Creature of habit that I am, I insist on telling you about what I saw in Nigeria everytime I return from a trip there.
1. Let’s start with something rather positive – the partial closure of 3rd Mainland Bridge. Come back, dont run away yet, I can explain.
The context – an overworked 22 year old bridge was due for some maintenance. There was no other way to do it other than closing it down for a length of time. There isnt really an alternative to said bridge given the volume of traffic that passes it everyday. All of this was to be done in Lagos. In Nigeria, not the Lagos in Portugal.
Given the above context, there is nothing in Nigeria’s history and way of doing things that would have made any right thinking person expect anything short of an unmitigated disaster. It ought to have been chaotic and badly managed with some big men being able to use the bridge while everyone else suffered misery. The alternate routes should also have been completely locked down with traffic. This is what you would expect from such a situation in Nigeria. Perhaps the bar is too low but it is hard to argue that a bar for anything is too low in Nigeria.
Somehow the bridge closure hasnt quite been an unmitigated disaster. By Nigerian standards it has also been very well communicated – there were banners all over Lagos advertising the opening and closing times of the bridge. The closure system has also been ‘complex’ by Nigerian standards – those approaching the Island can use the bridge until 11am in the morning. After that only those leaving the Island can use it from 11am to 11.55pm at night. It works and everyone knows what the timetable is. Traffic elsewhere wasnt much worse than I have ever known it to be (I stand to be corrected on this by Lagos residents).
Two friends of mine who live in Ogba and Gbagada also mentioned that their journey times to work on the Island has greatly reduced and is now markedly less stressful. To the point where one of my friends joked that he wanted the bridge closure to continue indefinitely.
This is perhaps not too difficult to explain. Observe as an example America’s job numbers under Barack Obama. Unemployment is currently at 8.2% but the empirical evidence suggests that if the trend was the same as under George Bush, the unemployment rate should be much higher at 13.1%. The reason for this is that many Americans have simply stopped looking for work and have therefore dropped out of the labour market by taking early retirement or perhaps starting a business.
So my guess as to why traffic to the Island in the mornings has reduced inspite of the bridge closure is that many people have simply stopped going to the Island. The thought of standstill traffic for hours on end can help to concentrate the mind and make you question whether or not that journey is essential. Something similar happened in London during the first week of the Olympics – people had been warned to avoid the trains and central London as it was going to be ‘manic’ with visitors. In the end too many people stayed away and had to be begged to come back.
2. I promise you I am not making this up, it actually happened.
For no reason in particular, I decided I wasnt going to give any soldier or customs official a single naira on my way out of the country. I did have naira with me but I just didnt feel like paying anyone to do their job.
I got to the airport and the gun toting soldiers at the door asked for ‘something’ as expected. I stood my ground and told them I had no naira on me. They helpfully informed me they accept any currency and I laughed it off. Eventually, seeing I was ‘bad market’ for them, they let me in.
And then I got to the bag ransacking customs officials. The following ensued.
Customs: Who is this Indomie for?
Me: It’s for my son
Customs: Ok give us something and go
Me: Oga I dont have any money o…your friends at the door have collected all my money
Customs: Who collected your money?
Me: The soldiers at the door
Customs: Why did you give them money?
Me: Oga they had guns and you people dont have guns
Customs: Na lie. Just say you dont want to give us anything and we will understand. It’s ok, just say it.
Me: [laughing] Ok I dont want to give you anything but your people collected my money
The customs guy then turns to his colleague and says ‘So those boys at the door dey collect money? Na wa o…Nigeria don spoil finish’.
On a scale of 1 to 10, this LWKMD registered an ‘Epic’ score and I had to quickly shuffle away from their presence so I could go laugh properly somewhere else.
Irony aint what it used to be I tell you.
3. Two seperate incidents at a wedding I attended on Saturday left me with a wry smile on my face and neck pain from shaking my head so much.
The wedding reception was on the first floor of the venue and so I was standing at the head of the stairs with my camera in hand waiting for the bridal train to dance into the hall so I could get some useful photos. This popular ACN ‘Chieftain’ then climbs up the stairs looking the worse for wear after taking about 15 steps or thereabouts. He gets to where I am standing and he grabs my hand partly to support himself and partly to forcefully grab my attention. I am a bit uneasy so I just greet him ‘Good afternoon Sir’. Next thing I hear from him ‘Where is the toilet here?’. As he was saying that he was grabbing my hand tighter. Again, I am stumped and given that that was my first time in that venue, I didnt know the window from the toilet. So I answered politely ‘I dont know Sir’. He grabbed my hand much tighter and starts to shake it forcefully saying ‘You dont know??’. To my rescue comes one of the groom’s brothers who starts to frantically gesture to me to point him in the direction of the toilet at the back of the hall. So I tell Chieftain that the toilet is that way, pointing him in the direction. Only then did he let go of my hand.
