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Letters from Lagos, Nigeria: What my eyes have seen and ears have heard

By Dolapo Aina
08 March 2022   |   2:15 pm
Salutations to you. As I write this piece (on Thursday, 16th of December 2021), which was triggered by a short phone conversation with one of the most impactful mentors I am proud to associate with; Mr Olufemi Awoyemi, the founder and chairman of Proshare Nigeria (Nigeria’s premier financial, business and economic information hub since 2006).…

Passengers queue to board mini buses popularly called ‘Korope’ in Lagos, on February 23, 2022. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Salutations to you. As I write this piece (on Thursday, 16th of December 2021), which was triggered by a short phone conversation with one of the most impactful mentors I am proud to associate with; Mr Olufemi Awoyemi, the founder and chairman of Proshare Nigeria (Nigeria’s premier financial, business and economic information hub since 2006).

Mr Olufemi Awoyemi was introduced to me by a very good friend Mr Japheth Omojuwa at a 2019 function in Lekki in Lagos which was organised by an institution focused on good governance and affiliated with Nigeria’s former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom; Dr Christopher Kolade (a highly revered and respected elder statesman).

If anyone had informed me that this piece about my brief but a later elongated visit to Lagos would be this and end the way it would, I would have wholeheartedly said no. The intention was to discover something good; something new; something positive to write a commentary on; something to hold on to and be hopeful for. Alas, here we are, not quite so.

There is something about Lagos and the city’s living la vida loca aura; the anything-goes mentality. The characteristics of this city with an official population of over 22 million inhabitants are numerous and are usually in your face. But this short piece is not about what might be news to a new visitor to Lagos.

This piece is from a writer who was born, bred, booked, battered, bruised and buttered in Lagos and what he saw, was told and analysed during a long visit in the final weeks of 2021 and early 2022. And I would touch base on some salient observations. Grab your guguru and epa (local pop and groundnuts) and chilled pure water (sachet water).

In a society where there is no order, anything goes. In a society where anything goes and there are no consequences for minor and major offences, the deep thinkers are endangered species. And in a society where the deep thinkers are endangered species, the electorate tend to elect unqualified public servants who when push comes to shove are actually devoid of the necessary 21st-Century leadership skills and capacity to deliver.

There is no other way to table the aforementioned sentences. It is what it is. But forgive my digression, as those who know, I don’t do politics. But to have an idea of my present thoughts on the state of affairs in Lagos State and Nigeria, I suggest the reader search on Youtube for Mr Jimi Disu, whose radio show on Nigeria Info 99.3FM is probably the number radio show in Nigeria presently and who invited me on his show on Thursday, 2nd of December 2021, to shed light on Rwanda and the ongoing transformation in the land of a thousand hills.

Anyhowness (Nigerian term for disorderliness) on Lagos roads is on premium steroids. Even when you are obeying traffic rules or pedestrian crossing rules, you still have to be alert for you just never know if someone is breaking the rules and is heading your way.

Commercial motorcyclists with gusto and never-before-seen confidence, ride against traffic in the presence of traffic officials (LASTMA: Lagos State Traffic Management Agency) who won’t arrest them for violating traffic rules (for obvious reasons) but would be on the look-out for innocent and confused drivers (the LASTMA officials can tell from the body language of the driver). Or the officials lurking at some intersections whose traffic lights are not functioning.

The CMS/Broad triangular axis; a perfect case study. An interesting incident transpired which I would summarise by stating that if the occupants and I had left the driver in the hands of the LASTMA officials, they would have eaten him raw (if you know, you know.) Interestingly, this driver was still traumatised by the previous day treatment where he said he coughed out twenty-five thousand naira for breaking no traffic rule. And who accused him of this offence? An Olopa (if you know, you know).

Noteworthy is the fact that a lot of the younger drivers operating the car lifting services have all abandoned the mainland for the island all because of the endless barrage of harassment they encounter from the LASTMA officials who most times are on the lookout for your mistakes or errors instead of correcting car users. But I am informed there are some LASTMA officials who are very professional and can be found in Surulere.

Due to the anyhowness aura of the financial capital of West Africa, being alert and staying alert is almost natural to anyone who understands the city of Lagos. It is your survival code. Your alertness levels are as primed and pruned as those of agents who are constantly aware of their immediate environments. This alertness makes anyone who lived in Lagos initially sceptical of almost everything straightforward and open when one moves to another country where orderliness is a way of life and where things work like clockwork.

