The Enterprise of Fire Safety Services in Lagos, Nigeria

By Cobin, John M. | Independent Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Enterprise of Fire Safety Services in Lagos, Nigeria


Cobin, John M., Independent Review


Lagos State must surely rank among the ugliest large urban centers in the world. The city is filthy and dingy. Litter is strewn on nearly every street and roadway, and almost everyone litters without shame. Smoke rises incessantly from vehicle exhaust and trash fires. Rusty signs, often badly in need of repainting, are commonplace. A clean bathroom with soap and running water is considered a marvel. (1) On top of all of this, the area is incredibly hot and humid, especially in the dry season, with 100 percent humidity and temperatures of 30 to 35 degrees Centigrade, making life very unpleasant. Fans and air conditioners are wonderful, at least when there is electricity to run them. The power goes out many times during the day because the state-run facility simply cannot cope with demand. Nigeria is still plagued by yellow fever and malaria, too, and is one of the few countries left in the world that continues to have a problem with polio. Nigeria is certainly part of the Third World.

Most Lagos State buildings are dingy and poorly built, especially outside of the relatively better Ikoyi, Victoria Island, and Lekki Peninsula sections that house the upper class. Even the downtown area on Lagos Island is grimy, with largely deteriorated buildings surrounded by hordes of shantytown markets. But even in the nicer sections, there seems to be scant concept of neighborhood cooperation. More often than not, filth and ugliness surround even the nicer homes. Upper-class people find a haven in their homes and gardens, which serve as islands in an otherwise pathetic and intolerable city. These nicer areas have standard supermarkets; I visited exactly five decent ones (if the new Goodies store in Ikeja is counted). There are a couple of miniature malls with clean bathrooms that are reminiscent of those in the First World. It is a drop of the First World in the midst of the Third World, yet prices are at least double those found in the First World.

Unlike in many large cities, the streets in Lagos are not generally lined with trees and grass, even though it is equatorial and thus has plenty of rainfall and could easily support plant life. The few parks that exist are found next to noisy and congested off-ramps. Many unfinished cement block buildings add to the overall ugliness, standing several stories tall and blighting every area of the city. If one word can be used to describe market activity and residential and business neighborhoods, it would be disorder. That is not to say that markets do not work. It means rather that the state has failed to provide services properly, distorting the benefits of markets that one sees in other places, and that the markets that do exist have produced unsavory results owing to intervention and corruption.

Traffic jams and general congestion are the worst I have experienced in visits to sixty-eight countries. A thirty-kilometer commute can take as much as three hours in the morning and require the same penalty again in the evening. Highways are lined with informal salesmen who vend phone cards, water, bacteria-laden meat and shrimp (simmering in the hot sun), snacks, watches, mirrors, cushions, irons, sunglasses, cotton swabs, magazines, beverages, and almost anything else you can imagine. These obstacles, along with untold numbers of people scampering across the highway, make one's driving experience highly stressful. Horns are used at least as much as brakes so that cars can pass safely without being rammed. In sum, driving is pure chaos. (2)

Wastewater ditches line nearly every street, and men can often be seen urinating into them. Otherwise, the men find a convenient wall, many of which are painted with instructions not to urinate there. Temporary huts and older buildings are infested with small businesses on nearly every road in the metropolitan area. The government supplies power, but the power can easily go out ten to twenty times per day. When the lights fail, people start up myriad portable generators to keep computers, phones, lights, and refrigerators working, even if irons and air conditioners cannot function. …

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