This Photo Almost Got Me Arrested in Lagos, Nigeria

Honoring the dead with arrest

So I am running along a random street in Lagos, when I see this poster put up to honor the Glorious Exit of Chief Ezekiel Ojo Alabi Farukan of Lagos Nigeria

Thinking its a beautiful way to honor death, I take a photo, and then I hear yelling. A Nigerian policeman is running at me screaming that I cannot take a photo and he needs to see my camera.

Yelling back, I tell him I am respecting the dead, and he should have more respect too. I then I show him what I am photographing, the poster. He demands to see my camera. Just before we were really going to get into it (I was not going to give up my camera) a woman got off a moped and jumped into the debate.

She told the police man he had no right to hassle me. I could take photos if I wanted, especially one honoring the chief. As they argued, I took the opportunity to continued my run.

Just another day in Nigeria

Landing at Lagos Nigeria International Airport LOS

Your LOS apporach view
What does it look like to land at Lagos, Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed International Airport (LOS)? For those who wonder, I made the following movie while my flight approached and landed just for your enjoyment:

I’m always amazed at the view – those endless shanties that spread out into the horizon. That all that humanity can live so close together. Its not the vertical living of Hong Kong, but Nigeria doesn’t have Asia’s organization either. All those people you see while approaching Lagos International are scrounging for a living in the midst of African chaos.

Chinese in Nigeria: Where Do They All Go?

Chinese flights land daily
Chinese Tiger generator
Sitting here on this Nigerian flight from Lagos to Abuja, I’m surprised to be the only “white” guy on the jet plane. That the majority of passengers are black Africans is not surprising of course, but its the other ethnicity present that shocks – Chinese.

And I do not mean a Chinese here or there. I would say that about a third of the flight is Chinese – not Asian, not Japanese, not Thai, Cambodian or Indonesian. Not even “Overseas Chinese” from Singapore or Hong Kong, but full on mainland Chinese who very much look the part.

Chattering away in putonghua, with the mannerisms and dress of middling businessmen, they are an uninspiring lot at first glance. But by the second or third take, I start to wonder what they’re doing in deepest Africa.

They don’t seem to speak a word of English or have a clue to what’s going on around them, but they do seem driven. They are not in Nigeria for the fun or the glamour. They are here to make money, and from the China Southern Airways jet parked at Murtala Muhammed International Airport to the Kenya Airways connection to Hong Kong, there are more arriving every day.

But where do they go? Outside communal transportation environments, I don’t see Chinese on the streets of Abuja, Lagos, or Nairobi. I’ve not seen too many in the businesses I frequent. They sure aren’t in the NGO and development circles. And there can’t be that many Chinese restaurants.

Yet trade numbers suggest they are doing well. Chinese-Nigerian trade is now over $10 billion, with much of that Nigerian oil to China and Chinese products to Nigeria. Or to put it another way, the Nigerian state and individual Chinese traders are doing well.

I just wish I could find these Chinese traders. From my conversations with Nigerians, the Chinese are as invisible to Africans as they are to me.

Flying Virgin Nigeria Adventures

Within Nigeria or over to Ghana, Virgin Nigeria is a trip, alright!

walking to the plane
Boarding Virgin Nigeria
time to board
Virgin Nigeria grounded
where is the desk?
Virgin Nigeria check-in at Accra
no happiness here
A Virgin Nigeria lost cause
If you are going to fly Virgin Nigeria, be prepared for a little adventure – it’s not like Virgin Airlines by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Virgin Nigeria is a downright adventure no matter if you’re going on an inter-Nigeria or international flight.

Let’s start at getting a ticket. Before you think it’s as easy as booking online, check your optimism. They may have a website, which you can reserve a ticket on, but you better be actually in Nigeria before you think of buying a ticket.

For that, you need to visit an actual Virgin Nigeria ticket office, where you’ll find helpful people who tell you “No” at every chance. Can I get a ticket for the 6pm flight to Abuja? No. What about the 4pm flight? No. Any flight? No. Why? We’re not flying. Okay, not flying today, this week, ever again? I don’t know.

Yeah, that is how the conversation started, and after 20 minutes of guessing what to ask, I learned that Virgin Nigeria was not flying that day or the next because it was in an argument with the government. Once I figured that out, I did manage to get tickets from Kano to Accra, via Lagos, but only after a slight payment ordeal.

Virgin Nigeria does not take cash, but their credit card machine was broken. The bank they are associated with doesn’t take credit cards or Nigerian Naira for Virgin Nigeria’s international flights. Its USD cash only, the exact currency I did not have enough of. After another round of ATM headaches, I finally bought my tickets. And a few days and a whole length of Nigeria later, I was ready to fly.

The flight from Kano to Lagos was uneventful. We had a brief stop in Abuja on the way, too short to see theObama billboard, but long enough to stretch my legs while we waited for the Abuja-Lagos passengers. Its when we got to Lagos that the adventure started.

While there is one airport in Lagos, Murtala Muhammed International Airport, it has two terminals, one domestic and one international. They are about 1km away from each other on opposite sides of the runway and there are two ways to get from one to the other.

If you are transferring between flights, you can go via the airport shuttle. Its about a 30 minute wait between shuttles and they take about 20 minutes to drive across the runway. Yet, if you brave the street traffic to drive or taxi between airports, you can be stuck in a Lagos go slow for an hour or more.

Either way, brace for the chaos of the international terminal, where no matter when your flight is scheduled to depart, it will be late by an hour or more itself. From Lagos to Accra, we were two hours late in boarding and another two and a half hours late in taking off. From Accra to Lagos, we were only two hours late in leaving, a record in punctuality for Virgin Nigeria.
But let’s back up to the Virgin Nigeria check in desk at either airport – Accra or Lagos. Start by imagining Africans with two or three massive suitcases to each person, packed with everything imaginable. Now let’s follow them through the check-in process.

In Lagos, you’ll first pass through the customs police, who check each passengers luggage in the check in area, by asking that it be opened and placed on a big folding table in front of all the passengers. Its amazing to see how badly people pack. Or what crap they fly with. Or how slow and ineffectual the customs police are in doing anything that resembles work vs. bribe asking.

Then there is the passport control by the airlines, and Virgin Nigeria checks everyone’s passports and visas to make sure you can both leave Nigeria and enter the next country. Only then can you get in the actual line for a check-in agent. Of which there are only two. For a whole flight of people and luggage. In Lagos, I wasn’t even up to the check-in desk until the time the flight was to leave.

I breezed through the check-in, because I never check my bags, and found the whole official customs and passport control activity a breeze after the pain of checking in.

I guess that is the real measure of the pain in flying Virgin Nigeria – you know its bad when Nigerian government officials are models of efficiency in comparison.

The Last Days of Lagos, Nigeria

Nigerian castles made of sand, slip into the sea eventually.

Gombe State House
Crumbling Gombe State House
community joke
A green Lagos dream
Back when I was eyeball deep in OLPC controversy, I had lunch with a writer from MIT ‘s Technology Review. In the midst of our conversation he raised a fear about developing world cities. He said, “They’re not sustainable” and was concerned they will collapse soon.

At the time, I wondered what he meant, as the cities I’ve seen seem way more vibrant than many of our own here in the USA. Then I went to Lagos, Nigeria.

This is a city that was once prime. You can see it in the buildings now left to rot. You can feel it in the way the people talk about the past. And now, with decades of neglect, you can see that its on decline.

Running along the shore, you pass the many State Houses that are now empty, except for squatters, as the politicians have moved on to Abuja. You’ll also meet the beach boys, unemployed boys and men who just hang out looking for something. While harmless in the day if you keep moving, I did not feel comfortable with their instant requests for my things.

When I slowed my jog to watch them play soccer, they all stopped, came over to me, and asked for everything from my cell phone to my Dr. Spock book. You could tell by the look in their eyes that these initial requests were innocent – I represented exotic wealth they’d like to understand – but I did not feel the requests would stay casual for long.

Down at what once was the beach bar hangout for Lagos, I found sadness and poverty along the seashore. The desperation of the men and women was a little shocking. I’ve not see such a thin veneer of accommodation over such raw emotions of both anger with foreigners and hunger for their wealth.

Back off the beach and in the business areas, the constant growl of generators and the myriad cell phone and satellite antennas reminded me of the state’s dwindling ability to provide the basics for its city. In fact, the generators are a loud auditory signal that Lagos is dying.

Maybe not in a dramatic collapse that the Technology Review writer feared, but a decline none the less. Yes, cargo ships still line the port, and flights still crowd the airport, but don’t confuse movement with progress. There may be more people crowding into Lagos every day, but that doesn’t mean the city is going anywhere but down.

Pity that these are the last days of Lagos.