About an hour or so later, I went out of the hall to meet with a friend who was passing by the venue. I got back upstairs and noticed the tables had been rearranged so I wasnt sure where to sit any more. So I stood in one corner waiting to find an empty seat and next thing I know, another ‘Chief’ looking man loudly calls me to come over. I paused initially, again unsure what was going on. But he insisted and called me again to come over to where he was standing. So I saunter over to him and he gruffly barked at me ‘Did you just get up from this table?’. I had only just come back from the hall from outside so again I was a bit confused. I gathered myself and replied politely ‘No I didnt’. Next thing he says ‘Ehen? Ok’. And he looked away, perhaps for the next person to harass. It would appear that something had been stolen from that table and the man felt I might have been the thief.
Now it is true that I am 6′ 2″ tall and barely weigh 70kgs. This gives me the appearance of someone who has a visceral dislike of food and nourishment. Nothing could be further from the truth – it is not for lack of trying that I do not have the neck of one who has eaten with money belonging to the commonwealth never mind a stomach with ‘lukudi’ inside. Nevertheless I was wearing a smart looking suit if I may so myself and I wasnt at all looking scruffy.
So why is it that in the space of an hour I took on the appearance of the toilet boy and the thief to two different men?
Yemisi Ogbe, I believe, has the answer in this piece of hers. Read the whole thing, it is interesting throughout.
4. Mind you this culture of disrespect is not restricted to terra firma.
On the plane back to London, I decided to get up and go use the bathroom. There was a queue for the single bathroom starting to form and the current occupant seemed to be taking quite a long time in there. I was the 3rd in line when the soor swung open and threw out a rather relieved looking chap, understandably so. The 1st in line goes in and a lady comes to join us in that manner that is oblivious to the surroundings assuming that everyone standing there is just there to take in the glorious view of the toilet door. Seeing as this might be a problem when the door opened again, I politely tell her ‘Madam there’s a queue here and we are all on it’. She nods and stands to one side.
When the man inside had been there about 5 minutes, another chap on the queue with his young son starts to murmur ‘doesnt he know there are people waiting? What is he doing in there?’. I am tempted to answer him sarcastically ‘He’s in there doing pushups and applying his makeup’. But before I could do this, the lady took the man’s murmur as her cue and began to bang on the toilet door. I cannot tell you how livid I was. She starts to bang the door again and I grab her hand to stop her. ‘That’s not nice, you dont do that. When he has finished, he will come out, dont bang on the door’. How on earth does someone think it’s ok to bang on the toilet door for someone to come out?
Another friend of mine was telling me how he was returning from Sierra Leone a few days before and it turned out that Mr Ebikabowei Victor Ben better known as General Boyloaf was on the same flight but in the rarefied air of the first class cabin. All through the flight, he said the ‘General’ could be heard loudly complaining about people in the economy seats. He complained about how people in economy were always making noise and how people in economy were responsible for whatever was wrong with the toilets. All of this was said loudly enough that my friend in economy could hear.
As it is on land, so it is in the air.
5. I hung out with a couple of friends on Thursday evening in Ikeja and got my friend to take me to the Island afterwards. As we turned on to Ikorodu Road from Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, we started to hear a loud siren behind us (the annoying sounding type not the ‘normal’ one). The traffic was heavy and there wasnt really anywhere to go so we just ignored the sounds. Eventually the armed policemen got to us and asked us to move our car aside making sure to let us see their loaded guns. We looked back and saw that the obedient ctizens behind us had complied and made room for this important person that was about to pass.
Rebellion might have been costly so my friend shunted his car to one side. Eventually two police trucks with armed men inside passed sandwiching a Rolls Royce Phantom in between them. I glanced at the customised plates and it read ‘Gibraltar’.
I am curious, anyone know who this person is? Purely for my own information as I like to know important people whose time is far more precious than that of us mere mortals.
As a friend of mine once put it; of what use is money to a Nigerian if it does not enable him to look down on his fellow man with it?
6. So I stayed in a quiet hotel in Lagos. Not too busy and it didnt have the crowds milling about as you might get in some of the more popular hotels. So imagine my surprise on Sunday morning after having breakfast and walking back to get the elevator to my room, I hear the distinct racket of glossolalia coming from a room somewhere. I was taken aback by the fact that there was a church going on in the ballroom or wherever it was of the hotel.
