By Chris Anyokwu
“Lagos, I love you!”, he said with ironic disgust, echoing popular sentiment. Such raw fury and anger tinged with bone-deep resentment and frustration coursed through his jangled nerves. “Yes, Lagos, I love you! Eko o nibaje”, the young man cried as though addressing a living being. But there was no one in sight except incredibly long lines of vehicular traffic stretching into infinity. No vehicle moved an inch. It was as if they were all dead, disgorged of mobile life. The sight was almost surreal. Spooky even. Why are all these vehicles – trucks, trailers, tippers, cars and buses and vans, all painted in violently clashing colours – not moving at all? What are the traffic wardens and police doing about this? Where are they, to begin with? All of this was running through my mind when I heard the young driver, leaning against his car, yell, throwing tantrums like a robbed tiny-tot. Looking at his now-dishevelled, harassed state, you could divine that the vehicles and their inmates have been there, at a standstill, for hours on end, if not days. This scenario or rather situation forced me into imagining Lagos as a road. The aggregate or accumulated frustrations, hardships, the sheer paralysing helplessness and the ennui Lagosians endure daily as they try to eke out a living as road rage. Like the frustrated driver’s vituperations.
Nothing original. I’m actually referring to my analogy: Lagos life as road. After all, Wole Soyinka wrote a play, a tragedy called The Road. He also has another dramatic allegory, Madmen and Specialists whose opening stage directions highlight mendicants, mainly war survivors, measuring time by the roadside (note: not the road itself!) wagering a semblance of normality against Fate with their mangled body parts. Even before these two plays, the Nobel Laureate had poetised the road trope in “Idanre”, an idiosyncratic re-imagining of the Yoruba myth of origin. In this seven-part poem-sequence, Soyinka reformulates the Yoruba gnomic saying thus: ‘May you not walk the road, the day it lies famished’. This is the poetic line that served as source of Ben Okri’s epic novel’s title The Famished Road. To be sure, both Soyinka, the precursor and Okri, the phoebe derived their creative afflatus from the Yoruba animist wisdom since ona (Yoruba road) symbolises temporal odyssey, man’s largely vacuous and ultimately futile exertions from cradle to grave. The road of life is perpetually hungry needing propitiating, craving appeasement. Hence, Ogun devotees sacrifice a dog, the fiery deity’s favourite food, to the famished road. This is done in order for the ever-demanding god to spare the wayfarer – You and I. But, sadly, most times, human peregrines are sacrificed to Ogun, the road master, in ghastly auto mishaps. We humans pay a hefty and steep price for our relentless pursuit of the good life, especially in the city. Why not stay back in the countryside and live? Why answer the siren’s call of the city and fritter away your lease? Let us go back to that despairing driver’s yell. And we are forced to ask: How can a person hate a place as though it were a living entity, another person, one with whom you have a sort of relationship? But let’s face it: Lagos is a living space peopled and populated by human denizens. It is somewhat intriguing why Lagos is unlike any other city in Nigeria or even in the West Africa sub-region, cities along the Atlantic coast such as Cotonou, Lome, Accra, Freetown, and Banjui.
Why is Lagos such a magnet, a melting-pot of diverse and disparate transcultural and multi-national elements? Nigerian poet, essayist and journalist, Odia Ofeimun in his essay entitled, ‘Imagination and the City’ partly furnishes an explanation: ‘The city is, in this sense, an ever-ready challenge because it is continually suggesting the necessity to find a common morality that can hold people together. The city, as such, has proved to be humankind’s most permanent experiment in living together beyond the ethic of hunter-gatherers! It is enough that daily, hour after hour, almost second by second, people troop en masse into Lagos including our West African relatives’. Go to Mile 2 in Amuwo Odofin Local Government Area, you would be astounded at the endless stream of our sub-regional cousins coming all the way from Cote d’Voire and Mali to do business in Lagos! Beninoise, Ghanaians, Togolese among others practically have made Lagos their home. And this on top of the rural-urban influx which has made the city a study in organised chaos, with violent clashes of colour exacerbated by an unending din produced by sleepless inhabitants, always on the road, chasing meaning. Oh, Lagos is chaotic, overpopulated, noisy and reeks to high heavens. An extremely tough and enervating place to live in, the one enduring source of sorrow and sadness to its denizens. And again: you are forced to ask: Do we have any original Masterplan for Lagos? How was Lagos during British colonial rule? When, in fact, did the rain start beating us?