Covid cautiousness and carelessness
Once you depart the Murtala Mohammed International Airport where everyone is masked up, you get on the major roads and you wonder if the covid pandemic skipped Lagos as you see people who are not wearing facemasks. Interestingly, in some areas, stares aplenty from those who are not putting on facemasks to those who are putting on facemasks. A personal experience was a visit on Friday, 10th December 2021; to the Mandilas and Balogun markets in Lagos Island.

That experience was quite astounding; for almost everyone in those markets was not putting on masks and the few who were with facemasks looked odd and out of place. Same scenario played out in parts of Ikeja and Ogba that I had to ask my companion if covid were actually in Lagos. Same scenario played out Costain and some parts of Surulere. I was informed that when you arrive masked at some shops, people in those shops are fond of saying and telling you; “there must be covid in your office or where you are coming from.” The sense of humour in Lagos is not what you decode or decipher for the uninitiated.

Unmasked pedestrians were and are still ubiquitous in Lagos and you wonder if the scientific sensitisation by the relevant authorities were effective or if it were just the carelessness and nonchalant attitude of the unbothered; sprinkled with the “God is my protector” Christianese language of most Lagosians? Speaking of religions and the clergy, one wonders why a lot of the top clergy were silent about the scientific aspect of the covid pandemic in 2020 and are just speaking up in the tail-end of 2021?

Reclusive rich, elsive elites
Probably due to the carefree attitude of a lot of residents in Lagos, one feature I noticed was the reclusiveness of the rich and the elusiveness of the elites. There were some top figures and elder state persons I wanted to see and touch base with and probably get some lengthy and in-depth recorded conversations with them and for understandable reasons as some are quite elderly.

But they preferred to be indisposed to meet me or anyone but would rather do phone calls. I discovered much later on that these prominent figures had not invited anyone to their homes since March 2020 and some had not gone for public events or even travelled since 2020. Now, some of these public figures are in their seventies and eighties and it is understandable why they decided to take such extreme yet pragmatic stance.

Curious too, are the cases of Nigeria’s nouveau-riche and well-known billionaires and business moguls who have practically locked themselves indoors, interacting online and with no physical interaction with any outsider only making an exception during the Christmas celebrations. I was surprised to hear some notable names who have businesses on the African Continent in this category. If this is the best move or way, they know and can adopt, in order to stay alive, so be it.

Tasking, tedious traffic
Lugubrious long faces (better known as boys are not smiling), no thanks to the needless traffic jams. The bumper-to-bumper traffic jams seem to be everywhere you go like the popular yellow telco mobile network. And it appears the traffic jams are now more monstrous in nature and grandeur and if not careful; snaking and stretching beyond what the human eye can see whilst standing.

I say this because I experienced two of such monstrosity called traffic jams. And almost every day, I had to think about and in some cases, I had to ask people how they commuted to and from work. I wanted to get to the Apapa Oshodi expressway to meet a colleague but this colleague declined and stated that he would not want me to punish my mental state of mind by getting trapped inside the daily traffic jam in that axis. The traffic stories are sordid and stretch your imagination for more than a mile.

Sobering stories
“If I get home at 10pm, that is early.” This was the statement by the driver fondly called Baba, whose services were needed. The day he mentioned this and his abode which is in Agege, I was shocked. And if Baba is to get back to the island the following morning, he would have to leave his home by 4am. His story is the same with most Lagos residents. I mentioned the 10pm story to someone else to see if the story was an exaggeration and I got another confirmation that 10pm is really quite early.

Another angle of the sobering stories are the numerous economic lamentations one was bombarded with on a daily basis from simple and mundane interactions with people of all social strata. You are left wondering for how long would people be pushed to the wall? What is the tipping point and when would the regular people crack? With the outrageous inflation based on several factors including the unrest and insecurity in the North which have skyrocketed the prices of essential food items almost beyond the reach of the regular person, one envisions and envisages a scenario where for the first time in a long while, Nigerians would have no choice but to vote massively in 2023.

No one needs to proselytise to anyone the preposterous prices of things are enough to make anyone think deeply. And if deep thinking does not sway people to do the needful in 2023, then so be it; but you have to ask can an empty stomach initiate the process of deep thinking?

Preposterous prices

Prices of items have gone over the roof and become stratospheric but one did not understand the enormity of it all until one’s feet touched the ground and one went around to gauge the pulse. When I searched for regular groundnuts and I was told the previous groundnuts which used to cost ten naira or twenty naira was now selling for a whole fifty naira; I was flabbergasted to my core. So much so, I had to go to another seller to ask for the same item and was told the same price.