I went up to my room upstairs and I could hear the singing and preaching still.
How do we square the proliferation of churches in Nigeria with everything else we see all around that is just so much at odds with the Christian teaching? To my mind, the answer is a two fold one.
Firstly, to be fair to the churches, they do sell a product that Nigerians want. The reason for this demand is perhaps irrelevant but we can at least say that in a place where everything physical seems to regularly fail the people, it is not totally unreasonable for people to reach for the unseen and the supernatural. Fair dos.
The second reason is that this ‘growth’ in churches is subsidised by the rest of society, unwittingly. Nothing else in Nigeria has witnessed this kind of growth that I am aware of. Churches do not pay taxes on the considerable sums of income they generate allowing them to operate freely where everyone else has to deal with the burden of the state all up in their business. If churches dont pay taxes like everyone else does, that is effectively a subsidy from other taxpayers. Do we really want churches that much in Nigeria? This is not a question for me (alone) to answer.
I am not averse to churches paying taxes but recently I have been thinking – rather than collecting taxes from churches and handing more money to govt to mismanage, perhaps we can extend this same sweetheart deal that churches have to other sectors of the economy? Pick an area of the economy that we want to grow quickly perhaps to provide employment to people. And then take away all the taxes relating to that industry. This will help us know if this church phenomenon is a unique one or any other sector will witness the same growth if we left it alone to grow.
What say you?
7. Yours truly is a failed clubber. Again it is not for lack of trying. I’d like to be the life and soul of the party, you know, the guy who when he enters the club, everyone raises their glass to hail him and all the ladies come round to him giggling and laughing at my jokes whether or not they are funny. I have seen this happen in movies and the guys always seem to be enjoying themselves.
But I have never quite managed it. I dont know how to ‘club’ in the use of the word as a verb. But failure does not mean one shouldnt try again.
So it was that I found myself at a foreign correspondent’s 30th birthday party on Saturday night. Given that it was mainly journalists in attendance and I am an accountant, you can see how this will look like a borefest to the casual observer. Needless to say, after discussing the finer points of fractional reserve banking vis a vis the operations of a modern police force, the history of genocides in Rwanda and plugging Why Nations Fail, it was soon 1am and a couple of friends who had been bored out of their skins left and went to Auto Lounge (a club apparently and not a car dealership). They soon informed us that we need not bother coming there as the place was about as lively as a wake keeping ceremony. They said we should try out Movida (another club) and if it was any good, they’d come join us.
So we left the party and headed out there. I was with a couple of journalist friends and if I am a failed clubber they were only slightly better. We get to this club and approach the door. The bouncer looks at us with much sorrow on his face and says ‘why are you three guys coming in with no babes now?’. My friend, quick on his feet, quickly responded that we did have babes but they had gone inside ahead of us. The bouncer didnt look entirely convinced but after a few moments, he opened the door and let us in. Imagine my amazement when we enter a completely empty lounge. So why was he protecting the door like the place was crawling with revellers? Anyway another bouncer standing by the stairs beckoned to us in a ‘be ye not afraid’ manner and asked us to go upstairs where the ‘party’ was happening. We get upstairs and there were about 20 people bunched in one corner gisting and drinking. Clearly we were out of place. We laughed and headed back out immediately.
As we walked back to the car, one of my friends who had asked his driver to come get him from Movida was still wondering where the driver was when he got a call from him asking him where he was as he was at Movida. Only then did it dawn on my other friend that we were in fact at Likwid (a club too) and not Movida.
So we get in the car and head to the real Movida. From the outside it looked a lot more lively. We went inside and it was crawling with bouncers. Not guests/clubbers/revellers…bouncers. The bouncers then curiously decided to point us in a particular direction round a corner and up the stairs. We got upstairs and were directed to go inside one room that had a lot of dancing girls in it. I was a bit confused by this as I wasnt sure why we were being asked to go into that particular (small) room when there was a lot of empty space elsewhere. After about 5 minutes of looking around, we headed back out again as there was nothing much going on there other than the small room with the dancing girls. It was almost 2am at this point and my eyes were struggling to remain open.
When we got outside, I couldnt help asking my friends why we had been ushered into that room. They laughed and explained to me that the bouncers were clearly in cahoots with the girls to bring them er, customers.
Some services are perhaps better sold through a middleman. This is especially true in an unregulated sector where barriers to entry are low and supply greatly outstrips demand. The middleman can help create an artifical scarcity to help maintain prices at a higher than expected level. In such a scenario, if a working girl were to wander into the club without ‘registering’ with the bouncer, she will struggle to find work as the bouncers simply wont direct any custom her way.
