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The Lagos Boy’s coastal highway

The Lagos Boy’s coastal highway
April 14
08:36 2024

Whether real or imagined, none of the metonyms for “Lagos boy” is complimentary. The “Lagos boy” moniker once came up in the late 1980s. After spending two years, Commodore Olabode George, then military governor of Ondo state, had just been removed from office. The African Concord magazine then did a post-mortem of his turbulent rule. Newly purchased boats for the coastal part of the state were alleged to be second-hand. By then, for analysts writing about the George years, rigour-mortis hadn’t set on another uproarious component of his time in office. It was his wife, Feyi George’s “Queendom”. So she came up for examination, too. Her Excellency was quarrelsome and garrulous, something strange to people in that part of the country, no matter how high they climbed. In the hinterland, even if your yam seedling flourishes beyond measure, yielding a big harvest, native wisdom asks that you shawl it from prying eyes with your two palms. But Feyi was the wife of a “Lagos boy”.

Shortly after her arrival as the First Lady, Feyi met grey-haired market women, old enough to be her mother in the Erekesan Market of the state capital. Singing her praises and dancing to welcome her to their midst, Mrs George’s Lagos spirit suddenly clambered over. Why are Lagos top-shots fond of being descended upon by spirits? Then she said; I paraphrase, “You are older than me but today, I am your mother”. Later, on an official tour, Feyi George openly slapped Mrs Tola Ajayi, a permanent secretary and wife of a judge. The woman did not allow the slap to thaw. She handed Her Excellency multiple hot slaps. So when George was asked what he would want to be remembered by and he said, “…that a ‘Lagos boy’ passed through this place,” African Concord summed it up that George had used “Lagos sense” for the people of Ondo state.

“Lagos sense” and “Lagos boy” connote so many things about the Lagosian. Writers like Cyprian Ekwensi drew the picture of a dreadful Lagos. The “Lagos Boy” could mean smartness, suavity, celebration of inanity, fraudulence, erecting facades on dross to make it look real, and so on. Even before the colonialists came, Lagos, once known as the “Venice of West Africa,” was dreaded by inhabitants of the hinterland. It was surely the city to make quick bucks. A city once described by Matthew Gandy (“Learning from Lagos” New Left Review, 2005) as “a smoky expanse of concrete and shanty-towns, sprawling for miles across the islands, waterways and onshore hinterland of the… Lagoon,” Lagos was home to money-doublers and soul-scarred gamblers. It was where you could make quick money through mere hubris. Some other writers have described Lagos as “a place of desperation to make it by hook or crook,” with some others giving it the fitting description of “a huge Dickensian space full of heartbreak”. Paul French, in his Lagos: Africa’s Capital of Noir, said Lagos had popularly been described as “the capital of crimes such as 419 and internet fraud also known as the ‘Yahoo Yahoo’”.

Lagos was and is however not all about con. It is a land of bravery and unmatched can-do spirit. Historically, it is a representation of boldness and venturesome traits. Indeed, the Ibadan cognomen where the robber’s superior argument acquits him, at the detriment of his accuser, will seem to be more appropriate as a metaphor for the daringness on the streets of Lagos. Lagos could not stand bad rulers. This was demonstrated, first by Madam Alimotu Pelewura, the lyalode of Lagos. On December 16, 1940, Pelewura gathered over 7,000 “angry and overburdened women” who represented every branch of petty traders in Lagos to protest the Income Tax Ordinance of 1940/1941 on the female gender. The protesters closed all markets with over a thousand mobilised women milling around, particularly Broad Street, Bourdillon and Marina. Pelewura led the women to petition the office of Sir Bernard Bourdillon, Governor and Commander in Chief of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. A total of 192 women signed that petition drafted by lawyer and statesman, Oged Macaulay, son of Herbert Macaulay, a prominent Lagosian and nationalist known by the sobriquet, Ejo N’gboro – the snake on the Street.

