IF there is one thing that stands out about Africa’s biggest economy, it
is that it is a land of remarkable contrasts, which makes it prone to stereotypes.
Beside the deadly Boko Haram militants, the big news about Nigeria today, for example, is how popular Nigerian preacher and televangelist TB Joshua and his staff at his Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) have been reluctant to co-operate with the authorities after a fatal church building collapse in Lagos that claimed at least 67 lives.
SCOAN have so far failed to disclose information to the investigation, the state government and emergency services said. Some 67 South Africans died when a hostel for Joshua’s foreign followers collapsed last Friday. TB Joshua is the spiritual consort of many powerful Nigerian and African figures, including presidents, and the sense that he is “untouchable” fits the picture of the rich and powerful in Nigeria who sometimes seem to be above the law.
But Nigeria, like many countries, can defy caricature. Here are some takes about Nigeria that are true, and the ones that are not—plus a few surprises along the way.
Lagos is a crowded, chaotic metropolis
Yes, Lagos is a heaving, jam-packed mega-city, home to an estimated 20 million people, so whichever little corner you glance at, someone probably got there before you did. But one surprise was that Lagos has a precise street address system, unlike many other African cities. Taxi drivers ask for specific directions, not relying on “landmarks” to get about. It’s important in a city this size if you are to be found—and it’s one of the major factors that have made online businesses successful, because they can deliver goods easily.
Echolocation for cars
Drivers in Lagos seem to be driving with one hand on the steering wheel and the other permanently honking the horn. At times, there seems to be no discernible reason to be hooting—for example, on the perfectly straight, eight-lane 3rd Mainland Bridge, which goes on for 11 kilometres with no exits. So the honking seems unnecessary and excessive, until you realise that hooting isn’t actually a sign of distress as such, it’s a preventative measure just in case the other driver makes a sudden move. In a way, it could be more accurately described as a form of echolocation that reports your presence, “Hey, I’m here!” Does it work? Well, although Nigeria’s roads are among the most dangerous in the world, this writer observed very few fender-benders driving around the city, the kind of run-ins that may not cause much damage to the cars but can end up causing annoying traffic jams.
Nigerians worry about their bone density?
A number of billboards in Lagos market “milk with added calcium”. This may seem innocuous, but it really starts to jump out when a label of bottled water announces that it has “all your daily calcium needs”, and radio advertisements press listeners into keeping track of the amount of calcium their children are taking every day. If you come from a country with a big local dairy sector where fresh milk is in abundance, having your daily calcium needs met is not something you fret about. But in much of West Africa, the market has been dominated by powdered/ condensed milk. This gives manufacturers the flexibility to take out certain components in the milk—such as one brand featured in Vijay Mahajan’s book Africa Rising that removed the animal fat in milk and replaced it with vegetable fat to give it a longer shelf life—and then (craftily?) add other ingredients back in for a marketing edge.
A year’s rent upfront, but monthly cable TV, no problem:
The power of Nollywood Rent in Nigeria’s cities can be exorbitantly high—Lagos is ranked in the top five of Africa’s most expensive cities; a small, one-bedroomed flat in the city can be upwards of $1,500 a month. But most Lagosians quote rent in annual rates, not monthly, and landlords expect at least a year’s rent to be paid upfront, sometimes more. It seems incredibly punitive on tenants, until one local explained that if the landlords made the payments monthly, tenants would “just refuse to pay, and refuse to be evicted”, until the landlord’s passive investment in real estate becomes a “very active” endeavour trying to collect rent every month. But surprisingly, even very modest houses often have a satellite dish affixed to a crumbling, moss-covered wall. Nigeria is one of cable TV Multichoice’s most profitable markets. The most popular content among viewers in Nigeria: football and African movies.
They want their hair young
Weaves are big business not just in Nigeria, but also in much of Africa today. Some estimates put the value of the market for human hair extensions as much as $6 billion a year. But proclaiming that the weave is human hair is not enough, you have to go a step further to distinguish yourself—a billboard on a bus spotted in Ikeja, Lagos, advertising the brand “Brazilian Remy” announced that it was sourced from “healthy and young hair only, for best quality.”
Tourism is about the people
When you think of tourism (in Africa), an intrepid safari featuring a lone acacia tree and an orange sun setting over a wide savannah expanse comes to mind. Estimates on the higher side put tourism’s contribution to GDP at 3% in 2012, but it goes as low at 0.5% by other measures; the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation is aiming for 10% in the next few years. But tourists do come to Nigeria, and the difference is that visitors to West Africa are more interested in the people and culture of the place than hiding away in vast lonely places.
Cultural festivals are huge attractions, and some of the biggest ones are the durbar festivals in the cities of Katsina, Kano and Bida, a military parade where the emir—a royal title in northern Nigeria—and his entourage parade down city squares on horseback in a display of might. Later this year, the coronation of the emir of Kano Muhammad Sanusi II is expected to bring massive crowds to Kano.