Lagos, our Lagos
I came to Lagos on September 19, 1970, in search of the golden fleece at the University of Lagos. Lagos was three years plus old then. It was one of the 12 states created by General Yakubu Gowon on May 27, 1967. It is the only state in the country today that has escaped the infection of the mad virus of state creation by the military since 1967. No mean achievement.
I find it fitting and proper that the government and people of the state should roll out the red carpet and bring out the royal drums in celebration of its 50th anniversary, which comes up on the 27th of this month. It is, for one, the oldest state in the country today. For another, it is the most populous state in the country. And for still another, it has made such tremendous progress in human, economic and social development that no one can truthfully describe it as old for nothing. Age and continuity have conferred on it the wisdom that has pushed it along its own beaten path. The once dirty, sweltering city is now the welcome face of human progress. It is a miracle.
By the way, I found the golden fleece three years later and headed back home to Benue-Plateau State. I thought I was finished with Lagos. I wasn’t.
I returned to Lagos in August 1984 to co-found Newswatch Communications Limited with Yakubu Mohammed, Dele Giwa and Ray Ekpu. Together we trail-blazed the weekly newsmagazine publishing in Africa with Newswatch magazine. I have not left Lagos since then. I have lived here for 33 years. But I am still not a Lagosian. I am still a stranger.
In my 33 years here, I have seen that a lot of good things began in Lagos. And a lot of bad things began in Lagos too. The city has a fine present and a sordid past.
In my Unilag days, I witnessed a city in eternal struggle with itself. It was both the best and the worst period in its life. The oil boom brought unimaginable wealth to the city. The construction boom made sure that the ports were virtually clogged with ships discharging imported building and other materials that would serve notice on the world that our country had arrived. The cement armada said something of the ambition and the incapacity of a country whose sudden wealth pushed it beyond its managerial and administrative capacity. This became its burden.
I was here when it was not unusual to see corpses on some major and minor streets in the city almost daily. The late iconoclast, Tai Solarin, was once moved to take on the thankless job of getting rid of those corpses the police pretended they did not see.
I was here when Ishola Oyenusi led his gang to rob WAHUM of its workers’ pay. They paid for their daring and became the first set of armed robbers to be publicly executed at the Bar Beach. Oyenusi and his gang made armed robbery a bloody but lucrative enterprise. His pikins are still in the business, firing squad or no firing squad.
I witnessed the build up of the horrendous traffic bottle neck. Its local name of go-slow captured the endurance test that vehicular traffic in the city endured daily. I used to walk from Carter Bridge to the NIIA at Kofo Abayomi in Victoria Island. Civil servant friends of mine left the mainland as early as 4 a.m. on week days to get to their offices by 7.30 a.m. on the island. If they were lucky, they passed through their office doors at 1 p.m.
It was here, since January 1966, that the military learnt to use their guns to effect a change of government and plant themselves in office. Coups, successful or failed, were all hatched and executed here. Failed coup plotters were also executed here. Lagos was a city where the blood flowed.
I have mentioned briefly the underbelly of Lagos, our Lagos. In my 33 years here, I have watched with fascination, the breath-taking progress the state has made in almost all areas of human progress; minus constant light supply by NEPA, of course. I have seen land reclaimed from the sea and the lagoon turned into highbrow business, commercial and residential areas for those that young business reporters call high net worth individuals. Our generation knew them as wealthy men and women.
I have watched the rise of skyscrapers and the road network sporting flyovers. I have watched the single Carter bridge, once the only bridge linking the main land with the island turned into a dual carriageway. I watched the building of Eko Bridge and the Third Mainland bridge. And I have watched as good planning and execution have made go-slow almost history in Lagos.
Lagos is a melting pot; a land of promises fulfilled and promises unfulfilled; a land of wide opportunities for some and narrow opportunities others. The city was the welcome but treacherous face of the oil boom in the seventies. It promised easy life but not everyone of the thousands of Nigerians who poured into the city from their hardscrabble home states could find it. They came every year in search of jobs, a better life and living. After all, this was where the oil boomed. Everyone could hear the boom and everyone could see the boom in the changed upward mobile circumstances of their compatriots.
No, I do not think those who flocked here ever thought the streets of the city were paved with gold. No one would be foolish enough then to pour gold on the narrow and largely unpaved streets of the crowded city. The bright lights of the rich and beautiful city attracted them. The promise of an important city being the seat of the Federal Government and commercial nerve centre of the country beckoned them. They could not resist the allure of the lore. And they poured in their thousands with each of them clutching a big dream to his chest. If you could not make it in Lagos, you could not make it anywhere else.
For some, the city delivered on its promises. They realised their big dreams by securing good and important jobs. Some found and exploited opportunities in private industrial and commercial enterprises. But the city failed some. It could not deliver on its assumed promises. There were no jobs and no decent opportunities for a living. Without these, there was no decent accommodation. Those who could not make it found solace in the backwoods or ghetto called Ajegunle and Maroko. The latter is now history but we must remember it in the context of the narrow opportunities in the paradox of rural-urban drift.
Even Ajegunle and Maroko were beyond the reach of many. They found inhospitable accommodation under bridges and flyovers. I would imagine they put up with the rats, the mosquitoes and other vermin better entitled to their home under the bridges because they reasoned that being in Lagos was the best revenge against the hard life they left behind back home in their states of origin. In any case, condition not being permanent, we have also witnessed the God of miracles working the miracles in the lives of those the rich believed had been forgotten in the hard embrace of poverty and the hard life. No matter. If they could not make it here, there is always a fat chance they could exchange places with their compatriots in Maitama, Ikoyi, Lekki and other sumptuous places up stairs. This life is but a dress rehearsal.
The influx of fellow Nigerians into Lagos in the seventies doubled the problems of the city. It could barely cope with the burgeoning population. They clogged the arteries of its social development. The immediate consequence was insufficient water supply and inadequate housing. Millions of poor people lived in wooden shacks in Ikoyi and Victoria Island. The rich and the poor have never quite been separated.
The first military governor of Lagos State, the towering Brigadier-General Mobolaji Johnson, once described the people pouring into his state as the Dick Whittingtons. The man was frustrated. Dick Whittington was a character in an English folklore. It tells the story of a real life Richard Whittington, a wealthy merchant, who claimed to have escaped from poverty, thanks to his cat. Yep, people poured into Lagos to escape poverty. Thousands, who arrived here with coins jingling in their pockets, got lucky. They became rich from industries or commerce or, what the heck, plain corruption.
Thus, the great thing about Lagos is that many came to the city with small changes in their pockets and the gods of Eko transformed their lives. They found success. They made it. They grew wealthy. Lagos became their success story. Amazing.
No other city in the country has transformed as many lives as Lagos has. And no other state has the luck of Lagos: successor civilian governors of the state do not abandon projects begun by their predecessors. They complete them. Ask former governors Ahmed Tinubu and Babatunde Fashola. Then ask Akinwunmi Ambode, the current governor. Have I just revealed the secret of its success?
Happy birthday to Lagos, our Lagos.