From your Correspondent in Lagos

I’ve had occasion not to be polite about British Airways in the past: the last time I flew with them was in July 2008 between Moscow and London, and the cabin looked as though it had been involved in evacuating refugees from an African civil war.  So it is only fair that I praise them for the service they provided me on the way to Nigeria.  They’d allocated me a seat in the lower cabin (this being a 747) on a row which appeared to be otherwise empty according to the self check-in screen at Heathrow.  However, when I went into the lounge there was a large Nigerian lady in front of me accompanied by a small baby and a toddler.  As they went through and I handed over my boarding pass, the lady manning the lounge reception looked at my pass and said “Oh, they’ll be your neighbours.”  One of the joys of flying business is that usually there are no kids nearby (unless you are flying with wealthy Arabs, who pack their whelps into first and business class without batting an eyelid at the twenty grand which has just left their wallet), and I really didn’t fancy a flight with a baby and toddler beside me.  Not that I have anything against children.  Actually, I do.  I don’t like to be near them, or see them, or hear them.  Besides that, I have no objection in principle to their existence.  Anyway, I pulled a face.  The lady at the counter then helpfully looked on her system and relocated me to the upstairs cabin where there were free seats and any children were stowed away in the overhead locker for the duration of the flight.  I wasn’t even aware the girls at the lounge counter could change a seat and reissue a boarding pass, so I was mighty glad that she had the sense of service to offer it.  That she was Indian and not British may or may not be significant.

British Airways have a peculiar seating arrangement in business class, or at least in the upstairs cabin of their 747s.  In each pair of seats, one faces forwards and the other backwards, so you are looking at each other diagonally (a screen between you can be pulled up if your neighbour looks like Cherie Blair).  This has the advantage of the passenger on the window side being able to leave his seat without having to clamber over his neighbour in mid-snooze.  The disadvantage, which I am told is why other airlines don’t do it, is that some people don’t like flying backwards.  Me, I thought it was okay.  During the safety brief we were shown the brace positions.  Those of us in the backward seats are supposed to adopt a position you would when being interviewed for a job.  Those in the normal seats are expected to fellate themselves.  At least I’ll go out looking dignified.  Besides, after a while you kind of forget you’re going backwards.  It’s not like there’s anything out the window to give you a clue.  Coming into land 6 hours later was a bit confusing as I kept thinking the plane was climbing, having forgotten I was looking towards the tail.  But other than that, I couldn’t really tell the difference.

The approach from the north into Lagos gave me the first glimpse of the city which will be my home for the next 3 years.  From the air it had the size and sprawl of Moscow, only there was barely a paved road to be seen.  The streets were the orange pastel colour of the native earth, dotted with huge puddles which identified Lagos as both tropical and lacking proper drainage.  A few huge highways came into view, jammed solid with traffic, half of which were vehicles painted bright yellow as if the Association of American Schoolbus Drivers annual jamboree had gone wrong and they’d somehow ended up in West Africa.  We touched down in an airport surrounded by tropical vegetation and more of the orange, sandy earth which is everywhere in the city.  The walk between the plane and the immigration counter was through an untidy corridor which could have used a lick of paint.  They could also have done with moving the metal seats out of the way, thus doubling the width of the corridor.  And I hope whoever thought it was a good idea to put a mobile phone charging station in a place you are not supposed to stop is not promoted any time soon.  I was greeted by one of the surest signs that you are no longer in the western world: people standing about everywhere, seemingly – and sometimes pretty obviously – doing nothing in particular.  The value we place on our time in the west is not shared by the rest of the world, hence a popular pastime in a lot of places is loafing about.  Quite often this is also considered to be work.

