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
I was running late to meet the commissioner. Thanks to a gas shortage and the most hellacious traffic yet, by the time I arrived at the state government offices – a forbidding complex with the vaguely Orwellian name of the Secretariat –for my meeting with the Commissioner of Transportation, I was nearly two hours late. Muslim men knelt on prayer rugs in the parking lot, and in the air was the familiar lethargy of bureaucracy at work.

Upstairs, a secretary ushered me into an air-conditioned office, where the Honorable Mr. Kayode Opeifa was waiting. He was wearing black glasses, a pink dress shirt, a jacket, and no tie. A framed picture of himself hung on the wall behind him, and a large orange traffic cone sat on the floor beside his desk.

The commissioner asked his secretary for a glass of Coke. "So," he said, leaning back in his chair. "How was your drive?" I told him about the traffic, and he nodded. "Yes," he said knowingly. "There was an accident. A danfo conductor died."The commissioner came to traffic in a roundabout way. He grew up near Ojuelegba – the intersection Fela sang about – and earned his Ph.D. in toxicology at the University of Lagos. Then in 1997, with the military in power, he fled. He moved to Chicago and worked for Abbott Laboratories. After the dictator Sani Abacha died in 1998 (supposedly from a heart attack, though many suspect he was poisoned by one of the six teenage Indian prostitutes with him at his death), Opeifa eventually came back from exile.

For a long time, the government had no traffic plan. But the general sense now is that it's trying. Last November, Governor Babatunde Fashola personally led a team of police to arrest lawbreakers on a Lagos bridge. Mandatory psychiatric tests for wrong-way drivers on one-way streets have been instituted, though many suspect it's just another ploy to get money.

The commissioner had several new ideas to improve Lagos traffic. Many of them seemed wildly optimistic: a computerized command center, a $3 billion light-rail, smart cameras at every light. Others, like an FM station devoted solely to traffic reports, seemed sensible and achievable.

Still, he suggested, some of Lagos' problems might be intractable. At one point, he made a list of everything the city was lacking: 1,300 new buses, more than 300 new roads, countless pedestrian bridges. There were also far more cars than the infrastructure could handle, with more coming every day. "And still we manage," the commissioner said. "Do you know what I call that?" He peered over his glasses and smiled. "A miracle."