Two weekends ago, my girlfriend and I were in Abeokuta for a wedding, and we decided to pop out of the hotel to grab something to eat around 7PM. After driving around for about 20 minutes, we found what looked like a decent restaurant, so we went in only to discover that it was very much a “football, beer and isi-ewu” kind of hangout with no actual food on offer.
Famished after a long day of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and navigating around an unfamiliar city, we asked the waiter for directions to the nearest fast food restaurant. At this point, we were ready to make do with any generic jollof rice and chicken – heck even a couple of meat pies would have sufficed. He cocked his head in confusion for a few seconds as he processed the request, then he gave us an answer that stunned us.
Lagos is Not Nigeria
To our astonishment, he announced that there is no fast food restaurant in Abeokuta. No Chicken Republic, no KFC, no TFC, Sweet Sensation, Mega Chicken or even plain old Mr. Biggs – nothing. A quick Google search revealed that this was not true, but this guy and everyone else we asked had clearly never heard of any such establishment. Neither of us was in the mood for goat head peppersoup, so we decided that we would find a shop selling dry snacks and manage that for the night, before getting into the car and fleeing to Lagos the next morning. Fortunately that night, we found a local buka in an uncompleted building nearby selling some surprisingly good jollof rice, so we eventually had supper.
Back in Lagos the next day, we found ourselves eating and passing time in a packed Maryland Mall restaurant while we waited to see Avengers Endgame alongside hundreds of people. It occurred to me that despite being less than 110 km away, the experience of life in Abeokuta and life here are worlds apart. If Abeokuta – a fairly modern city the size of Liverpool with decent roads and full 3G internet coverage does not have the local economy to support general access to fast food restaurants, what else are we taking for granted about “Nigeria” that is solely based on what we are familiar with here in Lagos? What is really happening in this country outside of our little seaside cocoon?
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a family friend who is now the editor of a national daily newspaper. He described to me his experience of visiting Katsina State and buying suya only to witness Almajiri hungrily fighting over the scraps of leftover food when he discarded the paper package used to wrap it. He made the point that Lagos enjoys a standard of living that is not replicated around Nigeria at all.
The most striking thing I remember him saying during that conversation was this: “How do you think most people in this country buy fuel? It’s only in Lagos, and maybe Abuja and some few places that you go into a petrol station and buy fuel from a pump. The majority of people in Nigeria buy fuel from people selling it in plastic kegs by the roadside.”
This conversation always stayed with me.
Lagos is strangulating Nigeria
While it is often presented as Nigeria’s economic lodestar, Lagos is in fact a big part of the reason why Nigeria’s economy is where it is. The inefficiencies of having over 90 percent of Nigeria’s trade cargoes moving through the Apapa port at the expense of other ports, are well documented. While it may be argued that this is the fault of the government and not Lagos in itself, Lagos slows down Nigeria’s economic performance in another important way.
Across the Oniru and Lekki neighbourhood, there are no fewer than four multi screen cinema complexes servicing the approximately 400,000 residents in one of the wealthiest parts of Lagos. Abeokuta’s half a million people by contrast, have just one cinema servicing the entire city. This is because anyone with capital to invest in Nigeria generally gravitates toward the concentration of wealth in Lagos, whether there is even a market in Lagos or not. This means that Nigeria’s markets do not distribute investment or innovation evenly or according to market potential, because such decisions are subjectively skewed toward Lagos, even when Lagos offers no real advantage.
Instead of engaging with Nigeria’s market of 170 million+ people and finding out ways to mutually create value within the limited economic circumstances of this market, investors simply parachute their money into Lagos, which helpfully even provides them with physical demarcations indicating where the “premium” market exists in places like Ikoyi, Lekki, Gbagada and Victoria Island.
For reference, imagine the Indian company Tata did not set out to mass produce $2,000 cars and provide other low cost solutions for India’s teeming lower middle classes. Imagine that instead of producing the Tata Nano and creating great value for shareholders and hundreds of millions of Indian consumers, it instead dedicated its capital to importing BMWs and Hondas to sell to a “premium” market of 5 million people in Mumbai. In that situation, young people who currently work in the Tata supply chain would instead have no jobs and be forced to migrate to Mumbai, placing further strain on the services and infrastructure of a city bursting at its seams.
That is the Nigerian situation with Lagos.
