had been merely a mistake by the official and that, as in most countries, it would be a simple formality to achieve an extension of our permitted sojourn until the end of the month. To this end we undertook enquiries about the means of securing such an extension and were directed to the immigration department of the Federal Secretariat at Alagbon Close, Ikoyi Island. At the time this address did not have any special significance to us and so we went there with light hearts, untainted by any dark apprehensions. Little did we know that the phrase ‘Alagbon Close’ sends a chill through the soul of Nigerians for it is the Lagos headquarters of the federal government, the lion’s den.

Now to understand the mode of functioning of the Nigerian federal government, it is necessary to appreciate certain things about the society. The culture of this modern nation is extremely hierarchical in nature, even militaristic. Differences in standing are finely graded so that it is almost always possible to work out a relative hierarchy among any group of people, even when drawn from different areas. This culture appears to be partly inherited from the militaristic colonial state and partly from some elements of the various indigenous social orders: the Hausa-Fulani emirates of the North are rigidly hierarchical while the South Western Yoruba kingdoms emphasise demonstrations of submission such as full prostration before dignitaries. However, in the modern Nigerian state, it has surely reached its zenith. One of the military dictators in the 1980’s (I think Babangida) even attempted to introduce a national ranking, setting our for once and for all who had exactly what positions of relative importance and answering such thorny questions as ‘should a university vice chancellor defer to a major of the army?’ Among the elite, questions of status and class seem extremely important. The massive Nigerian ‘who’s who’ is an important publication, updated every year, which faithfully records the schooling, and significant positions held by thousands of members of the ruling class. The hierarchical organisation goes hand in hand with a tyrannical use of power. Person number 4,000,001 in the hierarchy must defer, in a servile manner, to number 4,000,000 and can tyrannically terrorise number 4,000,002. This power relationship is manifested in thousands of miniature displays in everyday life. During the 2 weeks we spent in Lagos I was saluted – by doormen and other workers of lowly status – more times than in all the previous years of my life. Anybody who works in the service industry must submit to arbitrary abuse from their customers without the merest complaint or argument, even though they are frequently not at fault, the abuse being merely a way for the customer to flex his or her muscles. The Nigerian federal government is the place where, naturally, this hierarchical tyranny is most perfectly expressed.

We arrived early in the morning at Alagbon Close, a narrow road leading off one of the major highways of Ikoyi. It didn’t take us long to find what we were looking for: 30 metres down the road a sign declared ‘immigration section’ outside an anonymous concrete office block surrounded by a high wall. We addressed ourselves to the uniformed officer at the gate and asked him where we should go to apply for a visa extension. He asked us whether we had a letter. Not knowing to what he was referring, we replied that no, we didn’t have a letter. He then said that we needed a letter but perhaps he could help. For a small sum he’d be able to have a letter typed for us. Still ignorant of the meaning of this letter and without any idea how to proceed otherwise, we agreed. He asked us who was our sponsor, the company which was responsible for our immigration. We replied that, as tourists, we had none. He then explained that we would need some local address which would be written into our passports and if we didn’t have one then he’d just make one up. A little worried at the prospect of this proposed fraud, we produced a business card given to us by the Irish ambassador and told him that if he needed to use an address then the Irish embassy was as good as any. He shepherded us into the gatehouse and bade us wait while he sent somebody out to type the letter.

For the next 20 minutes we sat there and observed the comings and goings of the immigration department. 2 uniformed officers were employed in the gatehouse. One of them, the less important, was responsible for opening and closing the gate when the other one told him to. The other one, whom we had been dealing with, stood beside the gate and saluted the officers as they came and went, often adding an obsequious “good morning sir”. The response of the officers seemed to mostly depend on their status. Those who appeared most prosperous and powerful, condescended to reply with a faint smile, a nod of the head, or even, in an extraordinary display of consideration for this lowly gateman, they’d give a spoken response: “good morning”, even adding “how are you?”. However the greater number of officers, apparently from the lower grades of the service, either completely ignored him, scowled at him reprovingly, or even admonished him for some supposed oversight, thus hammering home the difference in status between them, lest anybody forget. The gateman in turn frequently berated the gate-opener, some years his senior, for his sloppiness in carrying out his duties. Eventually another officer entered the gatehouse, carrying the letter, which he presented to me, gave me a pen and asked me to sign. The letter, on a thin sheet of plain, unheaded paper, was typed on an antique typewriter. In several places mistakes had been made, tipexed out and typed over. The lines of text were completely uneven, swerving up and down, presumably due to the paper being removed several times. The content, in poor, ungrammatical English, amounted to a written pledge, by the Irish ambassador, to take full responsibility, both legal and financial, for the immigration of myself and Deirdre into the country and thus requesting the extension of our visas. Unfortunately, I scrawled my signature at the bottom, underneath the ambassador’s name, before the full meaning of the contents had dawned on me. Immediately the letter was taken back from me, we were led out of the gatehouse, across the road, across a courtyard, through a door into a low building. The officer handed our letter, a forgery of appallingly low quality, to another uniformed officer behind a counter, and turned and left us, still somewhat shocked by the turn which events had taken.

