Nigeria - Boom Times, by Peter Jones (1975-1979)

We spent nearly four years in Lagos, Nigeria, in the mid to late seventies. When I am asked to describe how life was there, I sometimes start by saying that the English language is not rich enough to cover the enormity of it, but among all the heat, squalor and general unpleasantness of this huge, vibrant, filthy, malodorous city, it was possible to enjoy some good times.

I have been credited (by my family, at least) with having invented ‘Jones’ Law’ for Lagos, which says that the more hostile the environment appears to be, the more the expatriate population pull together to make it tolerable.

That is largely how it was, I’m afraid – the expatriates, hailing from all over the world, making the best of a bad job, and for most of us, no real social contact with Lagosians, apart of course from our work colleagues and business partners.

I’ll begin by describing the layout. Lagos is a seaport, located in the southwest corner of the country. It is located on a series of islands, the most important being Lagos Island, with, at that time, the main national administrative buildings. (The capital of Nigeria has since moved to Abuja). Ikoyi and Victoria Islands have some of the more upmarket residential housing, the port of Apapa lies across the bay and the sprawling urban area on the mainland includes Ikeja, where the airport is situated.

At the time of our stay, Nigeria was experiencing an unprecedented boom due to the demand for its oil, and some Nigerians were becoming extremely rich, while the poor remained desperately poor. Building was taking place in an unrestricted manner throughout the country, including the main roads and bridges linking the various suburbs of Lagos, which were all being built/rebuilt simultaneously by the German firm Julius Berger. All this created a huge demand for cement and other building materials.

Due to the unfinished construction it could (and often did) take 4-5 hours to drive from Ikoyi or Victoria Island, through the middle of Lagos, to the airport at Ikeja, or vice versa. One had to leave the best part of half a day for this journey - and then not be sure of getting there in time for one’s flight.

There were at this time between three and four hundred ships anchored outside Apapa, laden with cement, waiting to unload at the six berths at Apapa port – as someone said at the time, the biggest fleet of merchant shipping seen in one place since the Spithead Revue! This situation persisted for several years, and by the time some of them reached the dock, their cargo was no longer usable. Some of these rusting hulks, of course, did not even make it to the port, but sank once their cargoes became damp and waterlogged.

Communications of any kind could only be described as poor. Telephones were unreliable (we were once without phone service at home for six months) and it was often quicker to send a driver with a message. However, as there were more vehicles than road available to support them, it was decreed that only cars with number ending in an odd digit could use the roads through Lagos Island (the only way to get to the mainland) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while those ending in even digits could travel on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. This resulted, among those who could afford them, in a huge extra demand for motor vehicles, and little diminution of the traffic chaos.

A combination of the heat, difficult living conditions and the volatile nature of the majority tribe in Lagos, the Yoruba, made Lagos a noisy and occasionally combative place. Several times I saw arguments where the protagonists were standing toe to toe shouting at the top of their voices, each daring the other to take the next step from verbal abuse to the more physical kind.

I once had a head office visitor, happily one who had served overseas for several years and knew the score. We were waiting in the office for my driver (it was essential to have a driver in Lagos) to get the car from the car park above the office to visit some business contacts.

When ten minutes had passed and the driver had not reappeared, I went outside to see what was detaining him and found him rolling around on the ground in mortal combat with another driver with whom he had got into an argument over some trivial parking matter. A quick brush down and treatment for a split lip later, we were on our way…

During the Nigerian Open golf tournament, many of the European professionals came to town – Lagos was part of the ‘Safari Circuit’, it was winter in Europe, and there was reasonable money to be earned. Rather than have the visiting professionals stay in one of the, at that time, distinctly sub-standard and overpriced hotels at rates that would rapidly eat up any winnings, members of the Ikoyi Golf Club would ‘adopt’ a visiting professional, provide accommodation and look after him for the duration of the tournament, ferrying him back and forth to the club, and of course following his progress with particular interest. By and large the professional golfers were excellent company, and we probably got as much pleasure out of the relationship as they did from being mollycoddled a bit and not having to endure the privations of the Lagos hotels.

The headquarters of the military Government was at Dodan Barracks, on Ikoyi Island, next to the Ikoyi Golf Club. Two of the holes skirted the barracks and we were always very careful to try not to hit out of bounds over the wall of the barracks, to avoid upsetting any trigger-happy guards. On one occasion, while practising for the Nigeria Open Golf Championship, the late Dai Rees hit an enormous hook straight into the barracks. We waited tensely for a reaction, but there was none; Dai broke the tension by walking up the fairway holding his hands above his head.

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