The afore-mentioned cinema in Abeokuta could become an invaluable tool in the fight to overhaul Nollywood’s archaic distribution system by creating a N500 cinema culture instead of a home video culture – something any Nollywood insider can tell you is central to defeating piracy and moving the industry forward. Instead of using such a low value, high volume strategy to expand the market in the long term however, Nigerian capital simply looks for where in Lagos it can attract existing cinema goers and squeeze an extra N1,000 out of them.
This pattern repeats itself across virtually every consumer space in Nigeria, as capital reflexively looks for how to bury itself in Lagos instead of making a wider impact. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the housing market, which continues to record fantastic growth in building and marketing N36 million houses that nobody can afford. Nigeria meanwhile, has an estimated housing deficit of 17 million units, in addition to readily available cheap land and labour. Rather than find a way to address the nationwide market creatively with a low cost housing solution, capital is instead deployed to Lekki to service an already saturated Lagos market.
Lagos is distorting what’s left of our democracy
Apart from the economic implications of being so Lagos-centric, another key problem with the current Lagos-dominated national discourse is that most of us who consider ourselves to be engaged, informed citizens are not in fact engaging with Nigeria at all. We are actually engaging with the small, standalone version of “Nigeria” that only exists within the tiniest and most cosmopolitan of its 36 states. We think that the conversation in Lagos can be used as a proxy for the wider Nigerian conversation, but this is completely false.
Lagos is a city founded on commerce, where the unspoken consensus is that the State has no business even holding an opinion on your personal choices such as religion, dressing, association and movement. This respect for individual agency and general air of cosmopolitanism is why Lagos has a large creative sector, and is the undisputed home of the Arts in Nigeria.
When the State oversteps these unspoken boundaries in Lagos, we set up movements like #EndSARS with results that give us the idea that our government respects our agency – as long as we shout like hell. In the case of Kolade Johnson who was killed by a trigger happy policeman, the story got to CNN, and the president’s official Twitter handle even issued something of an apology. All of this serves to strategically blind us to the reality of Nigeria’s creeping state of lawlessness and its rapidly expanding culture of repression. After all because we are in Lagos, we can send out tweets and force the government to do the right thing, so all is well.
Last week, several stories emerged describing a series of extrajudicial police raids in Abuja, targeting women who were then brutally raped in custody and forced to pay bribes for their freedom. The much-derided response by Ebonyi’s finest crime fighter and all-round ass hat Abayomi Shogunle, came as a complete shock to many of us with Lagosian sensibilities.
The idea of a police officer referencing religious concepts of “sin” and using that to justify extrajudicial detention and rape is foreign and disgusting to us, and we let him know exactly what we thought of him before the inevitable Twitter block.
In the following days however, we were then confronted with the frankly absurd realisation that Abuja – which is supposed to be the Federal Capital Territory – may somehow be subject primarily to the Sharia penal code. When national political discourse takes place in Lagos, it does not occur to any of us to ask whether a theocratic government framework practiced in 12 Northern states supersedes the constitution in the very capital of a supposedly secular Federal Republic. Since then, the truth has started to dawn on some of us that we are living in a false Lagosian reality.
Nigeria outside Lagos is really not the country we think it is.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Nigeria’s media is based in Lagos, which means that people suffering all manner of atrocities and indignities around the country do not even get the opportunity to give voice to their stories. When we occasionally hear the story of a Northern bandit victim or an Ese Oruru, or a widow forced to carry out degrading and dangerous customs following her husband’s death, we respond with disbelief or with a shallow kind of sympathy because we really cannot relate with such realities.
In 2018, I was involved in scripting a monologue about a recent massacre by Fulani herdsmen for The Other News on Channels TV. In the cringeworthy fashion of people who have no idea what is happening outside Lagos, we ended up writing a type of script emphasizing that they were fine people on both sides, on the topic of an actual real life massacre of women and children. Our lives in Lagos offered us no point of reference for the scale of injustice that had just happened, so as the well-trained and unbiased media people we were, we treated the topic with “balance.”
That is what happens when one mistakes “life in Lagos” for “life in Nigeria.”
Now more than ever, it is time for us Lagos people to understand that Lagos merely gives us a measure of comfort and sanity that is not enjoyed by the vast majority of people who call themselves “Nigerians.” It is time to stop being blind to the reality of the country around us. It needs to become common knowledge that Nigeria is a potpourri of horrible experiences far beyond anything we are used to in Lagos. The killings, kidnappings and rapes we hear about are not just figures on paper. Our fellow citizens are genuinely suffering, and the least we can do is leave our psychological comfort zone to engage with uncomfortable realities. This city is only the veneer covering Nigeria’s truly shocking state of existence. Lagos, my dear friends, is not Nigeria.