ARI’s Paul Adams spent the week before the Nigerian presidential election in Lagos. Nigeria is working, proclaim the incumbent’s campaign posters. But for whom?
You don’t expect courtesy in the infamous “go-slow” of Lagos traffic. Nor do you stop for a minor accident. Crawling past Oshodi bus stop, there’s a bang and a jolt from behind.
“I don’t blame the man,” says Billy, who’s driving me from the airport. “It was ‘Area boys’.” Two street thugs had tried to rob the driver of the car behind, and his only escape was to put his foot down and hope for the best. Squeezing past an enormous truck, the little car draws level and, with eloquent gestures, asks our forgiveness. Billy smiles, waves back and the car is gone.
The election posters slapped on every lamp post and crossroads depict an altogether different Nigeria. The smiling candidates will take care of things while contented people prosper. “Keep Lagos working,” declares the APC, the party running this monster of a city. “Nigeria is working,” is the imaginative slogan urging a vote for President Goodluck Jonathan.
Of course, the rich do inhabit another world. On the ‘islands’, the well-off part of Lagos by the Atlantic coast, two black superyachts that should belong to the baddy in a Bond film are moored side by side. “Whose are they?” I ask. “Oh they belong to the ‘terrible twins’: Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola, the two richest men in town,” says my companion.
Young professionals are out on the town for Friday night at Freedom Park, where the enterprising state government has converted the site of a colonial prison into an outdoor venue. There’s some wild dancing to old highlife and Afrobeat numbers until a rising star called Braimo takes the stage. 500 naira (US$2.50) at the gate keeps the masses out.
Until recently, they could party all night for free at nearby Bar Beach, until bulldozers arrived to replace the beach with Eko Atlantic City. Here the Chagoury brothers, Lebanese business partners of the popular former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu, have reclaimed a vast stretch of sand from the ocean, doubling the size of Victoria Island, to build Nigeria’s answer to Dubai.
There are no buildings yet, but there is a beach polo tournament, the first in Africa we are told. I follow a trail of four-wheel drives to a makeshift stand. The crowd knock back gallons of champagne, courtesy of corporate sponsors, while highly trained polo ponies and their riders sink into the soft sand and try to hit a plastic ball. In the big air-conditioned tent, a European architect in charge of the ‘Energy Project’ talks us through a scale model of the new city. It really does look like Dubai. “We’d have liked it to be green energy, but unfortunately it’s going to be diesel generators” he says.
Nigerians know all about private generators. They’ve kept the lights on for decades, blasting diesel into the atmosphere and deafening the neighbourhood while the state utility failed to deliver power. Now it has been privatised. There’s new investment but not yet much power. I visit an old friend who is running one of the new privatised power franchises. The phone rings. It’s a state commissioner for power: her house is in darkness. What is the company going to do about it? The local manager will call at once, my friend assures her and puts down the phone. First they will check whether the commissioner has paid her electricity bill. That is something new.
Some things don’t change. One of them is the Metropolitan Club, where the Lagos business and professional elite meet every Tuesday for a very long lunch of the sort that no longer happens in London, where most of the members own rather nice houses. There are more professors, managing directors and captains of industry per square foot than in Davos, but the average age is a bit higher. The founders of the Met Club are all on Table One; the others refer to it as the ‘Departure Lounge’. That doesn’t stop them celebrating birthdays, including the man on my right, a charming 78-year-old medical professor. The secret? “Work hard, play harder!” Cue more champagne.
On hearing I used to be a journalist, one of the old boys assures me: “This is God’s own country.” A former vice-presidential candidate quips about the elections: “Everyone wants change, but no one wants to move.”
So it would seem. Dinner with a friend is cancelled because he is in hiding. No politician, he had published an article in a trade journal saying that the oil minister should resign. Armed men came looking for him. He called an old friend who is senior in the police to ask for help and was told: “Get out of town.” Grudgingly he took the advice. I hope his enemies forget all about him soon.
Most of my meetings are with businessmen, but the conversations invariably turn to politics. It’s surprising how many want the ex-army ruler Muhammadu Buhari to win. Even more than that, they want these elections to be over and done.
Back in London, the news sounds the same. There is soon to be an election, there are two main candidates, no-one much likes either of them.