We were driving down a narrow, undulating street lined with the sort of debris you associate with Lagos after a clean-up exercise- muddy mounds of dirt and refuse in close harmony- in a two-car convoy. All six of us travelled together in one car for a function I cannot now recall. My sisters sat at either end of the back seat as is the right of older siblings in Nigeria. My younger brother, not yet in double digits, sat next to me. He may have been snoozing or he may have been awake but his dribble was on my arm and I had just asked him, forcefully, why he spat on me when the car came to a sudden halt. My father had his hands on the wheel and sat in complete silence. He was a lawyer (still is) and in those Abacha years, the insular economy created by the military government’s willingness to quarrel with the West left him unrewarded. In his eyes I saw fatigue but, as ever with my father, I saw concentration, calculation. In the passenger seat beside him, my mother looked on the scene before us with whorls of rage in her eyes.
Five men stood on the street outside dressed in khaki and leaves, which is the best way I could describe it. There was menace in their approach and in their voices. One of them, wearing a headwrap made with some skill from string and shrubbery, walked up to my father’s door. He had a stick in his left hand, narrow and long, but it was not threatening. All four of us in the back seat were used to the feel of a good caning. If that was all they had, they would not get very far. It was evident that they had no lethal weapons, and I looked at my parents again wondering what would happen next. My mother shared my views, it seemed, and she switched to Igbo, urging my father to resist any attempts at extortion.
“Oga, find your boys sometin, now.” The slow drawl on the adverb ‘now’ in that Nigerian way made it sound like a request and not a command.
“Do not give this filth even one kobo of our money, Papa. Look at him, he is lazy! And he wants to take what you work hard every day to earn? God forbid!” I may not remember her exact words but I vivdly recall that my mother’s tone was not cajoling, even aggressive as she spoke in our Ohafia dialect.
The man’s expression was tantalising. His mouth was comedy- full of teeth that looked like they had stood up to violence from his wife once too often- but his eyes filled with a black threat that could not be missed, that look I have come to associate with this city I have grown to love and detest by turns.
Lagos is out to get you.
You see it in the seduction of the photographs that now proliferate with Lagos cityscape appeal, and in the many romantic documentaries by Rem Koolhaas and his cohort. Posed before a camera, Lagos is the sexy showgirl, emphasising the sinuous curve of her rivers and banks, shimmering in the sun. In night shots, there is the twinkle of the city’s centres in Victoria Island and Ikoyi, the glitter and glamour. Las Gidi. Even that moniker speaks to the Lagosian aspiration to Sin City, Las Vegas, Nevada where the unspeakable occur daily. In less lurid captures, in the bustle of market scenes or the dirt of under-bridge stadiums, Lagos will always show you her good side: enterprise; energy; elation. Look upon Lagos and its promise, supine in a photograph: you feel you can conquer her with all her trickery, ride the celebratory wave of owambe from the beachfront to the backstreet.
You feel that way only until you look into her eyes. Lagos is out to get you.
A while ago, the story broke that Chocolat Royale, an establishment much beloved by the bourgeoisie for its ice cream and sumptuous deserts, and for its connection to the rise of Lagos out of its slumified reputation of the pre-Fashola years into the chic faaji capital of the world, had been stockpiling expired goods. Right there in its urbane branch next to Cool FM radio on Etim Inyang crescent. Clearly, as is consistent with the general mindset of Lagos, there was no reason to continue to buy fresh stock when unused ingredients lay rotting away in their stores. Thus, the proprietors of Chocolat Royale, aware that Lagosians are all hot coals just waiting for the right amount of pressure, made their tasty treats from rubbish. Rubbish.
Almost every day, you will hear a new ‘only in Lagos’ story. Far from the madness of the Lekki Toll Plaza where, squished together as close as Titus, something animal emerges from the people or from the vigilance of LASTMA, that insectoid collective equipped with cameraphones and trained to bug you until you part with nairas. Far from the hunger of the roads which set traps for you just for the fun of it, evolving potholes to lie in wait for your new car just after an expensive servicing. It is not these stories that will make you realise the malign intention of this beloved misunderstood city, no, however loudly and often they might be repeated. Those little games are just Lagos’ way of testing your loyalty, scheming to find out if you can tough it with the toughest, the property swindlers and the real estate magnates, the market traders and the e-commerce entrepreneurs, the ashawo ten kobo and the UNILAG girls, the QC girls, the runs girls, all birds of the same feather, taking wing in the mega city. No, this is only child’s play.
The only in Lagos story is told by true Lagosians who have fought minor wahala and come out at the other side, proving themselves worthy of the trust of Lagos yet knowing that Lagos itself cannot be trusted. They who have seen through the coquettishness of Instagram Lagos, the winking conman in the weekend declarations of love posted by returnees who are really just JJCs. They who have stuck it out with Lagos will tell you that, after you have survived and have begun to thrive, when you have developed a sense for the mischief and learnt to avoid it, Lagos will look at you with disdain and then she will surprise you.
There’s my friend, Romeo, who has lived in Lagos since he was a kid, who trekked to secondary school in Gbagada everyday and learnt to laugh when the sun was fat and sitting on his back. He has seen it all, one of the success stories of modern Lagos who has made a fair killing from an entirely unexpected source- dog food. There are more domestic pets in the city than you know and their owners now pay genuine attention to pet hygiene and welfare. With the influx of foreign supermarket brands and the growth of local powerhouses in FCMG like Edichat and Ebeano (an unfortunate victim of the Lagos phenomenon when its Lekki I branch was incinerated late last year), he could not have set upon the idea at a better time. Romeo has always liked dogs and had built up a relationship with suppliers of pet treats, from employees at restaurants who sell him unused meat to importers of foreign canned product. He knew what investment he had made over the years to keep his canines happy and was sure his friends and neighbours would appreciate access to the many different dog food channels he had sourced. In no time, he was a primary supplier to the big supermarket brands. Not long ago, Romeo told me that a puppy he had leashed to a dining room chair upstairs in his mum’s house, had jumped through the window to break free and ended up with a broken neck. When they found it, its teeth were bared in that look of comedy peculiar to Lagos. Dog suicide. Ethereal. Only in Lagos.
