Driving through Lagos, I am struck by the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. However, what is truly interesting is the contradiction between what one views and what one hears concerning the potential of this bustling metropolis. With all of its complexity, Lagos offers an excellent window onto the problems that beset this country. First, I must note the incredible traffic congestion that requires workers to leave for their jobs at 4 or 5 a.m. in order to arrive on time, if their employer expects them to commence by 7:30 or 8 a.m. And of course, they must fight similar congestion on the return home, which will require three or more hours in traffic just to arrive in time to get a few hours of sleep before one must repeat this torturous process again.
The daily commuter must also deal with horrible road conditions and persistent flooding during the rainy season. Then there are the “hawkers,” the car to car salesmen who possess anything that you might need, often times carrying the merchandise on their heads. What else will you see as you travel around this city? You will note the frequency of beggars who will approach your vehicle asking for money or food, oftentimes they are physically disabled or minors, sometimes they are mothers accompanied by their children. You will also see the trash. Litter on the streets, litter in what passes for parks, and the plastic bottles and other refuse that are thrown into the waterways around Lagos. One cannot omit the kekes (motorised tricycles), okadas (motorcycles), and danfos (passenger vans), which are the principal source of transportation for anyone who does not own or have access to a car. They magnify the chaos in the city by their ignorance of any semblance of the customary rules of the road and their refusal to abide by traffic regulations.
Which brings me to my fellow drivers, who are hardly blameless for the city’s chaos. In the main, they adopt an everyman, or woman, for himself/herself attitude that leads them to make three lanes on a street intended for two, even if it means driving toward on-coming traffic; making left-hand turns from the right-hand lane; they do not hesitate to block intersections, and at times will drive on the pedestrian walkway, if necessary. This is the Lagos that exists today. Why should I expect more or something different? Perhaps it is because alongside these attributes, I also see the success of Nollywood, the brilliance of local fashion designers, an energetic financial hub, and a blossoming tech community, in sum, one of Africa’s most ingenuous creative communities exists in that same Lagos.
How can these undeniably impressive characteristics be scaled up in a way that will produce greater prosperity for the majority of the people who live in this city? Let’s not bother with the obvious. As soon as you land at Murtala Muhammad airport, the crying need to bring that facility and the rest of the nation’s infrastructure up to just latter 20th century standards is painfully clear.
The state government will have to invest in modern mass transportation, regardless of the predictable impact on the kekes and danfos. Do I really have to point out that a massive road repair programme is in order? Not only will it ease traffic congestion but it would also serve as a much-needed jobs programme. I could go on … Lagos must continue to strive to provide reliable power to all of its citizens and a public education should be free. No child should be kept out of school due to the inability to pay school fees.
What is less obvious is the fact that, as one of the country’s less appreciated slogans says, Change Begins With Me. If Lagos is going to become a first world city, Lagosians will have to change. They will have to give up driving as they currently do. Lagosians will have to stop throwing their trash on the street or polluting the waterways. There can be no tolerance for seeing minors hawking when they should be in school. The “me first” attitude that makes it difficult for many Lagosians to queue up for anything, in the supermarket or at the airport, will have to be cast aside.
Undoubtedly, some will say this is rubbish. They will contend that such changes are impossible, or worse, they will argue that they are unnecessary. Nigeria is not Europe or America, they will say, Africans are comfortable with things just as they are. Really? I would counter that part of the attraction of life in the U.S. or in the UK for many Nigerians is that they admire the fact that those societies seem to work, that there is a greater sense of organisation, less chaos. Many Nigerians desperately long for the same attributes to take hold in their country. What is undoubtedly true is that change will not come quickly or easily to Lagos. It will be difficult for many to absorb, there will be resistance and skepticism, for change often requires sacrifice. Yet, progress always requires some degree of change. And if not now, when?
It is time to make the steps, as hard as they may be, to bring Lagos, if not all of Nigeria, into the 21st century. Step by step, day by day, it is the only way for Lagos and Nigeria to join the ranks of the developed world! It can be done. If China can become a superpower in a couple of generations, if the Emirates can build world-class tourist destinations out of the desert over the same period, why should it be impossible to achieve similar progress here? If it can be done, if it should be done, when do you start? If not now, when?