We now had a chance to take in our surroundings. We found ourselves in a large, long, open-plan office building. The room was divided into two parts by a counter which ran the length of the room. Behind the counter were some 20 uniformed officers, half of whom were sitting at the counter while the others had desks of different sizes positioned variously around the room. There seemed to be a large amount of activity among the officers, talking on telephones, examining sheets of paper and passing them among themselves. We were on the other, public side of the counter; a thin corridor between counter and wall furnished only by a long wooden bench. Two of the officers at the counter gestured for us to sit down and started examining our letter. A moment later they looked up, with an expression on their faces that said “I can see that this is going to be very expensive”. One held up the letter and said to us “so who is this Ambassador Lynch?” We explained that this letter had been made by one of the gatemen and that we hadn’t known that we needed a letter but could now go and get one if necessary. They seemed uninterested in this offer, instead one of them shouted a question to a colleague about the cost of a visa extension for Irish people, “gratis” came back the answer. He turned to us and said: “okay, we can give it to you, but it’ll be $50”. We protested that it should be free but he pointed to the forged letter and gave us a knowing smile. Thus, unable to extricate ourselves from the situation, we entered into the haggling over the price. Half an hour later we had succeeded in having the price reduced to $10, agreed by all parties.

Having settled on a price, the officer took the letter and walked out of the room. Some 20 minutes later he returned and beckoned for us to follow him. He led us out of the room, into a dark alley between two buildings. There we found two uniformed officers inspecting the letter in the gloom. Upon our arrival they looked up from their conspiratorial huddle, nodded and handed the letter to our consort. We were led back to the room and again left to our own devices. Some time later the officer again returned and gestured for me to follow him but for Deirdre to stay. This time he led me in the opposite direction, out of the room, into another adjoining building, through a small anteroom manned by a secretary and into a small office filled by a large desk behind which sat another, this time very well-fed and important looking, uniformed officer, holding our letter between his hands. He gestured for me to sit down. With a bow and a salute my consort backed out of the room, leaving me alone with the big man.

The interrogation started on the subject of the letter but when I explained to him how it had come into existence, he seemed satisfied. For the next hour or so he quizzed me about my ‘mission’ in the country, my motivation for seeking an extension and my marital status with Deirdre.

– “So you’re a journalist?
– No I’m a tourist.
– But why would a tourist want to stay for a month?
– I want to travel across the country.
– I see, and maybe write a few articles, eh?
– No, I want to visit sites of historic interest.
– But you could do that in a day or two, unless of course you were a journalist?
– But I want to visit Osogbo, Benin city, Jos, Calabar and Kano, they’re far apart. …
– And if she’s your wife why does she have a different name to you?
– In my country women often keep their maiden names.
– I tell you they wouldn’t want to try that here, here the women take the man’s name. It’s respect, I mean it just wouldn’t do….
– Women in my country are very independent.
– Unless of course, you were two journalists just pretending to be married?”

This interrogation was interrupted by the entry of another man into the room who rushed past the desk, dropped to one knee, clutched the officer’s leg and, with bowed head, proceeded to release a string of pleas in a barely discernible low murmur. The officer completely ignored this simpering supplicant but switched tack in the interrogation, concentrating now on the amount I was willing to pay. Helped by the fact that it was all I had, I refused to budge from $10, despite quite some pressure from the big man. He seemed rather irritated by my obstinance and I was starting to doubt my success when we were once again interrupted.

