A Wild Week in Lagos
Yellow minibuses, or danfos, clog the streets in a city with only 68 (working) stoplights over 385 square miles.
Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik
Although it's one of the biggest cities in the world, Lagos remains a mystery to most Westerners. There aren't any sights to speak of and almost no tourists. The few foreigners who do come are either businessmen chasing the oil that fuels the country's economy or diplomats working to hold together a country that religious violence currently threatens to rip apart. "Only a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence will pick Nigeria for a holiday," author Chinua Achebe wrote. "[It] may be a paradise for adventurers and pirates but not tourists."

Which is exactly why I wanted to come. I'd heard stories of wild things in Lagos: highwaymen, floating slums, gangsters walking leashed hyenas through the streets. A friend whose dad did business there in the 1980s said it was the most unruly place he'd ever been. Another friend, who'd lived in South Africa for a decade, said that even most Africans were afraid to go. The World Bank's lead economist for Nigeria called the country a "time bomb."

In the past five years, Lagos has exploded. Current estimates put the population somewhere between 15 and 18 million, with an annual growth rate of around 6 percent – one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet. By 2025 it's expected to top 25 million, making it the third-largest city in the world, after Mumbai and Tokyo. The result is a place stretched to its breaking point: a Dickensian conurbation of overcrowded slums and nonexistent services. It's also in some ways a city of the future: what happens when democracy, industrialization, and unchecked population growth collide in the developing world.

Of all the problems facing Lagos, the worst might be traffic. Traffic in Lagos is a force of nature – a phenomenon as destructive and inevitable as the rains that blow in every March. "There is no weekend for traffic in Lagos," one resident told me. "Traffic is every day." Lagosians have words for traffic the way Eskimos have words for snow: congestion, logjam, lockdown, holdup, gridlock, deadlock, and the wonderfully evocative go-slow. Horror stories abound: police attacking motorists with bullwhips, taxi drivers getting into fistfights, angry commuters backing over policemen with their SUVs. I came to try to navigate the turmoil – to get an on-the-ground look at life in a modern African megacity in all its chaotic glory.

"When it comes to chaos," Toyin Falola, author of several books about Nigeria and Lagos, told me, "no place can compare. Lagos sets its own rules. But if you can figure out its logic, there is a beauty to it."