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
So far, Lagos had been more complex than advertised – frantic and challenging, but also surprisingly safe. But the thing about time bombs is, sooner or later they're going to go off.

On my second-to-last day in the city, Sunday and I enjoyed a lunch of pounded yams and a kind of bush meat called grasscutter. ("It's like a rat, but bigger," he'd told me. It tasted like chicken.) Afterward we caught a soccer game, Lagos Mainland vs. Lagos Island. On the way out, we bought a Fela CD to listen to in the car.

It was one of those heavy Lagos afternoons, hot and unyielding. Our windows were down, and I could taste the fumes at the back of my throat. We drove through Lagos Island listening to Fela sing about government repression. Sunday pointed out the place where some area boys had rioted a few days before. Broken glass still littered the street.

It was about 5:45. The sun was starting to set. I was going to take a danfo back to my hotel, so we pulled into a motor park called Obalende, where hundreds of buses, taxis, and okadas were lined up, waiting to shuttle people home. Sunday parked at the curb, and I started to collect my things, but as I double-checked some last details, I must have taken a few seconds too long. A police officer strode up and planted himself in front of the car, then pulled out a digital camera and started taking pictures of Sunday's license plate. Under his left arm, he had a metal baseball bat.

Sunday, incensed, got out of the car. "Why are you taking pictures? Tell me what I've done." The policeman pointed to a sign: NO STOPPING. NO WAITING. Sunday continued to protest, and the cop snapped a few more photos, then walked over to the passenger door, opened it and got in.

This is how arrests work in Nigeria. Because cops don't have cars of their own, they sit in yours and demand to be taken to a station. They don't really want to go anywhere; they just want money. But Sunday, knowing he was in the right, refused to budge.

The cop got back out of the car. His partner came to take his place. The second cop was huge – probably 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. He was so tall he couldn't fit inside the Camry and had to crane his head out the window.

As the first cop and Sunday resumed their argument, a young boy on an okada pulled up. He couldn't have been more than 16, maybe 17 at the most. He was trying to go around, but the policeman was blocking his way. So he waited patiently for about half a minute, and then finally, very carefully he tried to squeeze past.

It's unclear if he accidentally bumped the cop or just annoyed him. Either way, the policeman exploded. He brought his bat – it was an Easton – crashing down onto the motorcycle's dashboard, shattering the glass. The boy, horrified, tried to speed up, but the cop swung again, nailing him on the arm and almost definitely breaking his wrist. The boy screamed and pulled away, and as he passed, the cop took one last swing. This one hit him square in the back.

With a crippled right arm and likely a few broken ribs, the boy couldn't control the bike. He wobbled on for a few pathetic feet, then went crashing headfirst into a concrete divider. The look on his face as he fell was a terrible mix of bewilderment and pain. The okada fell to the ground, pinning him underneath, and he lay there crying, literally in a pile of trash.

For a brief moment, no one moved. Then the crowd erupted. They started shouting at the policeman – the boy hadn't done anything, he needed help. The policeman told them to calm down and go back to their business. Then a couple of okada drivers, famous for sticking up for their own, got off their bikes and got in the policeman's face. Cornered, he took another swing, but this time someone ripped the bat away.

Now the policeman was unarmed and surrounded by a hostile crowd. He started shouting to his partner: "Call your man! Call your man!"

The big cop pulled out his cellphone and yelled something about the bridge, and within seconds, automatic gunfire sounded through the market. Two federal policemen with pistols and machine guns came sprinting toward the bridge, weapons drawn. They weren't shooting into the crowd, exactly, but they also weren't shooting straight up. The big cop got out to help his partner. A woman grabbed me by the arm. "You need to leave this place now," she said. Sunday jumped in and started the car, and we nosed our way through the crowd and onto the road. And then immediately got stuck in traffic.

As we sat there, Sunday fumed. "This boy did nothing. Nothing! That policeman nearly killed him." His voice grew quiet. "Sometimes I hate this country."

The Fela CD was still on the stereo. Sunday reached down and turned it up. The song was called "Sorrow, Tears and Blood." Fela had written it in 1977, after the police raid that killed his mother.

Everybody run run run, he sang,
Everybody scatter scatter ...
Someone nearly die ...
Police dey come, army dey come
Confusion everywhere

I looked over at the driver's seat, and Sunday was close to tears. He sang along:

Policeman go slap your face
You no go talk ...
Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood
Them regular trademark

By now traffic was at a standstill. We hadn't moved for several minutes. Behind us, a woman in a Mercedes got tired of waiting and tried to go around. As she pulled into the opposite lane, her car stalled and died. Now traffic was stopped in both directions, and the street was fully locked down. There was nowhere for anyone to go.