This time the caller was no supplicant. His loose fitting African clothes gave no clue as to his status but the reaction to his entry made it clear that he was a very big man indeed. My interrogator sprang to his feet, the supplicant still clinging to his shin, and tried to make himself look small by drawing his neck into his shoulders and bowing his head. With a large smile on his face, the new arrival shook the proffered hand of the officer and said, in a jesting tone: “I’m going to report you, you know”. The other laughed in an exaggeratedly ingratiating manner, drew his neck further into his shoulders and said “please sir, no!” Again the new arrival smiled, chuckled and still using the same jesting tone said: “I’m serious, you know”, shaking his head in mock exasperation. Throughout this scene of ritual submission, I remained completely ignored. The newcomer proceeded to considerately ask the other about his health, family and mood, interspersing his enquiries with joking reminders that he was going to report the officer, each of which faithfully produced a string of simpering pleas. All the while the supplicant still simpered away on his knees. Finally, having adequately exhibited just who was the big man on the block, the newcomer left and the officer again turned his attention to me. After suffering this humiliation, he now took the opportunity to demonstrate his authority to me: “I am giving you two weeks, you can spend one day in each place”. He went on to explain exactly how I could manage the transport connections and visit all my intended destinations in just two weeks. I thanked him humbly for his munificence, he scrawled a few figures on my letter, called for an assistant, handed him the letter and I was led back into the large room where Deirdre was waiting.

The letter, complete with the officer’s scrawl, was now handed to another officer behind a desk. Here things went wrong. The officer called us over and asked us to explain the letter. He seemed unconcerned by the fact that it was forged by simply refused to accept any letter that was not on headed paper. Thus after several hours trying, we found ourselves back at square one, with only a few hours left to get an extension before our visas expired and put us in the very expensive situation of illegal overstayers. We resolved to procure a genuine letter from the embassy immediately. We travelled directly there by taxi and were obliged by the ambassador who gave us an immaculately word-processed letter introducing us to the immigration service, signed by himself on the crucial, headed notepaper. We returned at once to Alagbon, went straight to the large office and produced the letter. This time the reaction of the officers was quite different. Faced with such a letter, not only on headed paper but also with a watermark and two different stamps, they had no choice but to treat us as very important personages. We were led out, across the yard, into an office where we hadn’t been before, asked a few polite questions and 20 minutes later departed with a 5 week extension in our passports. It transpired that the comptroller general, who had just seen us, was the only person with any authority to issue extensions. The entire department simply act as a series of filters between the applicant and authority, filtering cash and the flattery of submission as a condition of being able to pass to the next filter. In our first attempt we had simply presented ourselves, nobodies, and thus were obliged to pass through the full, excruciating set of filters, from gateman to comptroller. The access to power implied by the ambassador’s letter short-circuited this system allowing us to bypass most of the filters, since it takes an important officer to risk offending people who have access to a big man like an ambassador. Thus after a long lesson in the ways of power, we left, bruised but victorious with a new found respect for the words ‘Alagbon Close’.


The day after we arrived in Nigeria, Thursday the 1st of June, the government had announced large increases in the prices of petrol, diesel and kerosene, the principal cooking fuel. The prices of all three were increased by 10 Naira per litre (10 cents) which amounts to a 50% price rise on petrol, now 30 Naira per litre, and almost 60% on kerosene. It did not take us long to learn of the increase. Driving along Kingsway road in Ikoyi, Lagos in a taxi, in typically heavy traffic, another taxi pulled up alongside us and the driver shouted something angrily at our driver in Yoruba. From the tone, we assumed that this was some sort of dispute but no, our driver turned around to us, shook his head and said despairingly: “they’ve put up the price of fuel”. Later that evening, the radio stations phone-in shows rang out with angry callers. Fury was widespread since the price rises had immediately caused large knock-on rises in public transport fares and food prices were expected to follow as extra transport costs kicked in.

Although 30 cents per litre is relatively cheap compared to other countries, petrol occupies a particular place in Nigerian society. Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest producer of crude oil. Oil is overwhelmingly its most important resource amounting to as much as 90% of exports. However, most Nigerians feel that they have seen little returns for the billions of dollars earned in oil sales over the years, much of which has lined the pockets of successive spectacularly corrupt leaders, both civilian and military. The only tangible benefit that the oil under their soil brings is the relatively cheap pump prices of petroleum products. The government argues that by selling petrol at the old ‘subsidised’ rate of 20 Naira per litre, the country is losing billions of dollars, since the price of oil has increased so much on the world market in the last year. It would be much better to save this petrol subsidy and spend it on increased services, education, health and infrastructure. However, Nigerians have learned the hard way that little oil money manages to filter down to the population since there are so many sticky fingers at the top.

