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In Nigerian mega-city, gridlock is a great unifier

LAGOS, Nigeria -- The traffic begins long before dawn in Nigeria's largest city. The poor crowd onto benches welded inside dented, clattering buses. The middle classes sit behind the steering wheels of used imports. As the first sunbeams cut through the exhaust fumes, the wealthy thumb tablet computers in cars with blaring sirens, chauffeured by moonlighting policemen.

They will almost certainly end up jumbled together in one of the epic traffic jams which, if nothing else, serve to bridge the class divide in this metropolis of 17.5 million.

In Lagos, which is predicted to overtake Cairo as Africa's most populous city in 2015, the traffic jams that Nigerians call "go-slows" can strike at any moment. Here, drivers are hostage to a road network that hasn't been upgraded since the 1970s. Bridges are rickety and potholes swallow cars to the axles.

Trying to beat the rush inspires even more chaos. Drivers ignore one-way signs and race through parking lots. Passengers risk their lives on motorcycle taxis that blast through gaps in traffic without pause or warning, trailing plumes of exhaust smoke. Bus drivers, whose wages depend on how many passengers they pick up, stop in mid-lane while conductors lean out shouting the destinations.

The rich and powerful have security forces who bully drivers out of their way with leather whips strong enough to crack windshields.

Lagos state forces drivers who go against traffic on a one-way street to undergo psychiatric evaluations at their own expense. "It is his abnormal behavior that raised the need for psychiatric evaluation," an official leaflet explains. "We need to know whether such a person should be allowed to drive on our roads at all." The new law obliges a court to impose a three-year sentence, regardless of what the psychiatrists find. And more tough laws are coming, mandating fines of more than $200 _ more than three months' income for most Nigerians _ for eating, smoking or using a cell phone behind the wheel.

However, many Lagosians simply acknowledge the traffic as a living, breathing aspect of daily life in a nation where oil money vanishes into corrupt pockets, police routinely harass those they should protect and a livelihood comes only to the swift and the fearless.

"It kind of suits Nigeria in a way. It wouldn't be Nigeria if it ran smoothly," said Eby Emenike, a sports agent, idling in her air-conditioned but gridlocked sedan. "It's all part of it, the honking, the horns, the cars running out of petrol in the middle of traffic. It's all part of Nigeria."

Lagos' traffic problems stem from geography. Its financial center sits on islands accessible only from a spit of land that once served as the territory's slave-trading hub. So any disruption there ripples across the city.

"Everybody wakes up in the morning and moves toward the islands, which is the economic nerve center of activities in Lagos," Kola Olayiwola, a lecturer at the Yaba College of Technology. "This in itself causes a lot of friction on the roads." A stalled vehicle or heavy downpour only makes things worse. Workers spend four hours or more daily on the roads, said Olayiwola. Some simply sleep in their offices or cars on weekdays.

And the car population is exploding. In 1995, Lagos state registered more than 27,000 new vehicles, according to government statistics; the figure for 2010 was about 230,000, three-quarters of them privately owned automobiles.

"Everybody wants to have a car to maintain (their) social class," said Fashina Oladipupo, another lecturer at Yaba College.

Those without cars sweat inside buses and modified Volkswagen delivery vans while the state government struggles for solutions. It has commissioned a Chinese-built light railway and better roads into the city, but these are years from completion. A ferry system to serve the government and commercial center has largely failed.

But in a nation where jobs are few and most earn less than $2 a day, congestion can be a livelihood. Newspaper vendors and drink-sellers hustle among idled cars. Lagosians joke of a man driving to the grocery store and buying everything he needs on the way. Indeed, on a recent day young men were out selling everything from newspapers and soft drinks to camera tripods, hand-held vacuum cleaners and plaid children's pajamas complete with tiny slippers.

These sellers often are targeted by various police and local officials for kickbacks for selling along streets where signs forbid it.

Officials say the laws coming into force are necessary to curb the chaos. But critics warn that traffic wardens and police who already are known to force their way into cars to extort bribes will use the new, loosely worded laws to extract even larger sums.

Officials with the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority declined repeated requests for comment through agency spokesman Richard Omolase.

The critics say the new law will target some of the poorest on the roadway _ the motorcycle taxi drivers known as "okada" after a now-defunct airline, either for the their speed or for the smoke they spew, depending on whom you ask.

It's dangerous, sometimes lethal work, but can net up to $20 a day, 10 times what most people earn. Bike-riding jobs draw people from Nigeria's north and from neighboring countries.

The new laws would ban okada riders from 11 highways, 41 bridges and more than 3,000 roads, according to information released by the state, and some believe it is an attempt to force the riders out of the already overcrowded city.

Dauda Iliyasini, an okada union representative, warns of dangerous consequences: "We are not beast," he says, "but if they want us to become a beast, we will be a beast."

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .