Mark Webster (1979): How to Survive Lagos

I'm slowly catching up with my notes on the various issues of West Africa magazine that I'm flicking through between writing sessions. Here's a short commentary on life in Lagos by Mark Webster, then of the Financial Times, where the piece had first been published 1 October 1979 – in a special issue on Nigeria that I still have to get my hands on.

In the spirit of all things lorries and lorry art, here's the bit of the piece that laments the city's road maintenance.

'… Take, for instance, the roads. f it is true that certain forms of vibration are beneficial to the liver, then Lagos drivers should be in excellent health. Whether or not someone is looking into the holes in the roads is academic. The fact is that they come into being because of the principle division of labour.

Any self-respecting contractor laying a pipe or a wire across a road would not dream of fillin gin the hole he dug – that's a hole-fillers' job. Instead, the trench is filled with sand or earth so that initially it looks as though someone was buried in a shallow grave. Then when the rains come it turns into a slight hollow, then it becomes a biggish ditch and finally a gaping chasm best tackled with a team of wily sherpas or a bailey bridge.

However, if the hole was caused by inadequate drainage of rain water there is a solution. A time of ditch-diggers can come and construct concrete canals along each side of the road. Unfortunately, the canals aren't connected to drains but you will have the satisfaction of watching rain water pour round the corner and flood your neighbour's yard.

[…]

There are other problems, of course. There are the "go-slows" (traffic jams), the fact that the man you are looking for never seems to be "on seat" (in his office), the telephone sitting smugly decorative on the table. But the city has a vitally which it is impossible to ignore, however, hard you try. … '

(West Africa, 8 October 1979, p. 1841)

I admit I thought Webster's piece rather tongue-in-cheek entertaining. Still, I think it's worthwhile to note that not all readers shared my view. – In the 22 October issue, the magazine published one highly critical letter to the editors.

'Sir: After reading Mark Webster's article … I was very apprehensive, not because he pointed out some ills of Lagos, but because most Western journalists do not report these things as part of their duty but to tell their people here in the West that Nigeria, which has been threatening them, particularly with her oil, cannot even boast a decent capital city.

From the tone of the article, anybody who has never been to Lagos, particularly those here in London, living on past glory, would easily conclude that there are no transport facilities in Lagos let alone modern facilities. But this is not only false but absolutely mischievous on part of the Financial Times reporter.'

(Diwa Ihediwa, Letter to the Editors, West Africa, 22 October 1979, p. 1950)

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