Way, way back in the days of yore, Lagos was reputed to be a mere pepper-farm, before it later became a staging-house, a stop-over clearing patch for the expansionist Bini paramount ruler, the Oba of Benin who, in his wars of conquest, led his troops to the Yoruba country, seeking to broaden his fiefdoms. Odia Ofeimun in the Preface To Lagos of The Poets writes: ‘In pre-colonial times, [Lagos] was an outpost of the Edo Kingdom which named her, futuristically, Eko, a meeting place, from a possible war camp.
The traditional institutions of central Lagos, the place names around the palace and the formalities of the Eyo masquerade are relics of the Edo impact, before the surge of interventions by far and near neighbours, one of whom, the Portuguese, named her Lagos de Curamo, after the waters they knew back home. In colonial times, for four years after cession was imposed, following the landing of Commander Beddingfield and his marines in 1861, the city was governed from Sierra Leone as part of British West African settlements. A see-saw struggle between traditional authorities and the colonial overlords ensued that was never quite resolved. In 1874, the city was governed from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) until it became an independent colony in 1886, as part of the southern Protectorate. Right through to the present, when it has become merely an economic, no longer the political capital of Nigeria as it was between 1914 and 1976, Lagos has gone through enormous vicissitudes, good and bad times, in the hands of un-elected mayors, military Action Governors, and ‘civilian harbour masters’. Thus, from pepper-farm to smart-city (futuristically speaking) Lagos has become home to all-comers literally’. Tatalo Alamu in ‘Lagos, the Black megalopolis’, muses thus: “As the economic, political and cultural hub of the new nation, Lagos has taken its manifest destiny very much to heart. Ever since its forcible incorporation as a British Protectorate in the middle of the nineteenth century, the sprawling metropolis has served as the intellectual, economic and political pacesetter for the rest of the country. The urbane civility, dignified regality and royal courtesy of its succeeding monarchs are well documented… In the run-up to independence, Lagos was a shining exemplar of inclusive politics of a pan-Nigerian hue and multi-ethnic vigour which ought to have served as a template and redemptive trope for post-independence Nigeria’. Not yet done, Alamu goes on to provide us with a much-needed detail regarding the demographic complexity of Lagos: “Although predominantly a Yoruba town with an infusion of ancient Edo nobility, the psychic energies that drive Lagos towards metropolitan stardom and its destiny as the first authentic African megalopolis are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-racial.
With its Brazilian returnees, its Sierra-Leonean recaptives, its stranded Nupe warrior-class, its Igbo traders, its runaway Hausa soldiers and former European adventurers marooned by choice, Lagos is an authentic mélange”. As noted earlier, even with the relocation of the seat of power from Lagos to Abuja, Lagos has remained the bride among cities, no less seductive and alluring now than before as can be attested by its snowballing demographics, namely: youth bulge, stratum mobility of its energetic workforce, booming trade and commerce in the daunting face of both negative and dire micro-and macro-economic indices. It should, nonetheless, be conceded that the undiminished attraction of Lagos is due in large part to its vantage-point, its privileged position in the grand scheme of things geographic. It is the famous City by the Lagoon a la Odia Ofeimun. Its intricate waterways in no small measure have helped boost water transportation, maritime industry, the leisurely activities of several boat clubs, fishing business, tourism, among others. By the same token, part of Lagos’s magnetism derives from its comparatively clement environment. Situated as it is on the rim of the Atlantic – far from the primordialities of the Yoruba interior, the southeast lingering memory of historical trauma and contemporary troubles, the south-south crisis of the ‘resource curse’ and the aridity of the vast swathes of savannah grasslands of the north – Lagos comes across as a veritable fleshpot of sorts, a quintessential metissage. Wole Soyinka says as much in his philippic drama, The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope. Lagos is a watering-hole