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Lagos’ fight against injustices and inequity was myriad. Lagosians fought the “Battle of Salt Water” called Ogun Olomiro. They rose against the king of Lagos, Oba Akitoye, for his inability to tame the monster of water scarcity. They did not mind the fact that the Oba’s army too couldn’t get water as the soldiers drank salt water from shallow wells which they dug by hand. It led to the 1851 dismantling of Lagos by the British who deployed canons to level the city to the ground. It was also a precursor to the signing of the treaty with Oba Akitoye, as well as the ceding of Lagos to the British by Oba Dosunmu. The intransigence and daringness of Lagos are reflected in one folksong composed by indigenous Lagosians. They sang: “The British levelled Oluwole/(Oyinbo wo Oluwole); Lagos kept silent/(Eko o wi nkan); The British stylishly took over Marina/ (Won f’eso, won gba Marina); They now said they would dismantle Lagos Island/ (Won tun ni awon mi a wo Isale Eko); They must have thought we were dumb!/ (Won sebi kurumo ni wa!). Late Yoruba Fuji musician, Sikiru Ayinde Balogun (Barrister) later popularised this folksong of Lagos’ resistance to British colonial lords.

Travellers to Lagos, long before independence, through the petro-dollar years and even today, are handed stern warnings to be wary of Lagos and Lagosians. They are sleek, ephemeral and unreal. Perhaps because of its daily infiltration by strange persons of different persuasions, the Lagosian has come to be classified as immune to some of the traits associated with a Yoruba man. He didn’t totally represent the gentlemanly Omoluabi ethos that undergirds the value system of the children of Oduduwa. A trustworthy Lagosian is as scarce as a hen’s teeth. He would grab and run with what didn’t belong to him. It was repeatedly said that a Lagosian would sell particles to you as an article.

Bola Tinubu is the Lagosian who occupies the highest office in Nigeria today. Ex-senator, two-term governor of Lagos state and currently president of Nigeria, he has come to approximate the character traits of Lagos. He is the Lagos poster boy and in this case, one who personifies the “Labelabe” leaf. This leaf is a sharp-edged plant that grows by river banks. My people thus say that it is almost impossible for worshippers of the water goddess to pay obeisance to their goddess without the connivance or abetment of the Labelabe. Due to its lacerating sharp edges, the leaf is also used in the preparation of potions for protection from evil-doers. While chanting incantations on the potion, the reciter chants, “If anyone runs into the Labelabe leaf, they will be soaked in blood”. If Tinubu lost some votes of his Yoruba people in the 2023 presidential election, it may not be too far from the truth to say that his morally prude Yoruba kinsmen from the hinterland who believed that anything Lagos was fraud were the ones who withdrew their votes.

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I went into this long epistle about Lagos to situate the recent tirade against the Tinubu government by ex-Vice President and presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2023 election, Atiku Abubakar. Abubakar’s grouse is with the 700km Lagos-Calabar Coastal Highway recently awarded by the Tinubu government to the president’s known friend, Gilbert Chagoury, owner of Hitech Construction firm. Atiku made us aware that Tinubu awarded the contract at a whooping sum of N15.6 trillion, an amount almost the total of all Nigeria’s 36 states and FCT budgets for 2024 of N15.91 trillion. This is against the backdrop of the known fact that the lengthiest highway in Africa, which runs from Cairo in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa, is going to cost a sum of $1.6 billion. The road is 1,156 kilometres. Atiku has received knocks for raising the shroud off this stinking corpse. Many people have asked whether Nigerians expected Tinubu to award the road contract to his enemies. Some equally submitted that even Atiku had promised to sell Nigeria’s refineries to his friends if elected the Nigerian president. So when David Umahi, Minister of Works, went on converts-winning evangelism to media houses last week to seek Nigerians’ buy-in into the prudence and fidelity in the road project, the dead body he and Tinubu buried in a shallow sepulchre still left gaping tell-tales.

Gradually, Atiku has led Nigerians by the helm of their garments to see the sickening level of the putrefaction oozing out of the project. For me, Atiku’s greatest submission on the project is that a contract of such magnitude was awarded without any competitive bidding. Where is this ever done in any sane part of the world? As much as Umahi attempted to cover it by showing that such practice was a construction custom, the minister would need to cover his face in shame for this lame defence. How can a road contract the size of the budgets of all Nigerian states be sealed without bidding? To worsen it, the contract was awarded to a known business crony of the president, a fraternity which, before his presidency, Tinubu openly gloated over. Add these two together and you get a fertile ground for grand corruption.