The airport wasn’t half as bad as I expected it to be.  Having carried visions of an enormous rugby scrum at the immigration counter, I was pleasantly surprised to find a queue no less orderly than that found at Heathrow and processed with twice the speed and efficiency as that of Kuwait airport.  True, they employed an extra person to first check your passport and visa before handing it to somebody else who, erm, also checked your passport and visa before stamping it but in some countries this would involve four people and take ten minutes.  Being one of the first off the aircraft (now the boot is on the other foot I now agree with the practice of rudely pulling a curtain across the nose of the foremost economy class passenger and telling him to wait his turn) I was fourth in the queue and was through in under ten minutes.  The baggage collection hall was no worse, and in many cases a whole lot better, than those I saw in the former Soviet Union and I was met by a grinning Nigerian in a loud shirt who didn’t know who I was but somehow guessed I was not from around here.  Fortunately, he was the very chap I was supposed to meet and he’d clearly had some training in recognising greehorn palefaces in the employ of oil companies.  But my name wasn’t on the list.  In some countries, this would mean a lengthy wait and phone calls.  In Nigeria, this means writing your name on the list.  The baggage took a while to come, but no longer than you sometimes find in any other airport.  At least it did come, and it didn’t look as though anyone had jumped on it or seen if it could float.  Then the Nigerian, who was joined by various others, loaded my bags onto a trolley and wheeled it through customs with no more than a hand wave to the officials standing nearby.  I was expecting my bags to be ripped open, grundies and suit trousers to be flung in every direction, and a price in US dollars assigned to every item in each bag which must be paid in order to proceed.  No such thing.  Apparently Port Harcourt is a bit like that, but all the customs officers in Lagos were interested in was my yellow fever certificate.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is anywhere in the world which is as bad as people say it is.  Chayvo being the exception, of course: that really is as bad as people say.

Leaving the airport we (by now I’d met somebody else working in the same company) were not accosted by a gazillion taxi drivers or kidnappers or indeed anyone else.  There were a lot of people stood about who could probably have turned into taxi drivers – or kidnappers – if you’d asked them to, but generally they just stayed about in the general chaos – and it was chaotic, but of a very non-threatening kind – and allowed us to follow the chap with our bags to the waiting minibus, a route which would ideally have required the luggage trolley to have off-road capabilities.  We crossed a potholed strip of tarmac, down a small road, across a bigger road wedged solid with traffic, through a small crowd of about a thousand people, up the kerb, across a patch of dirt where some girl tried to sell me a phone card and a bloke was running a bureau de change out of his trouser pocket, then down another kerb onto a potholed carpark where our minibus stood.  A big policeman was to accompany us in the bus, armed with an AK-47 which looked as though it had been left on the side of the road for a few weeks and then a truck painting double-yellow lines had come along.  As a weapon for causing mass casualties in a crowd of unarmed people, it looked perfect.

It was dark by this stage, so I couldn’t get a really decent look at Lagos on the drive from the airport.  What I knew about Lagos before I arrived could be written on a stamp.  I am too lazy to read up on a place I am about to visit, plus it allows me to pretentiously say that you cannot truly learn anything from reading, one must experience it for oneself.  Which is bollocks, of course.  Having been here three days, what I know about Lagos can still be written on a stamp, albeit one of the large issue ones you get at Christmas time.  The first thing I noticed was that in the airport anyone with a uniform was carrying artillery, of almost identical type and condition as that of our escort, who was now sat beside our driver wearing a blue kevlar helmet which looked as though somebody had attacked it for twenty minutes with an entrenching tool.  Maybe it came from the head of some Danish reservist who had been sent to be UN canon-fodder in a nearby civil war, killed with crude farm implements by a baying mob but happy in the knowledge that he had overwhelming moral right on his side courtesy of the bright blue – and ever so unhelpful in a dark green jungle – UN helmet on his head.  Anyway, everyone was tooled up with battered Soviet assault rifles.  I commented on this to the chap I’d met at the airport, and he told me it was a status symbol more than anything else, which I can well believe.  He told me he’d never heard one fired, which I can also well believe.  Half of them were missing the foresight meaning they are good for little other than hosing down a crowd or doing drive-by slayings.  And there aren’t enough gangsta rappers in Nigeria for that.  And one of them had a stock which looked homemade, a crudely welded metal device resembling a potato masher, and would do as much damage to the shoulder of anyone who fired it than the projectile would to anyone unlucky enough to have been the person not aimed at.

The traffic from the airport was pretty bad.  The are no rules on Nigerian roads, and I mean none.  You can drive wherever you want whenever you want in any direction or manner that suits, and people do just that.  The only thing you cannot do is speed, which is not only forbidden but also impossible due to everything being at a permanent standstill.  But we were the lucky ones.  The unlucky ones were those taking the road from the city (or rather, from the part of the city where people can afford to fly) to the airport, which was completely gridlocked.  At certain times of day, which I believe is pretty much all of them, the 20km trip can take up to 5 hours, and sometimes more.  The shuttle buses leave the hotels at the crack of dawn to catch afternoon flights.  But we were headed in the opposite direction, so our journey took a mere hour.  The bright yellow vehicles I saw from the plane turned out to be taxis, mostly Mk II VW Golfs which look – like most cars in Lagos – as if they’d been rescued from a stock car racing circuit.  Only a madman would get into one of them, which means half the city should be certified insane because they were being driven around in these things with no concern whatsoever for the maximum capacity as recommended by the engineers in Wolfsburg.  Between the cracks in the vehicles, pedestrians and motorcyclists weaved their way, either trying to go somewhere, flog something, or merely just stand around in the middle of a traffic jam.  The motorcyles looked to have been bought second hand from Thailand, but every rider to a man wore a helmet.  True, some of them looked to have the structural integrity of an Easter egg, but nobody was going about bareheaded.  So maybe they weren’t all nuts after all.  Not only was the roadway itself a busy place but so too was the strip of land which ran alongside it.  Sometimes paved, but more often a strip of the orange soil and some stubborn vegetation, these areas were packed full of people either selling something, doing something, or doing nothing in particular.  There was a small fire every five metres or so, and cars and motorbikes parked haphazardly among them and the crowds.  Lagos has a population of about 15m (plus or minus 5m), and there seems to be a shortage of places to stand.

I was somewhat surprised to find out en route from the airport that part of Lagos – including what passes for a CBD – is made up of islands, with one of the main ones being Victoria Island, named after David Beckham’s wife.  Any one of three bridges gets you from what is called the mainland to Victoria Island, which is where the company offices and my hotel are located.  The minibus took us first to the main office then onto the hotel.  It wasn’t quite as simple as that, in fact it was a whole lot more complicated, but the upshot is I checked into my hotel room.  Apparently it was refurbished in 2005, which makes me glad I wasn’t sent here in 2004.  I think the bedding was used for dust sheets during the works, with the towels for sandpaper.  Or maybe I’m being too fussy.  I have probably been a spoiled brat when it comes to hotel rooms ever since my December 2005 trip to Korea where I spent 5 weeks in the superb Somerset Palace Hotel (which was, I learned, a pretty standard Korean hotel costing about $100 per night).  Anyway, Somerset Palace this ain’t, or any other kind of palace for that matter.  But it’ll do.  It’ll have to do.  There is no company apartment available yet so I might be here as long as 2 months (the pessimists) or be out next week (the optimists).  I have no idea which company apartment will be assigned to me, or indeed even where it will be located.  The accommodation compounds, like the offices, seem to have been airdropped over the city by parachute retardation from a heavy bomber.  Getting from one office to another is a pain.  For starters, the drainage in some places is non-existent (perhaps Nigeria’s civil engineers had studied in Russia) and a large lake of black water with floating garbage in it has formed right between the place where I work and the place where I am supposed to go for my lunch.  Getting to the other offices requires cadging a lift off somebody and sitting in traffic for twenty minutes making sure the doors are locked and trying to avoid eye contact with the blokes hawking stuff in the traffic queues.  But I could not help but look with some surprise at the bloke who was selling National Geographic on the central reservation, nor the ability of the Nigerian women to carry unfeasible objects on their heads whilst stepping on and off crumbling kerbs and dodging traffic.  I saw one young lady dishing out a huge bollocking to a reckless motorcyclist who’d nearly run her over, all the while balancing a huge tub of what looked to be fermented cabbage on her head without using her hands.  Another lady had a massive basket of fruit on her head and was accompanied by three fit young men who had their hands in their pockets.  A section of Nigerian menfolk seem to be as bone idle as their Thai counterparts, content to let the women literally do all the heavy lifting.

