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
Some people in Lagos actually like traffic. First are the hawkers, street kids who make a living selling everything from toothbrushes to machetes to shoes. Then the mechanics, who work the roadsides like pit crews with jumper cables and wrenches. At a few intersections, there were beggars, crippled polio victims scooting around on skateboards, or old albinos shielding their eyes from the sun. But most Nigerians work hard for their money, juggling two, three, sometimes four jobs at once. "That's what I love about Nigerian people," said Sunday, whose side hustles included taking paparazzi shots and selling black-market gas. "They don't wait for someone to give. They go and get."

And then there are the police. There are at least five different authorities responsible for Lagos roads, and all of them are corrupt. At the top are the federal police, who wear all black and carry AK-47s. Next is the FRSC, the Federal Road Safety Commission, who dress in khaki and oversee police checkpoints. The vehicle inspection officers, or VIOs, wear white and watch for broken taillights or seatbelt-less drivers, while the traffic wardens, in orange and black, theoretically oversee the intersections but usually just sit around looking bored. The KAI, in lime green, are environmental officers: As Sunday put it, "If you wee-wee in the street, they will arrest you."

Most ubiquitous is the LASTMA – the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority. Its purview is anything that impedes the flow of traffic: broken-down cars, wayward pedestrians, unlawful parkers. One afternoon, on a highway median in northern Lagos, I met a LASTMA officer named Olayinka John Obasa – Yinka, for short. Obasa said he was proud of the work he did: "I feel like I'm saving lives, securing property. I feel like I'm helping." At the same time, he said, though he made, by Lagosian standards, a pretty good living (about $260 a month, twice the civil servants' minimum wage), bribery was still a fact of life. "If someone offers me money to avoid a ticket," he admitted, "I'll take it. I'm being blunt with you. I am a Christian, and sometimes I pray to God that something will break down and someone will have to pay."

Nearby on the same median, an ambulance was parked. Because traffic is so bad in Lagos, the government has ambulances stationed throughout the city so they can reach emergencies faster. This was Point 1. In the back of the ambulance sat two nurses: Esther, who was filing her nails, and Abesidi, who was reading a gossip magazine. Up front, their driver was taking a nap.

Esther and Abesidi said they got their last call a week ago, when a commuter van flipped over on the highway during rush hour. Eight people went to the hospital; one of them died. I asked if they'd ever had patients die in the ambulance because they were stuck in traffic, and Abesidi nodded. "We use the siren and the lights," she said. "But it's very difficult."

Esther estimated that 90 percent of accidents were caused by okadas and danfos. "The okadas are the worst," she said. "Sometimes you get on and you can smell the drink on their breath." There are stories of okada drivers having their legs sheared off, of passengers being killed. In Lagos, emergency rooms are known as "okada wards."

Just then, Esther's walkie-talkie crackled. There was an accident nearby. "Do you want to come?" she asked. They climbed up front and woke the driver, and I jumped in the back. The driver turned on the siren and pulled onto the highway.

We wailed down the highway for a few miles, scattering traffic as we went. I sat in the back with the needles and bandages, simultaneously thrilled and frightened by what we might find. But then, just as suddenly, the siren shut off. Esther turned around. "Sorry. False call." They drove back to the checkpoint and resumed their wait.

Later that night, I needed to cross the Falomo Bridge, a mile-long span between two of the city's islands. Normally okadas aren't allowed to cross it at night, but I found one driver who was willing to take me. He was small and wrinkled, and at least 65. I climbed on the bike and held on tight.

Riding through Lagos on an okada at night is a thrilling thing. The wind battering your face, the smell of the Atlantic on the air, the nagging feeling that the next moment might be your last. Halfway across, the driver gunned it, and for a moment, the whole city melted away.

When we reached the police checkpoint at the far end of the bridge, I braced for trouble. But the officers saluted and waved us past. When the wind died down, I asked him why. "Because I'm a soldier," he said.

His name was Col. Franc Akban. He was born in 1944 and joined the army as a teenager, serving as a munitions specialist in the Biafran War. But then, he said gravely, "I had a terrible accident." He didn't say how, only that his legs were mangled and he needed several surgeries to put them back together. He had to leave the army and moved to Singapore to be a chef; he had moved back to Lagos nine years ago to be with his children.

He worked mostly for tips: 100 naira here, 200 there (60 cents, $1.20). Sometimes he missed cooking, he said, but mostly he was glad to be back with his family. "I don't make much. But it's a good life."