You may not like Atiku’s face and the constancy of his cantankerous politicking but if you are bothered about how corruption has become the necklace on Nigerian governments’ necks, Atiku’s arithmetic should worry you. He seems to be saying that, for Bola Tinubu, the monkey, a known banana glutton, was on the verge of jumping at the banana tree again. Umahi’s waffles and the ill logic of his defence of the wobbly legs of the humongous contract are sickening and worrisome. From the Umahi waffles, it is obvious, as Atiku alleged, that the government only began to think about the percentage of counterpart funding after the project award. He provided evidence. There were so many shameful anomalies that Atiku’s eagle eyes sighted on the road contract. Though Umahi deployed several engineering bombasts to convey the quality of the road the Tinubu government has on its hands in the 700km Lagos-Calabar Coastal Highway, he couldn’t ward off the army of wriggling maggots that have made this project their dormitory.

Another very fundamental aspect of Atiku’s toothcomb examination of the N15.6 trillion project is that the Nigerian parliament was too engrossed in a slumber to know that incongruities were passing by its backyard. So when the president, a couple of weeks ago, told the world that the parliament’s “integrity is intact” and went ahead to deride “those who are talking about malicious embellishment in the budget” as people who do not “understand the arithmetic,” Nigerians can now understand the quid pro quo chemistry behind Nigeria’s executive and legislature’s dalliance. Among a litany of questions, Atiku had asked why the National Assembly approved N500 million for the road project while the Tinubu administration released N1.06 trillion, a figure over 200 times the amount in the Appropriation Act.

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If anyone thought Atiku was embarking on this verbal pugilism because he loves the Nigerian people, in the words of Americans, they have another thing coming. In Nigeria, both the government in power and the opposition are like the discomfiting and excessively big “Ipa”, (scrotal lymphedema) a disease that makes a man’s scrotum swell disproportionately. Yoruba will ask what good the “Ipa” does for the buttocks. Nigerians are the palm kernel and Nigerian politicians are the two stones, one underneath and the other on top, which are both attempting to access the fruit of the kernel. The two stones don’t like our palm kernel. It is a ploy to mouth the edible seed.

Some people have said that the Tinubu government is just acting true to type by aping the paterfamilias of some governments before it. It is being said that, in the so-called Lagos-Calabar Coastal Highway, Aso Rock just wants to help its business partner link a road from Lekki to its hotel corridor. If some few billions of Naira get drowned in the process, so be it. Simplicitas. As Atiku asked, if they must piss on us, they should, at least, cover it with some pearls and sequins by calling it rain!

Adebanwi’s Guggenheim

We live in a world where virtually all news that emanates from Nigeria are depressing stories of bloodshed, banditry, government’s insensitivity, corruption and all-what-ought-nots. Thus, when news of Nigerians who go outside the perceptional loop flows in, it does the reverse. One that hit the airwave last week was that of Nigerian professor, Wale Adebanwi, who bagged the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. The fellowship was said to have been awarded on the awardee’s trajectory of prior career achievements and exceptional promise. Adebanwi is the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Centre for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, U.S. In a pool of thousands of academics, Adebanwi was finally chosen as one of the 188 winners of the 2024 awards.

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Anyone who knew Adebanwi decades back as he burnt the midnight candle would not be surprised about what he has made of his life. I first got to know him around 1989 as he sneaked into Prof Alaba Ogunsanwo’s crowded class at the University of Lagos. I later learnt he was combining stringing jobs in Ibadan with the Tribune with some other tabloids, even as he schooled in the Mass Communication Department of the university. We were to later meet again in 1994 at the University of Ibadan as graduate students of the Political Science department. He finished tops in our Master’s class with a CGPA of about 72%. He was to later hold two Ph.D. degrees in Political Science from the University of Ibadan and another in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge, where he was a Bill and Melinda Gates Scholar.

Wale was instrumental to my eventual career path as a journalist with the Tribune and has since been a lifelong advisor. If you use Wale’s life as a guiding path in any endeavour, you seldom would come to grief. But for him, a life in academia would have been for me a mirage. The Guggenheim Fellowship was spot on in the choice of Adebanwi as a scholar who is generating new possibilities and pathways across the broader culture. I can testify.

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Once on a visit to his Oxford University office where he served as the first African ever to be appointed as the Rhodes Professor of Race Relations and Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, I was proud of my Nigerianness.

All the above, however, pale into insignificance when compared to Adebanwi’s humanity and humaneness. Perhaps borne out of his upbringing as the son of a clergy, Wale’s life personifies piety and goodliness. This is to say congratulations to the Iresi, Osun-born scholar who makes my generation very proud.

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