for the wayfarer, the hobo, the wandering flaneur, footloose and fancy-free, and untrammelled by family ties or societal codes of propriety. It is the Archimedean epicentre (and, sadly, also something of a Bermuda Triangle to some) where those afflicted with wanderlust and bedazzled by the glitter of gold and the lure of lucre inexorably converge. Like the USA, Lagosians are mostly settlers who have migrated from their original natal homes to strike camp in Lagos in search of greener pastures. Thus it is more rewarding, more politic to emphasise what unifies the disparate peoples – Lagosians – than to indulge in grandiose excursus on ownership and identity politics. Don’t the Yoruba say when the leaf stays long enough with the soap it becomes soap itself? Thus, it matters little if the City by the Lagoon is already filled to capacity and bursting at the seams; it matters little if the living spaces are already occupied by early-birds; indeed, it matters little if the original Masterplan has been distorted and destroyed both by the feudal titular barons of antiquity and the latter-day seigniorial speculators, with the unceasing traffic from countryside to city, the end-product is the relocation of rural dump to urban slum, thus turning the urban sprawl into an ocean of oddities in spate. The frothing inferno. Welcome to Dante’s Purgatorio, the veritable belly of the Beast. Small wonder, then, Lagos has lost its innocence, if it ever had it. Perhaps we should rather say its tropical beauty. Witness, for instance, the ineffective drainage system occasioning flooding, clogged gutters, bad roads and streets utterly impassable, riddled as they are with craters, potholes, and mountains of filth. How about distressed tenement blocks and ancient structures too weak and tired to continue to stand on their feet?
Hence, Odia Ofeimun fires: ‘Its commercial sense is shallow, more kobo-wise than naira-efficient; its sanitation is an eyesore … its transportation is a nightmare… the stink of corruption, presumed to be too much the vernacular of life in Lagos, became the breath of air in this Medina”. To be certain, slummier parts of Lagos such as Orile, Ijora, Amukoko, Ajegunle, Mushin, Ilaje-Bariga, Ketu and Makoko emboss the thesis of Lagos as a tale of two cities: highbrow versus lowbrow, villa-like cities-within-a-city versus clumps of ghettoized gaols in which vast majorities parboil themselves, trying to survive life-as-jail-term. When someone says to you: ‘I live in Lagos’; you should ask: ‘Which Lagos?’ For these majorities who subsist in this death-in-life mode – the autorickshaw drivers (keke maruwa), motorcycle riders (okada operators), cab/bus drivers and conductors, market men and women, roadside vendors of petty stuff (recharge cards, “pure” water, groceries, auto spare-parts, books and CDs), beggars, waifs-and-strays, and allied sub-categories of the guttersnipe, Lagos is hell full of shuffering and shmiling . Make no mistake, the middle class has all but disappeared from the cityscape. What you find is the rich versus the poor. Those in-between are poseurs, past masters of ‘packaging’. Depressing and dire as the situation might be, it’s heart-warming to know that the relevant authorities have their thinking caps on and are hard at work. The plan is to make the megacity a smart city complete with Free Trade Zone and Business Districts constituting what is known as Greater Lagos.
The Dangote Refinery nearing completion is a major plus for Lagos. The massive construction work going on in road and rail infrastructure is extremely welcoming. For instance, the Lagos – Ibadan rail line, a double-track standard gauge rail, the first of its kind in West Africa, is adding to the ultramodern allure of Lagos. However, the authorities will do well to also do more in the area of waste disposal management, and ramping up its re-greening initiative. They need to relocate beggar colonies to more decent habitus, tackle the eyesore of mechanic junkyards literally littering every nook and cranny of the city, remove old, disused and rotting vehicles; and, finally, revisit the old Masterplan with a view to modifying it or, better yet jettisoning it for another in line, of course, with global best practices. Like the frustrated Lagos driver, many expostulate ironically: ‘Lagos, I love you!’ but yet cannot let go, cannot live elsewhere. Lasgidi na so-so enjoyment! Ìgbéga Èkó ti di Àjùmọ̀ṣe ….
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English
University of Lagos.