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The booming, broken `New York of Nigeria'

Lagos is a fast-growing city of exhilaration, rage, frustration and boredom -- beloved by those who live there.

June 25, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

LAGOS, NIGERIA — Away from the noise and hustle and stink, the shriek of energy, the never-ending buzz that is Lagos, a man reclines on a gravestone, serenely reading a book.

His name is Immortal, and he sells life insurance. He says he is waiting for an angel.

"I just come here to relax," says Immortal Emenike, 40, from his unexpected haven in Trinity Cemetery in Olodi Apapa neighborhood. "I like the serenity, the fresh air. It's very hard to find in Lagos." Nearby, a goat named Sikira nibbles on the vegetation. Outside is a wall of sound: buzzing motorcycles, car horns and traffic.

Like many Lagosians, Immortal appears nonplused if you ask him what he loves about the raucous mega-city he calls home. He has a passion for Lagos, yet seems wary of questions, in case they're not kindly meant.

"Lagos is like the New York of Nigeria," he says. "It's a jungle where a lot of things can happen. Things that don't happen anywhere will happen in Lagos: the unexpected."

Lagos is one of the planet's fastest-growing mega-cities, with people drawn not only from rural Nigeria but also from all over West Africa to hack out a living. Depending on your point of view, it's either a center of irrepressible entrepreneurialism or a nightmarish city of unplanned chaos, a cautionary tale on what not to do.

No one is sure whether the population is 9 million, as last year's house-to-house census claimed; 16 million, as estimated by the U.N. Population Fund; or 17 million, as the Lagos state government insists. The United Nations agency has predicted that Lagos will be the world's third most-populous city by 2015, with 23 million people.

It's not a place for the fainthearted. From the first wallop of steamy air on alighting from a plane, Lagos is a plunge pool of intense exhilaration, jumbled with measures of shock, frustration, rage and boredom.

Despite poverty, intractable social problems, mind-boggling corruption and dire failures of planning and infrastructure, "I think this total doomsday scenario that Lagos is going to be this total Dickensian horror place is not right either," says Daniel J. Smith, a demographic anthropologist at Brown University. "Nigerians have lived with the failure of their government to provide leadership and infrastructure for a long time, and so they have adapted all these ways to make things work.

"There's this incredible ethic and tradition of entrepreneurship, and maybe that's related to living in a place where you can't count on the government to provide services and amenities."

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has argued that the mega-cities of the future will look like Lagos: chaotic and spontaneous with planning solutions improvised on the run rather than following some master plan.

Even arriving can be a shock. "Lagos airport? In a word, don't," cautions the Lonely Planet Bluelist of destinations to avoid at all costs.

Borne downward on the airport arrival hall escalator, international visitors arriving for the presidential inauguration at the end of May found themselves trapped, with a solid crowd bottlenecked at the bottom. They crashed into a wall of backs, tripped, stumbled, even leaped over the sides, literally falling into Lagos with a thunk.

Then there's the metal jigsaw of rickety trolleys pressed around the baggage carousels and sometimes a wait of hours to collect as huge bags of traders' goods are unloaded.

Outside, license plates proclaim that you've arrived in "Lagos: Center of Excellence."

The jostling thoroughfares are much more than mere arteries for the choking traffic. The roadside is an open-air market, a car sales yard, a photo studio; a truck depot, pool hall, butcher's; a lumber yard, an office, a sheep yard; a place to hang laundry on the highway sidings, or to nap on any available surface.

There are some sights that strain credulity: A city skyscraper just folded like a house of cards one weekend.

Papered all over walls and suspended from any pole are advertising billboards and banners, as though the city were screaming out its own exuberant and often perplexing monologue: "Food is ready." "Slow down, bridge under investigation." "Plumber is here." "We paste posters." "Keep off the wall." "No parking no waiting no hawking." "Please pay your tax regularly." "Do not urinate here. It is prohibit." "Don't offend our ancestors with fakes. Insist on the original prayer drink." "Overhead banners are prohibited." "It is illegal to have anything to do with touts. You may end up facing various miscellaneous offenses."

Taxis are plastered with biblical verses and homespun advice: "Love everyone Trust no-one." "Watch and See." "No controversy."

Businesses grab attention by turning to religion: "God is Able Store." "Heaven Economics." "Miracle Outfits." "Divine Ultrasound." Then there are more the bizarre appeals, such as the "Peculiar Beauty Salon," or the "Cholesterol Hair Conditioner" found in some outlets.

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