There is nothing new to Michael on Lagos roads, or so he thought. He was passing by when a jeep lost control on Third Mainland Bridge, the umbilical cord that tethers the mainland to its Island mother. He always tells me with eyes full of lingering wonder of the prayer he said when the SUV blasted through the solid concrete barrier and vanished over its borders into the Lagoon. “Save me from Lagos, God”. He was also on hand to witness his friend, a solid six foot three inch bag of bones and muscle, cantering full pelt on bare feet down Bishop Aboyade Cole at 3am in the morning. His friend would later tell him that he had just escaped from the trunk of a moving car and was running in the general direction of Likwid, the club behind 1004 flats, where he knew he would meld into the late night crowd. Still, nothing prepared Michael for what happened sometime late in 2013 when his car was rammed into by a bullion van at Bonny Camp roundabout, in twilight. While he was shouting at the van driver, who was shouting back some nonsense about his right of way, a woman came running through the growing crowd, holding her heels in her right hand, and a phone aloft, in her left.
“That is my husband’s car. This man is a thief. That is my husband’s car ohhhhh!!!!” She knelt to the ground and then began a prayer of thanksgiving, her eyes raised to the heavens. Michael was dazzled. The falling sun was painting spectacular patterns overhead, framed by the bridge under which the commotion was building, but it was no matter to him, amazed as he was by the woman’s performance and the trend his evening was taking. Somebody caught a glimpse of her phone and shouted “It’s true oh! Na she get the car!” The tide of sympathy, which had been roiling in his favour, was against him in a flash. The crowd pressed around him, demanding answers and pushing him to the ground, with arms swarming about him in a matter of seconds. Before he could summon a coherent thought, he was in the air on his backside. Whenever he recounts the story, he tells whomever is listening, and that should be you, too, that you ought never to look in the eye of Lagos and falter because that may be your end. Somehow, a couple of nearby policemen showed up and wrenched away his keys from the mob. Having confirmed that the car papers were indeed in his name, they drove the crowd away. Then they sat him down in their Hilux, and the officer-in-charge fixed Michael with a gaze of tremendous persuasion. They told him that they did not want to know how he got his papers into the woman’s car but that they knew she would be willing to forgive him. Michael understood and paid over a hefty bribe. It was only some hours later that he realised that the woman and the bullion van had already disappeared at the point of his tete-a-tete with the ever helpful policemen. He still does not know what that passerby saw on the woman’s phone.
Another friend is a tech guru on the rise. He is one of a growing circle of entrepreneurs who have profited from the consumer potential of technology-driven products. One fine day, he went to the Computer Village in Ikeja. He prides himself on his street smarts, able to fall in and out of the social latticework that overlays our city so that even though he is now middle class, he is comfortable with blue collar Lagosians. He went to get his smartphone repaired. While he waited, a man came up to him with the flourishing charisma that is native to the Lagos ruffian. He had a smartphone for sale, the very smartphone my friend hoped to purchase that week, or so his conscience told him. The ruffian was retailing the phone for half the market price, and a third less than my friend could get it through his contacts. He had no intention to purchase anything from this ruffian but asked him to show the phone anyway.
Let’s call my friend Somto, which is not his name, but I don’t want his tech pals to read this story and laugh him right off his perch. Somto is a gifted mingler as I have told you, and he speaks fluent pidgin, with suitable agbero inflection. Lagos is in his blood, indivisible from his humanity. So, there he sat, unruffled by this ruffian with the spotless iphone box as shiny as a still from those coffee table compilations in Bourdillon homes. He opened the box and found the iphone with all the peripherals intact, tear rubber in fact, straight from the factory. The goldbacked masterpiece smiled its black empty smile of newness behind a screen fitted by a Foxconn worker drone somewhere in China. Somto lifted his baby out of her cradle, testing her weight. 112 grams, it seemed, just as it should. He looked at the ruffian and caught a terrible smile, not dissimilar to William McCoskry’s grin when he got Oba Dosunmu to sign the 1861 Lagos Treaty of Cession. He felt under some unperceived stimulation, some subtle coercion to buy the phone. It was, after all, a one-off bargain that might never again present itself. Somto took the bait like carp haplessly clamping its jaws around the concealed hook of the skilled fisherman. He only discovered the fufu where the phone’s engine ought to be when he sat down to dinner.
What a pity.
All those years ago, my mother was speaking violent Ohafia in the hope of stirring my father’s passions, yet the only aggression my father understood was outside the window. A man tempered and wizened by Lagos, he knew her tricks by scent. The charming rascal who leaned into the window was reeking of fate (my mother says it was only ogogoro) and my father does not play dice. He got up and out of the car to isolate the men with the leafy crowns from his family and to show his deference to these monarchs of the mud. Omonile. The real owners of Lagos. How much he forked over, we will never know. But my father had already got into the car and started the engine before my cousins arrived, inexplicably delayed farther behind by some restless activity instigated by Lagos. We drove on, with only the meek crumblings of a story to share. No tale of fight or feral retort, only one of fate avoided. We had escaped those once in a while, God Forbid Lagos stories that she uses to teach a lesson to those naive enough to presume to have conquered her. And that was okay.