A letter from Lagos

The conduct of people during the recent poll is a humbling reminder, of how the people of Lagos, and Nigeria, have an enduring faith that one day, they will get the leadership they deserve.

    It’s been ten years since I lived in this vast and heaving city, and much has changed.

    Superficially, Lagos looks better. In some places it’s cleaner and tidier, (all those new road-signs), and greener (carefully tended trees and flowers along the embankments and roundabouts).

    There are decent public buses, with designated lanes….and even working traffic-lights! All things are relative, of course, and a new comer would be overwhelmed by the congestion and notorious “go-slows”, which are as bad as ever, (and in many parts of the city, decidedly worse).

    But credit where credit is due Governor Babatunde Fashola seems to be a popular man, and many friends here believe he’s working hard to improve things.

    Lagos, for most of its inhabitants, is still a stressful, exhausting city, but at least there is now a sense that some of those in charge are trying to make things better. And, sadly, that is not typical of Nigeria’s post-independence history.

    There’s plenty of time to sit and think during a Lagos go-slow, (provided someone else is doing the driving, seeking to inch forward at every opportunity).

    Stuck somewhere on the Awolowo Road the other day, I wondered how many people now live in Lagos. I asked that question to officials when I lived here a decade ago, but never got even an approximate answer.

    “Who knows, maybe 10mn, maybe 15mn” was a typical response.

    But how can you plan for education, health, and electricity if you don’t have a clue how many people you are trying to serve?

    This would elicit a weary shrug, and a wry smile.

    So, this time, I put the same question to one of Governor Fashola’s ‘Special Advisors’ (no self-respecting Nigerian Governor, or President for that matter, can function without an extraordinary number of ‘Special Advisors’, but that’s another story).

    “We estimate 18mn” was the reply, “and there are more people coming to live in Lagos everyday than into New York and Los Angeles combined”.

    This means the authorities must make enormous progress just to maintain services at their current level, let alone improve them.  I’ve seen projections that show Lagos will soon have 25mn inhabitants. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

    Given the decades of abuse and corruption, it’s a miracle that Nigerians still have any faith in the democratic process.

    Now it’s election season again. Things got off to a bad start, with a series of postponements even before voting had barely begun.

    After all the false starts, I spent the day of the parliamentary elections at a polling station in the Oshodi neighbourhood.

    The streets were full of loitering “area boys”, whilst heavily armed policemen trundled past on the back of pick-up trucks.

    But inside a school serving as a polling station, hundreds of people queued patiently under a very hot sun. Many of them, it turned out, had done exactly the same the previous week, in the earlier aborted election.

    Amongst them, a young accountant, Tejani, was frustrated to discover that his name was, mysteriously, missing from the voter’s list. He waited under a tree for the best part of the day.

    “The system needs improvements, but at least I’m encouraged to see others voting”, he said, with extraordinary good grace.

    Eventually, at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, he was called forward by the electoral officials, and allowed to vote.

    I’ve heard plenty of cynical voices in Lagos these past few days: “There’s no point in voting, they’ve decided the results already” is a not uncommon sentiment.

    But Tejani’s conduct was a humbling reminder, of how the people of Lagos, and Nigeria, have an enduring faith that one day, they will get the leadership they deserve.


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