The unexpected increase is set against a perennially difficult economic situation, where survival is a daily struggle for many people. President Obasanjo recently announced an increase of the national minimum wage to 7,500 Naira ($75) for federal employees and 5,500 ($55) for state employees. Many people interpret these increases as a ‘sweetener’ for the surprise rise in fuel prices, yet these wages affect as little as 4% of the workforce and have not come into effect yet, while many of the state administrations are refusing to pay them. The unwaged sector is extremely large and unemployment is rampant, many of these people eke out meagre existences in the overcrowded slums around the big cities like Lagos. When you are struggling to survive, somehow defying logic to get by on a minuscule income, you tell yourself that this grim struggle is only going to last until your luck changes, which is bound to happen soon. When the opposite happens and your burden suddenly becomes heavier, it comes as a devastating psychological blow. To resist or to admit defeat are the only options. Slogans such as “why not just kill me”, sum up the importance of the issue.

The resistance to the price increases was rapid, widespread and angry. On Monday, June 5th, there were protests all over the Southwest region. Students took to the streets, erecting barricades of burning tyres on many major roads in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Ilorin, Oshogbo and other towns. The protestors commandeered buses and prevented the circulation of commercial vehicles, causing huge economic disruption. The resistance gathered momentum when Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, the president of the NLC (Nigerian Labour Congress, the umbrella group of trade unions), called for a boycott of all filling stations that charge the new price and announced a general strike to begin on Thursday June 8th, unless the government reverted to the old price of 20 Naira. Over the next two days, the protests spread from the Southwest to the rest of the country, including Abuja, the federal capital. Protestors blocked roads, seized public transport vehicles, forced filling stations to close and engaged in several confrontations with the police, during which several students were shot, although it seems that the majority of protests remained peaceful. The number of groups supporting the strike call continued to increase and included such diverse groups as the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, the Association of Road Transport Owners and the Academic Staff Union of Universities. The independent media unanimously condemned the price hike and several state governors also backed the strike call.


I got up at 9 am on Thursday morning, the 8th of June, opened my window and heard a bird singing in the distance. You’d probably have to come to Lagos to realise how strange this is. My room was on a busy road on Lagos Island, which normally ensures enough noise to drown out a large explosion nearby, never mind a distant bird. The road, normally jammed with slow-moving, horn-tooting traffic, was deserted except for an occasional pedestrian and an eerie silence hung over the whole city. I went out and walked into the heart of Lagos Island, the commercial centre of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. These streets, famed for their appalling traffic jams, were all practically deserted, every couple of minutes a lone motorbike or car, carrying a branch of green leaves on its front to show solidarity with the strikers, would hurtle by and a small number of pedestrians made their way tentatively along the edges of the streets. I passed by Tafawa Balewa square, normally thronged with yellow minivans and crowds of bustling commuters. A single bus stood at the loading point beside a small bunch of prospective customers, one of whom walked away complaining bitterly about the inflated prices that were being charged. The busiest areas of the island, around Broad Street and Tinubu Square were empty, barely recognisable and the many bank headquarters appeared closed and empty.

The trade unions led a procession around Abuja, leading government workers out. All across the country banks, hospitals, transport including all domestic flights, and all branches of government were at a standstill. Students and workers barricaded major access roads all over the country including the major Northern cities of Kano and Kaduna, enforcing the unions’ stay at home directive to workers and effectively preventing any circulation of public transport or commercial vehicles. The unions were aided in this task by gangs of unemployed youths, ‘area boys’, who took it upon themselves to extract tolls and inflict damages on the cars of anybody who defied the union directive. Unfortunately this had the consequence that doctors, journalists and others were prevented from carrying out their essential jobs. Riot police clashed with protestors on several occasions, shooting several of them in the process of clearing the barricades, but the scale of the protests and the massive observance of the strike meant that there was no transport to ferry non-unionised private-sector workers to their places of employment. They either had to trek long distances to work or else return home. The few vehicles that did brave the protestors’ wrath faced the problem of securing fuel. Most filling stations were closed, the only open station that I saw was thronged with cars and people carrying jerry-cans. It only stayed open for half the day.

