Published: May 21 2005 03:00 | Last updated: May 21 2005 03:00
Driving with my parents and girlfriend through the historic heart of Lagos, home to gangs of impoverished youths known as “area boys”, several young men hold a chain across a street on our route. They beckon us to approach but we take a detour and ask the way from a passer-by talking on a mobile phone: with characteristically Lagosian aplomb, he pauses from his conversation, gives us directions and then segues unprompted into a crisp apologia-cum-lecture. “We are good people here in Nigeria,” he scolds. “We are not bad like they portray us.”
It is the kind of tongue-in-cheek, edgy experience that engages many visitors who come to Lagos in spite of its deserved reputation for dirt, disorder and dangers ranging from malaria to armed robbery. If you want to see Africa in microcosm – in its squalor and mischievous intellectual spirit, its street-level warmth and official abusiveness, its struggles to avoid a societal breakdown inspired by colonialists and nurtured by dictators and consumer capitalism – then Nigeria is the place to start.
It is the continent’s largest oil producer but also one of its poorest countries, and it has more Muslims and more Christians than any other nation south of the Sahara: in world political and economic terms, it is where north meets south and east meets west.
My parents, taking their first trip to west Africa, are on a 10-day visit that involves much travelling but still misses out vast and important regions such as the east’s Igboland and the Niger Delta. Our journey begins instead at the south-western city of Ibadan, once Nigeria’s largest metropolis and one of the centres of the Yoruba culture that finds modern expression in striking indigo-based art and the writings of the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. At the city limits, a sign hints at Nigeria’s capacity for self-aggrandisement and a leavening, often subversive, dark humour. “Welcome to Ibadan,” says a sign at the city’s edge. “The largest city in black Africa. Spend your money alive! Drive carefully.”
The nearby town of Ife is central to Yoruba legend but even here there is a sense of the rich but sometimes tense complexity of a country of hundreds of peoples and languages that was created by British imperialists in 1914. Just past a shop called Honey-Milk Ventures, a sign says: “Let us say no to political and communal crises and let peace prevail”. In a picture exhibition at the town’s museum, the dandy dress of a chief from the southern Urhobo ethnic group speaks of an eye-catching social fusion: he wears a long feather in his flat straw hat, a blazer of European design and a wrap of brightly coloured patterned cloth, all topped off by a coral necklace and walking stick.
On the drive back to Lagos, Nigerians are everywhere demonstrating an everyday ingenuity and assertiveness sharpened by decades of economic adversity. A man has found a profitable begging spot where cars are forced to stop by the rainwater gathered in one of the many large potholes that pockmark the country’s ill-maintained highways. Stuck in a traffic jam, or “go-slow”, we overtake a car on the roadside dust, only to be passed ourselves by a minibus crashing like an elephant through the tropical undergrowth. “There’s always another inside lane,” my father notes drily.
That night, we pass a minibus driving along on three tyres, its bare left front wheel rim sparking on the road: grotesquely disadvantaged but gloriously unyielding, it takes little imagination to see it as a metaphor.
Arriving the next day in Kano, the main city in the Islamic north, Nigeria looks again like one of colonialism’s most absurd and egregious experiments in African nation-formation. The humid heat of Lagos is replaced by the dryness of the Sahara and the airport tarmac is crowded with jumbo jets used to take Kano’s elite on the Hajj pilgrimage. The Christian missionaries who converted so many people in the south never had much of a chance here, while the British eventually gave up on the idea of subjugation by war and settled instead for a system of indirect rule by favoured leaders.
At Kano’s museum, colonial era pictures from a century ago show a British official in pith helmet incongruously collecting taxes from berobed Arab traders. Other photos show the north’s thriving cotton market and the region’s famous pyramids of groundnuts, both of which have all but disappeared as the national economy, often controlled by northern dictators, has become a corrupted conduit for oil revenues. “People care now today only about petrol,” says Haruna Maikano, our guide. “That’s what destroyed everything.”
As if on cue, the notoriously unreliable national power system fails. “Let me bring the lantern,” Maikano says, with an immediacy that suggests this is not the first time.
The mood changes again at Yankari National Park, our final stop: the place has a rare still and carefree quality, with children swimming in the beautifully clear 31ÂºC warm springs. Entry is cheap and made unintentionally hilarious by the intervention of a notorious secret police force that is still ubiquitous and seems unsure of its role after the 1999 return of civilian rule. Marked out from the green-uniformed park rangers at the park gate by his blue suit and sunglasses, an officer asks us for a series of personal details but refuses to reveal who he is or what he is doing. His manner changes when I jokingly tell him I have many friends in the secret police. “You now have one more,” he replies enthusiastically, before exchanging phone numbers and wishing us well with a handshake.
Yankari has none of the jostling 4 x 4 vehicles full of tourists that characterise many east African safaris. We are the only paying guests on the beaten-up old truck used for game viewing, allowing local adults and children to scramble aboard for a free trip. Our collective reward is sightings of many endangered animals, including lions and a herd of more than 50 elephants: the exhibits in the park’s informative and quirky museum include a large pile of elephantine ordure. “You can imagine how much fodder it will need for a day,” the label says.
A week or two after returning to Britain, my father says he has had great difficulty giving the simple answer friends and colleagues want when they ask what Nigeria is like. It is a good job there are plenty of Nigerians, such as the man with the mobile phone, who are more than willing to challenge foreigners’ negative perceptions – or, far more often, to explain eloquently how the country is in a far worse state than most outsiders imagine. As they wrestle with history, political repression and the big global political, economic and social questions of the day, Nigerians’ vigour and sense of the absurd could hardly be further from enduring European prejudices about primitive Africa.
As my father put it, arriving home exhausted after his first day in Lagos: “I feel I’ve met a million people today. You’re defined by your sociability.”
Michael Peel was the FT’s West Africa correspondent until March this yea