Celebrating Lagos State at 50!
Lagos State! The Great Lagos of great mystery, myth and mirth! Lagos with the infinite capacity to suck, make and mar. So Lagos State is 50 this year. We salute Lagos State; we salute Lagosians too, particularly the aborigines. We salute them for their accommodating and warm spirit of welcome. Which other city is like Lagos in Nigeria? None; as far as I know. As we know, Lagos pre-dates Lagos State both in reputation and origins. Yet today, Lagos State is the womb and mother of the ancient Lagos. The young, now a surrogate mother to the ancient city of Eko!
A poet-friend once used the metaphor of a fading beautiful whore to capture the life and times of our dear Lagos. I disagreed with him; and I still do. Lagos may house a legion of commercial sex workers (characteristic of mega-cities) yet it cannot be properly described as a rotten city. Besides, Lagos is not a city of past glory; it is a city of great potentials. If the spirit that governs the city of Lagos had been dominant in Nigeria, the country would have been light years ahead of other African nations. Although Lagos is ‘younger’ than the Nigerian State, it is more mature, more daring, more ambitious and therefore more successful. There are many stories of persons who came to Lagos from other states and ethnic groups, with a nylon bag as their only possession who have now become landlords and successful billionaire businessmen.
The spirit of Lagos is the true spirit of development. Lagos is an example of a city that has opened its borders and potentials to anyone who cares to hustle, scramble or work hard in order to strike the proverbial gold. It is a city that has opened its government, business opportunities, education, and property development to anybody who is ready to do business. To be sure, we do not speak of tokenism; we refer to a way of life that has naturally and later structurally evolved. The rulers of Lagos recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the city. Although a Lagos monarch once referred to certain persons in relation to the Lagoon waters during the electioneering, we know that is not the spirit of the true Lagos.
The weakest point of Lagos as a city is the organised chaos that is transportation. Okada. Keke. Molue. Danfo. Yellow taxis. Uber. The rude character of the Lagos bus driver; all of these make up our Lagos transport. How did we build a city of 20 million people without an efficient mass transportation system? I remember the 1981-82 attempt by Governor Jakande to introduce the metro at a cost one billion naira. Politics and the change of government killed that laudable effort. How come there is no train service to mass-move people from Ikorodu or Ibafo or Mowe to Badagry or Ajah or Lekki or Epe or Egbeda or Akowonjo? Pause for a while and imagine the cars that would be off the roads if we had an effective rail system in Lagos. When the Lagos traffic became unbearable in the 1970s instead of introducing light rail, the odd and even plate number regime was adopted. So, Lagos is also a city of missed opportunities.
It is true that Lagos is a composite of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Genuine and soul-saving pastors co-exist with Soyinka’s Brother-Jero-type of fake pastors in this city of anonymity. There are Lords too; scoundrels of sorts who ‘control’ areas. Petty thieves and big time criminals find space in the city. There is a sense in which the intense anonymity of Lagos yields space and character to all comers. Nobody cares who you are. Big Brother does not watch anybody here. Rickety vehicles struggle for space on Lagos roads with luxury cars. Be sure that those scruffy looking drivers inside contraptions would give the SUV owner a rude sign if the need arises. For added measure, your Phantom Rolls or Lamborghini make no impression on that rude bus conductor!
Night life in Lagos! The way life takes a new meaning during the latter part of the night into early morning is fascinating. Even in the days when cars were routinely snatched by the Rambo type of characters gleaming cars always glided out into the dark nights enjoying the façade of the night. Was there an unwritten code between the snatchers and car owners to let sleeping dogs lie during those hours? What about the night clubs? That’s a full life of its own. I once was compelled to take a visiting friend from America round some happening-places. I learnt a lot about the character of night life during that compulsory visit – its danger, its fun and its tiring pace.
Landlords! Any study of Lagos without the drama of landlords is incomplete. I am sure the technique of removing a tenant’s door or roof; or having an actor sit in place of the real tenant in court started here. The dummy says all the wrong things and the ‘ignorant’ magistrate ejects the tenant. The real tenant gets the shock of his life when thugs descend on him and throw out his property. Lagos! What about the wicked practice of asking a messenger to pay rent for two years? As the period comes to an end the poor tenant would be running from Badagry to Ikorodu looking for money to save his head from the landlord.
When I first came to Lagos, there were night-soil men – agbepo – who did their ugly and subhuman job of clearing human waste inside a bucket carried on their head in broad daylight without wearing a mask but they are all gone now, with most houses now making use of the water system but the mentality of agbepo is still very present in our attitude to waste disposal and the filth in some areas is legendary, nauseating, familiar, distant, begging for the return of sanitary inspectors, and I always remember the Man in Ayi Kwei Armah novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born!
Now the Epe zone is taking on a new life. The drivers are not strictly indigenes. When a State like Lagos entrusts its Ministry of Economic Planning to an ‘outsider’ it speak volumes about the vision and trajectory of the Lagos story. Or when non-indigenes are allowed to contest elections contrary to the norm in other States, where primitively clinging to land ownership for the sake of clinging is the day, then Nigeria must learn from the Character and Life of Lagos. It may be academic to argue that the Life and Character of Lagos at 50 is not the making of one person. Perhaps! But all the persons who employed non-Lagos indigenes in the 1960s into the state civil service and allowed them to rise to the top have a history.
As we roll out the drums and celebrate Lagos at 50, let us remember that with all its shortcomings and occasional foul smell oozing from the lagoon, the spirit of Lagos is better and stronger than the spirit of Nigeria. Let the leaders in Lagos also remember that the political link between Lagos and Abuja ought to be deployed to transforming the smelly areas of Lagos.