Post card from Nigeria
This is one in a series of post cards from Reuters correspondents across Europe, Middle East and Africa.
“Watch out for watermelons” was the ominous warning long given to visitors arriving by night in Lagos. The Third Mainland Bridge, Africa’s longest, snaking over the lagoon and into town from the airport, was notorious for armed robbery. A watermelon embedded with nails and rolled in front of your car was enough to stop you, allowing gunmen to relieve you of your possessions.
Times seem to have changed. Foreign executives are still swept into town under armed escort, sirens blaring, but the state governor has made fighting crime a priority, with some success. The biggest hassle is now police checkpoints and the notorious “Lagos shake-down” – the long arm of the law (usually waving an AK-47) begging “something for the boys”, a bribe to see you on your way and top up low wages. Security may have improved, but corruption remains endemic.
Glancing down from the bridge as it sweeps towards the skyscrapers of the banking district, the neighbourhoods of Iwaya and Ebute Metta swing in to view. Wooden shacks on stilts stand over the murky water, a reminder that this city of 14 million, one of the fastest growing in the world, is bursting at the seams – and that the gap between rich and poor in Africa’s most populous nation is cavernous.
Imported inflation is the biggest impact of the global crisis here. Despite being the world’s eight biggest crude oil exporter, Nigeria is almost entirely dependent on imports of refined fuel. Cargo ships light up the horizon like a floating city at night, waiting to berth with everything from diesel to rice. A weakening currency means fuel and food prices are rising, but there’s little sign of popular unrest – a decade out of military rule, this is a population used to graft and mismanagement. It expects little from government.
The banks have been suffering, although you wouldn’t know it from the champagne flowing in the upscale bars of Ikoyi and Victoria Island – Nigeria’s elite have a proud reputation for conspicuous consumption to maintain. But newspapers brim with speculation about bank collapses and stock market bailouts. Jobs have been lost and supermarket owners complain imported luxury foods are flying off shelves less quickly than before.
But on the street, the hustle continues unabated. Boys selling phone recharge cards in the notorious traffic jams are cashing in on the huge and rising number of mobile users, while the army of motorcycle taxi riders seems to grow by the day. And foreign exchange controls meant to defend the naira currency thriving business for some in the informal economy: the black market money changers have never been so busy.
(An aerial view shows the central business district in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos, April 7, 2009. Nigeria’s First Bank and Access Bank on Wednesday became two of a handful of Nigerian financial institutions to adopt international reporting standards, seen as key to restoring confidence in the battered sector. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye (NIGERIA CITYSCAPE BUSINESS POLITICS))