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 conductor leans out shouting the destination.
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 government and financial center sit 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”,says 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 FashinaOladipupo, 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.
Ochuko Oghuvwu is surprisingly chirpy for a man who spends upwards of 30 hours a week in his car, commuting to and from his office in Nigeria’s financial hub, Lagos.
Then again, he has just started the working week after two whole days without having to battle giant pot-holes, monster traffic jams, road works, irate drivers and police checkpoints.
Oghuvwu’s stockbroking firm in the Ikoyi area of Lagos is only about 32 kilometres (20 miles) from his home in Ojo, due west towards the border with neighbouring Benin.
The drive to the office should only take 45 minutes to one hour.
But those days are as rare in Lagos as 24 hours of uninterrupted electricity from the national grid.
Instead, the trip normally takes him three hours — even longer in the June to September rainy season — despite him being behind the wheel from 5:30 am.
“I wake up early to beat the major traffic,” he told the French news agency,AFP.“Those that wake up later end up spending more time. On a day like a Monday, if you leave the house at 6:30 am, you spend more than four hours in the car.”
Sleeping on the job
Oghuvwu, a marketing executive in his early 40s, is far from a rare breed in Nigeria’s biggest city.
Hundreds of thousands of people like him also spend nearly as much time commuting as the statutory working week in countries such as France.
He could even be considered a late riser. Others who live nearby set off a full hour earlier to beat the infamous “go-slows”, as local call traffic jams.
“We get exhausted. We’re always tired. For somebody in my position, I just lock the door of the office and have a little nap for 20 to 30 minutes,” he said.
The time spent crawling bumper to bumper with other cars, motorbikes and battered yellow taxis, packed buses and overloaded trucks has taken its toll on his Volvo S90.
The constant stop-start means brake pads need checking every other month and the services of panel beaters to smooth out the inevitable dents and scrapes from the quest to keep moving.
But the gruelling commute has also affected his social life and the amount of time he spends with his family.
Ughuvwu’s children, aged between six and 14, are usually asleep when he leaves the house and when he returns.
“At the weekend I don’t go out,” he added. “I mainly stay at home. I don’t want to face the traffic. It’s ruined my social life.”
Integrated transport plan
Officially, Lagos is said to be home to some 12 million people.But many estimates put the figure at about 21 million, in a city spread over 350 square miles (910 square kilometres).
New arrivals hunting a slice of Nigeria’s economic growth heap pressure on the already creaking infrastructure. Land shortages and a lack of housing has pushed up real estate and rental prices.
Fuel subsidies and cheap, second-hand cars often imported from Europe have put more vehicles on the road.
As a result, a long commute is a necessary evil for all but the wealthiest.
The managing director of the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), Dayo Mobereola, admits they need to act now to prevent total gridlock.
“This problem has been going on for almost 40 years,” he said.
“We’ve started addressing it over the last five years and we have a roadmap now to address the issues as they are today and also to plan for the future as well.
“If we don’t do anything then in the next five years there’s almost going to be a stand-still.”
LAMATA’s $20 billion, 30-year master plan is based around integrated public transport.
Its proposals for nine designated bus lanes and seven suburban train lines, built with Chinese money, are designed to get people out of their cars.
Slum clearance is essential, although campaign groups claim that residents are given little or no warning that their homes are earmarked for demolition and no compensation afterwards.
Work has slowed because of legal disputes, while some slum dwellers move on and set up home elsewhere, to be cleared another day.
Delays and jams
More affordable accommodation within Lagos would help cut commuting times, suggested Oghuvwu, as prices where he lives are nearly two-thirds cheaper than in the city.
Water taxis along Nigeria’s southern, Atlantic coast and the lagoons that stretch around the city could also help tackle the gridlock.
Failing that, businesses could relocate from the traditional trading hubs of Lagos Island, Ikoyi and Victoria Island to the suburbs, he added.
For now, though, his life — and everyone else’s — is dictated by traffic.
In the afternoons, many workers are out of the office door and on their way home as soon as the clock chimes four, car radios tuned to Lagos Traffic Radio 96.1 FM to hear about tailbacks and accidents.
Oghuvwu himself usually leaves about 4:30 pm — and he’s all too aware of the consequences.
“That extra 30 minutes costs me an additional one hour on the road,” he said.