I’m not sure when Lagos was built and by whom, and I am far too idle to go and look it up, but I’m guessing it enjoyed a boom sometime in the 1970s.  The office buildings seem to date from then, and the infrastructure looks to have been crumbling for at least 30 years.  Commerce is everywhere.  You can’t look out of the car window without seeing something for sale or an advertisement for something.  Specialisation of labour doesn’t seem to apply here. I saw a sign on a wall at a busy junction saying “Rubber Stamps / Company Seals / Printing” and in small letters underneath “& Housepainting”.  One place advertised as a “business centre” and housing the Lagos headquarters of the Nigerian Teachers’ Union was a courtyard surrounded by a whitewashed breezeblock wall containing the type of corrogated tin shacks you see in the slums of any poor country.  But trade is taking place, of that there is no doubt, and the place does not feel poverty stricken.  It does not feel wealthy either, but it is not a despairing place like parts of Russia where hope left a long time ago on a train which helped itself to the tracks as it went.  The people are very lively and pretty friendly to boot, and the crowds are not threatening.

During the safety brief I had yesterday I was told that – in contrast to Port Harcourt – the main risk to us here is from the same general criminality you would find in any big city, Manchester included.  The average Nigerian is not out to bash your head in or murder you for your watch, but opportunists abound and you have to go about your business carefully and sensibly.  There are areas of the city which require you to have an armed escort, but these are the rough parts of town you’d normally have no business being in anyway, and there are other areas where you should be escorted at night.  Keeping a low profile appears to be the key, which is great news for somebody who is lily-white and well over six feet tall.  I should avoid walking around wearing fancy jewelry or clothes (which will be remarkably easy for me) but I am advised to always keep plenty of money on me, about $200 worth.  Robbers are less likely to shoot you if you have a decent sum of money to please them with.  Nigeria is an all-cash society, and apparently you’d have to be insane to use a credit card.  Corrupt officials in the airport have been known to flog passport copies and signatures to people who use them to convince your bank at home to start sending money out of your account.  There is a mechanism of getting part of your salary paid in local currency here, and if you must use a cash machine choose one in a hotel and not in a normal street where six hundred pairs of eyes just saw an oilman walk in with his visa card.  There doesn’t appear to be any political violence here, and even when that happens it is not foreigners who are the targets.  So long as you stay indoors you should be fine, which might be worth knowing when the elections come around next year.

This is the first time since June 2003 that I have gone to live in a place on my own where I don’t know anybody.  It is an odd feeling, similar to that of being lost.  I am spending the weekend in the hotel with nothing to do but read books (my supply of which might run dangerously low), surf the internet, and go to the gym.  It is pretty lonely in fact, and part of me is wondering where I would be if I had not chosen the route that I did.  I have no doubt that will pass, I can make friends pretty quickly anywhere, and I am certain that in a short few weeks I will be neck-deep in work and enjoying myself a lot more.  But this short period right now…well, I’m not used to it and I don’t like it.  I miss Sakhalin, and I miss Thailand.  But I’m now in Nigeria, and I need to deal with it.

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8 Responses to From your Correspondent in Lagos

  1. Diavolo Rosso says:

    Auntie Been aired a Louis Theroux visits Lagos documentary the other night, might be worth a look on iPlayer if you have spare time.

  2. Tim Newman says:

    Thanks for the heads up, Diavolo. Unfortunately, I think iPlayer only works in the UK. :(

  3. try ublockvpn.com if u want to see the Beeb outside of the UK …

  4. Tim Newman says:

    Thanks BtB. I’ll try that.

  5. Kalle says:

    I hope you won’t make friends too fast, because then you won’t have the time to write great blog posts like this one. If you hadn’t chosen the route you did you could well be a writer :-)

  6. diogenes says:

    maybe you should have sat by the children – if they were reading picture books, you might have learned something…:)

  7. Tatyana says:

    A few years ago I was on holiday in Portuguese Algarve, in a city called (guess what!) – Lagos. The locals told me this is an original Lagos from where their explorer-king had sailed to Africa and founded the Lagos #2 you are in now. They even had a statue to him erected on a main placa. Have no idea if that’s true, here’s a chance for you to find out.

    The credit card/passports con make more understandable the infamous “Nigerian scams”.

    Oh, and Nigerian civil engineers were very likely trained in Russia – there is a conveyor of foreign students from “friendly” countries in the Institute of Patris Lumumba…

  8. Ashwin says:

    Great Post as usual !

    ~ Ashwin, India

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