I bought that groundnut but it took me more than a week before I looked at it again. Or should I mention my utter gladness when I finally saw an akara (fried beans) seller but my utter shock when I was shown the three droplets that were going for fifty naira? “Tins don cost” was the daily chorus I was serenaded by and with by the regular roadside traders. Transportation fares have ballooned and there is nothing to add to this.

Negotiating nerds
There is an innate way Nigerians negotiate prices of goods and services and if you have not lived in Nigeria or mingled with Nigerians outside Nigeria to watch them negotiate, you won’t understand this unique negotiation skill or tactic. The basic rules; never reveal your intended offer first, let the owner of the service have the honours. Divide the price by half but if you decide to divide by three quarters or two thirds, you might get abuses and curses from the seller of the goods and when you do, you would know that you’ve actually gone below the cost price.

One of my observations during a visit to Broad street and Tinubu square on Thursday 9th of December 2021, was that there was no need to negotiate below the cost price; for the traders would readily reveal to you the actual cost prices of the items you are interested in getting. And it appears this was just based on the fact that they wanted you to buy something from them.

And they explained the reason which was never from these statements; “Things are now costly. The economy is bad. Everything is now too expensive.” Female and male traders’ honesty and forthrightness induced by the current grim economic realities.

Candid comments
First things first. Everyone who plies the Lekki tollgate axis would tell you (if you asked) something sordid did take place on October 20, 2020. Someone informed me that the more days spent in Lagos, the more sobering stories one would hear and see. This person was absolutely spot on. Stories from the outlandish to the outrageous, from sad to sordid tales of those who the economy has bruised, beaten and battered and whose only hope is to look unto God to send a destiny helper if not a benefactor even as they endeavour to think outside the box to make daily bread. And to a lot of people in this category, you know it is not their own doing they are in their precarious predicament, it is just that “Nigeria happened to them.”

The corona virus pandemic brought out the inefficiencies of the West who still seem to be at a loss as to how the projected death toll for Africa is not forthcoming. Also, the pandemic has brought out the inefficiencies of a lot of political leaders globally, continentally and regionally. Nigeria is not an exception.

The electorate in 2023 just have to vote with heads and not stomachs which is a tricky ask; but It is as glaring as daylight. People who are politically inclined need to get into politics for this is the only way to effect change albeit gradual. But the reality unbeknown to a lot of people is that except something uncontrollable by human beings happen; that is a miracle takes place, the political calculations and permutations for 2023 are staring voters in the eye balls but they don’t see it. Again, I digress since I don’t do politics.

Nigeria did not happen to all and sundry. Some are still thriving. Small, medium and large-scale businesses are finding their own niche. Throughout the Yuletide season, concerts were almost on a daily basis and these artistes who have their different fanbases entertained their audiences.

A visit to the XQZMOI TV eight state of the art multi-studio/studioplex owned by Nigeria’s foremost and pioneer of stand-up comedy, ALIBABA made more than an impression on me on how resilient Nigerians can be. And as I rediscovered, the entrepreneurial spirit of the city of Lagos is legendary and Lagos is decades ahead of several other African cities in terms of business innovations and all its ramifications. Another observation is the emergence of start-ups which focus on logistics and delivery and this has ushered in a Tsunami of motorbikes who zoom the streets and major roads of Lagos doing their rounds delivery goods ordered for online.

But something else I discovered and to counter my discovery, I leave you with a tweet I saw on a Nigerian retired investor (Victor Asemota)’s twitter handle, which sums up a large part of what I noticed; “Having more hustlers in a place means things are hard. It does not make it more developed.”

Looking at Lagos from the skies and realising how complex the whole system is, I remembered Victor Asemota’s posts about a book (which I am currently reading) by James Clear titled; Atomic Habits which emphasises on structures. Mr Asemota’s tweet in January goes thus: “I keep going back to the statement by James Clear about systems and goals. You don’t rise to the level of your goals but fall to the level of your systems. Without systems, more money simply complicates an already complicated problem.”

I wish this piece were not composed and delivered this way. I wish I could butter and sugar-coat my thoughts during this brief visit but my writer’s mind cannot go against my conscience. It is what it is. And how can I not add that the South African genre of music; Amapiano is the latest currency to serenade one’s eardrums. And the tune and slang of the moment, Zazoo Zehh by Portable.

Aina wrote in from Kigali, Rwanda.

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