My first impression of the city was that it's supremely flat. It's built on a huge mangrove swamp, with no point more than a few meters above sea level. The Portuguese named it Lagos after the lagoons that make up a quarter of the city – its official nickname is Land of Aquatic Splendour – but from the road, it seemed clay colored and endless. Fires burned in the slums, covering the city in a brown perma-haze. It was harmattan, the midwinter season, when hot, dry winds blow in from the Sahara, coating everything in a layer of dust.
It's also incredibly loud. Lagos' roads are a cacophony of honks, bleats, screeches, and roars. There are motorcycles with horns tricked out to sound like 18-wheelers, muezzins on loudspeakers issuing the call to prayer, arguments everywhere: motorists arguing with bus drivers, street vendors arguing with customers. At one checkpoint, a policeman with a rifle argued with a soldier with a machine gun. It was hot, maybe 90 degrees, but Sunday didn't want to turn on the A/C. "It uses too much fuel," he said.
For decades, one of the few perks to living in a country so overwhelmingly poor yet petroleum-rich was access to cheap gas: Ever since oil was discovered near a creek in the Niger Delta, in 1957, the government had used subsidies to keep gas prices low. As recently as December, Nigerians could fill their tanks for about $1.60 a gallon – not exactly cheap in a country where the average daily wage is about $3.25, but not crippling.
Then on January 1, Goodluck Jonathan, the country's much-maligned president – his nickname is Gridlock – declared an end to the subsidy: Nigeria was facing a $5 billion deficit and couldn't afford a program that ate up a quarter of the national budget. Gas prices doubled overnight. Even worse, because most Nigerians get their electricity not from the failed public grid but from their own diesel-powered generators, millions of Lagosians literally could no longer keep the lights on.
The opposition organized nationwide strikes, and the chaotic streets of Lagos turned into a ghost town. Protesters shut down the airport, grounding all flights in and out. Finally, after a week, the government agreed to compromise. When I arrived a few weeks later, things were back to their typical state of surreal. For instance:
• a minibus taxi (commonly known as a danfo) flying down the highway at 65 miles per hour with a man hanging on to the back by his fingertips
• a danfo driver and a BMW owner getting into a fistfight after a fender bender at an intersection
• a traffic warden in a fluorescent vest trying to stop an okada (motorcycle) driver and getting run over for his trouble
• a police officer, his AK-47 slung over his shoulder, unzipping his pants and taking a piss on a concrete wall, right under a hand-painted sign that said "Nigeria Police"
There are only 68 working traffic lights in the city. Libertarianism prevails: One-way roads are mere suggestions; stop signs are routinely ignored; the speed limit is nonexistent. Accordingly, accidents are routine. Near the Falomo Bridge, a Mitsubishi Montero backed into an okada hard enough to dent its bumper, an occurrence so commonplace that neither driver bothered to stop. Later, on the highway, a man ran in front ofSunday, who slammed on his brakes with feet to spare. "A lot of people die in this place," he said.
Sunday tuned the radio to a show called Tell Me Your Place. Without satellites or traffic helicopters, Lagosians rely on each other. If you're stuck in traffic, you call the show, and the DJs report where things are backed up. It's a low-tech version of crowdsourcing – a real-world traffic wiki.
Lagos is full of solutions like this. At one point, on a main road called Awolowo, traffic got so bad that the westbound cars collectively decided to colonize one of the eastbound lanes. Instead of two lanes in either direction, it turned into one and three. But no one seemed to mind. The city was sorting itself out.