As a free market apologist, I dont approve of this behaviour of course but I suppose those who buy such services should be made to pay as much as possible for it to compensate for the toll the service delivery takes on the service provider.
8. When it comes to prostitution, I tend to take a very liberal view. Indeed, I will always be on the side of the prostitute when the state begins to crackdown on them as Lagos State likes to do when it refers to them as being ‘inimical to the public good’. My view is that I cannot imagine there is a single woman on earth who chooses to sell her body given a choice between that or working for a salary behind a desk.
I also do not know of a single place where prostitution has been eradicated – it is not for nothing that it is known as the world’s oldest profession. So as far as I am concerned, rounding up prostitutes in the middle of the night and locking them up cannot be the answer to what is indeed a problem for society at large.
Nevertheless, the ‘cracking down’ method remains as popular as ever. As my friend drove me back to my hotel around 2am that same night we got to a point somewhere in Victoria Island where we encountered about 10 police patrol vans parked at the side of the road. Women who had been arrested were sitting pretty in the back of the vans waiting to be shipped to the police station. These women probably hadnt made any money for the night so your guess is as good as mine as to what currency their bail will be paid in.
But I suppose this is a good way of dodging the real issues if you are a politician. It’s the fault of the women who have no ‘morals’ and simply like to sleep with men for money when they should be working in banks and oil companies instead.
9. To Alakuko I went to attend a funeral. To put it mildly, this part of town is rather different from Victoria Island and Ikoyi. The main road itself wasnt so bad at least until we got to a really bad portion in the road. I am struggling to understand why that was so terrible and on a dry day to boot. Heaven only knows what it will look like after some rain.
When you turn off the main road you begin to appreciate the sheer amount of people who live in that part of town. You see houses as far as your eyes can go and the entire area is heaving with a multitude of people going about their businesses. If democracy works properly, this part of town should get the attention of politicians the most given the sheer amount of votes to be had from there. But this is clearly not the case. Much of the area appears to have been left to its devices and the people have made a decent fist of organising themselves as best as they can.
Welcome to the place where people leave home at 4.30am to be able to get to work on the Island in good time and avoid spending hours in traffic.
The funeral made me so sad as to how much more there is to life and how it can be so cruel and death even more insouciant. These things have a way of reminding you how lucky you are and how an accident of birth can place a cap on how much of life you get to experience no matter how many years you spend on this earth. I watched the casket lowered into the ground in front of the house she never finished building and it told the whole story for me. She was 70 but there was nothing to say that life was ‘finished’. There is of course always more and it is particularly painful when you are hemmed in by overbearing circumstances.
There, but for the grace of God, go I or to put in the words of the song that closed out the funeral service in the church with the moniker ‘Arena of Power’ (the building is an uncompleted one) – oreofe sha ni igbekele mi.
10. An interesting thing I noticed in the Alagbado area was spray painted advertising on walls and the roadside touting ‘loans without collateral’ or simply ‘money lender’. There were quite a few of them and I managed to write down the phone number of one of them. I passed it on to my friend who called and was offered a loan at 20% per month or just under 900% per annum depending on how you work it out.
I dont imagine the lenders are keen to lend to anyone for anywhere near that period of time as they clearly make money by recycling their loans as quickly as possible. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see what kind of trade is financed on such terms.
Rather than chase financial inclusion to be as deep as possible, our financial industry continues to exist in a bubble that excludes the vast majority of Nigerians. We have 22m current accounts in Nigeria. Enough said.
11. The guy who came to offer me new notes to buy outside the church at the wedding had about N50k in his hands. There were at least 3 other people offering the same service holding roughly the same amount of cash.
How many weddings are held in Lagos on a given Saturday? Let’s say 5 per local government? So that’s 110 weddings every week. If there are 3 such money changers touting N50k each at each wedding we can say 110 weddings x 52 weeks in a year x 3 changers x N50k and we get something approaching a billion naira business. They charge 10% for this service so conveivably N100m at the very least is made on this in a year.
Perhaps not a lot but then consider that this racket is surely run by a small number of people mostly inside the Central Bank of Nigeria who corner the new notes and ensure that no one else has them.
Governor Lamido Sanusi likes to complain about currency management costs and these sums are perhaps trivial in the grand scheme of things. Regardless it will be nice to know how much is being made from this by people just sitting in an office somewhere. How much new currency does the CBN print in say a month and how much does this cost? Is it possible that a sizeable chunk of these new notes are merely printed for the benefit of CBN staffers to then sell to those who want to ‘spray’ it?
As with many things in Nigeria, the answer is blowing in the wind.