The government backtracked during the first day, returning kerosene to its original price and reducing the increase on petrol and oil to 5 Naira (25%). The unions refused to budge, refusing to accept any price rise whatsoever for a number of reasons. Firstly, on the last 3 occasions that government raised fuel prices in Nigeria, the original increases were somewhat reduced after public outcry. Therefore, many people reason that the government had always intended to introduce a smaller increase than that originally announced, and that anything other than a return to the former price would amount to a defeat to the workers. Furthermore, the unions, having been repressed during many years of military rule, see this struggle as an opportunity to assert their strength especially since many workers have been disappointed with the lack of concrete improvement under the year-old democratic regime. Finally, the fuel price increases are seen as being inspired by the IMF, through the influence of president Obasanjo’s economic adviser Philips Asiodu, especially since fuel price increases were central to the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) initiated by the dictator Babangida in the early nineties. In a country where, after several doses of IMF medicine, the average income is somewhere between one quarter and one tenth of what it was in 1980, SAP is practically a swear word.


On the second day of the strike, Friday June 9th, I again walked through the commercial heart of Lagos. Again, the streets were virtually deserted. Here and there, forlorn pedestrians were walking about carrying empty jerry-cans, searching for open filling stations. On two occasions, groups of men stopped me to ask me my destination and warn me to return home for my safety. I believe that I might have been mistaken for somebody going to work in defiance of the general strike. In the heart of the commercial district, I came across a group of some 6 youths, picking a man up and holding him suspended upside-down. At this stage I retreated to my room and over the weekend I limited my excursions to the close environs as I had no means of transport and walking around the deserted streets did not appear to be entirely safe. In any case, the main action, protests and rallies were situated far away, in the working class suburbs on the Lagos mainland.

Over the weekend the strike stayed firm and even spread to some hitherto non-striking sectors such as the non-unionised Senior Staff Association, comprising senior workers in banks, civil service, pilots and other senior workers. The extent of the strike is illustrated by the fact that in the entire Lagos metropolis only one filling station remained open on Sunday the 11th, hardly enough to service a city of at least 6 million people! On Friday and Saturday there were several more clashes with police during which many protestors were arrested and a few students were shot. However the strike still retained its largely peaceful flavour and did not descend into serious widespread violence. For us the weekend passed excessively slowly. For two days we sat in our tiny, grimy hotel room, only leaving briefly to feed ourselves on rice and beans from the street-vendors below. On Sunday, even these dependables didn’t appear and an omelette was all we could find to eat. While this situation was certainly difficult for us, our troubles were small compared to those of others. Many people employed in the informal economy exist on a hand-to-mouth basis. They use whatever money they earn to stay alive and have no savings or other means to fall back upon when their income is stopped. A large number of people must have passed a hungry weekend.

Thus when I, driven by cabin fever, went out to walk around the city on Monday morning, I was not surprised to find that many more casual traders, food-sellers, taxi drivers and general hawkers had also braved the trip into the city. However, the strike remained total among government workers and civil servants and there was only a bare skeleton of city transport services. Despite the greater number of traders, the city still felt largely deserted and it was clear that the economy remained immobilised. Late that night, the radio news announced the end of the strike. The government had come to a compromise agreement with the NLC which saw petrol priced at 22 Naira, a 10 % increase on the pre-strike level, and kerosene and diesel revert to their original prices. By the afternoon of the next day, Tuesday June 13th, Lagos was largely back to normal, shops, businesses and government offices were mostly open and the streets were thronged with crowds. On Wednesday morning some of the filling stations were open and we were finally able to leave town. Although we weren’t sad to say goodbye to it, especially our cell-like room, we were touched to be waved off by many of the food-sellers on our street whom we had come to know during the strike.

Overall, although Oshiomhole and the union bureaucracy presented the outcome as a clear victory for labour, the strike’s end left an ambiguous impression. On the one hand the IMF inspired pressure to remove subsidies was resisted and many observers claimed that this amounted to a humiliating defeat for Obasanjo, the small rise being scarcely enough for him to save face. On the other hand, a massive and powerful mobilisation on the part of ordinary people ended with things actually worse than they had been initially. Despite the fact that the strike was a resounding success, petrol was now more expensive, prices higher, life more difficult. Moreover, it emerged that the compromise was elaborated in somewhat questionable circumstances. The NLC had held a meeting in Abuja, the federal capital, on the eve of the strike’s end. Rumours of backroom deals between politicians and top union officials involving large sums of money were widespread. The agreement was announced by the NLC without consulting the other groups which had been instrumental in the opposition to the price hike, particularly the National Association of Nigerian Students who vehemently opposed the NLC deal. Yet they were powerless to carry on the strike once labour had withdrawn. Finally many of the filling stations refused to reduce their prices to the compromise rate, either selling at the higher price or remaining closed and profiteering by selling their fuel on the black market.

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