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MEMBERS ONLY: Dispatches From the Controlled Chaos Of Nigeria

How Nigeria works. Or, how it doesn't.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This week marked the dubious one-year anniversary of the kidnappings of 219 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria by Boko Haram -- an Islamist faction that's terrorized the country for six years, almost with impunity. The havoc wrought by these jihadists has marred the entire tenure of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, who was ignominiously defeated by former head of state and junta leader Muhammadu Buhari in the March presidential election. Jonathan's government was unable to defeat Boko Haram because of how Nigeria works. Or rather, how it doesn't.

I spent two weeks in Nigeria in 2012 when it was the second largest economy in Africa. It's now the largest, which is amazing considering the staggering amount of government corruption and incompetence that goes on. Overall, Nigerian society is a sort of controlled chaos, if there is such a thing. Driving around typifies this principle pretty well. In the congested economic hub of Lagos, what should be a 20 minute drive can easily turn into a hellish one hour navigation around giant potholes and aggressive drivers who make New York cabbies look like Hoke Colburn. Oh yes, and children riding horses on major highways:

That in a nutshell is Nigeria. Even if there's a law against jockeying a horse on the highway, well, who exactly is being hurt by such an activity? The laws and protocols of the society are very porous.

Most of the people I met there were incredibly nice and helpful. But the country also has its share of hustlers, which I learned immediately upon arriving at the ramshackle Murtala Muhammed International Airport.

After passing through customs, a woman was asking travelers, including me, at random for proof of having gotten vaccinated for yellow fever. I showed her documentation attesting to such and she waved me off. Afterwards, I learned that she wasn't a government official of any kind, but just some person looking to scam money out of people who couldn't produce proof of being vaccinated. Despite the fact she was doing this in plan view of police, the cops didn't seem particularly concerned about stopping her from trying this con. Meanwhile, outside the gate were, quite literally, moneychangers with rolls of Naira -- the local currency -- ready to barter and exchange with arriving passengers who didn't want to wait in line to trade currencies at the exchange inside the airport.

That's the thing about Nigeria: so much of what goes on there is unofficial. The size of the black market is immense, and I'd guess it's bigger than many countries' official economies. Note that I'm not really talking about illegal drugs or guns (though these are certainly part of it), but rather, every day items. Street peddlers are ubiquitous, and will walk through traffic jams offering commuters everything from candy to socks for a few cool Naira, (though many were happy to accept U.S. dollars).

Another thing about Nigeria is that it struggles to keep the power on. Outages are very common, so much so that many businesses and some homes have their own generators for when power inevitably goes out. One night at dinner, I took ill with food poisoning and rushed to the bathroom only to have the lights go off. Somehow, I managed to grope my way to the men's room before it was too late. Or maybe it was the women's. I couldn't tell at that point.

I also visited the capital city of Abuja, which is a 45 minute flight from Lagos. A few days after I arrived in the country, a plane flying from Abuja to Lagos crashed and killed all 153 people on board, which was a little unsettling. Anyway, Abuja is a beautiful modern city surrounded by igneous intrusions like Zuma Rock:

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Photo: Jeff Attaway, Wikimedia Commons

In Abuja, I was to meet with an official from the Ministry of Transportation, but it never happened. After checking in with his secretary at the time of the meeting, I was told that he was out of the office but that he'd be in shortly. After waiting for 90 minutes, I returned to the secretary's desk to remind her I was still there, only to find her blatantly sleeping at her desk. I politely woke her up and asked if her boss would be back soon, to which she replied, "I have no idea."

So I left, and headed over to the United Nations headquarters, where I was going to try to nudge my way into a meeting with a doctor from the World Health Organization who hadn't responded to a request for a meeting.

The U.N. headquarters had recently been moved to a new location because Boko Haram detonated a suicide car bomb at the previous site in 2011, a blast that killed 23 people. Still, I thought I'd be able to saunter on in to see if the good doctor was available for a chat. Instead, my driver and I were greeted at the gate by guards armed with machine guns.

"I don't think they'll let us in," said my driver.

"We shall see," I told him.

Despite having no documentation whatsoever that I belonged there -- because I didn't -- I was able to talk our way past the gate after the guards inspected the car for weapons and explosives. My driver was told where to park, at which point I got out and walked toward the doctor's office where I was greeted by yet more armed guards demanding my credentials. After insisting there must've been an oversight, they waved me through, at which point I found myself at another gate and another guard who wasn't having any of my smooth talk. It was like facing the boss at the end of a video game. After a few minutes of noise, he sent someone to fetch the doctor, who responded with a note basically telling me to leave.

Defeated, I got back in the car and told my driver to head back to the hotel.

"I'm surprised they let you that far," he said. "They're very strict."

"Never underestimate a white man in a suit," I cracked.

This episode was emblematic of overall lax attitudes about rules and protocol that afflict the country. For example, urinating in public is illegal. However, sometimes traffic in Lagos is so bad that drivers will get out of their cars to sneak into an alleyway, often after getting the permission of a police officer who is supposed to implement the city's Kick Against Indiscipline brigade, which was also formed to stop street hawkers but to no avail. Along one road I saw a sign posted to a wall that read, "Do Not Shit Here."

That, I think, is good advice, unless "here" of course is a bathroom, outhouse, or other designated area for such... business. The Nigerian government would be well-advised to take it, which for decades under both military and civilian rule it has taken a big dump on a population that needs a government that can lead by example.

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