Anarchy and God come to Lagos

THE SINGING is carried along on the beat of drums and the discordant note of an old trumpet. The congregation of the National Church of Christ is in full swing, hips swaying and hands raised in rapture. Music from the street's two other evangelical churches wafts through the windows.

A middle-aged woman steps up to the altar and takes the microphone. She gives praise to the Lord for being alive. Her home was broken into by robbers who miraculously - "Yes, my brothers and sisters, miraculously" - left empty-handed.

Here, beneath the blue neon crosses by the altar, the world is transformed into a place where prayer and brotherly love ensure the triumph of good over evil. But out in the muddy backstreet, the brutal reality of life in Lagos reasserts itself: ramshackle houses, open drains, gaping potholes, car wrecks, mounds of refuse. "More people are turning to God because of the problems facing this country," says Gabriel Adewole, the man who has taken me to his church. "People are losing their jobs, they are being robbed, they are becoming poor, so they look to religion for salvation."

Few believe they can expect salvation from the military government of General Sani Abacha, who seized power nearly two years ago in the aftermath of annulled presidential elections. Since then, there has been a steady erosion of civil liberties. More than 300 human rights and pro- democracy activists have been detained, driven underground or forced into exile. Leading opposition figures, among them Chief Moshood Abiola, who is believed to have won the election, have been thrown into jail. Draconian sentences have been meted out to dozens of people for a "coup" plot widely thought to have been an invention of the regime.

The economy is in freefall, public services are a joke and corruption among state officials is more rampant than ever. "Dashing" (bribery) and "419s" (fraud, so named after a section in the penal code) are a way of life.

General Abacha is due to announce a timetable today for transition to civil rule. Few believe it will contain anything more than vague prescriptions and empty promises. The past dozen years have seen a succession of military rulers who have failed to deliver on pledges of democratisation. Why, it is asked, should Abacha, seen as the most repressive of all Nigeria's leaders, be any different?

"There won't be a public uprising if Abacha announces a lengthy transition period or even if there are executions of so-called coup plotters," says Clement Nkwankwo of the Lagos-based Constitutional Rights Project. "People have become apathetic about politics. All they're interested in is good governance. But the situation is spiralling out of control. The other day my street was taken over by armed robbers and I saw policemen running away. There's no real government on the streets anymore."

Lagos, the commercial capital of Africa's most populous nation, presents a frightening picture of a society collapsing into anarchy. Eight million people are packed into this sprawling urban nightmare of shanty settlements, decaying concrete apartment blocks and traffic-choked roads. Gar-bage piles up in the streets because dustmen refuse to work until their salaries are paid. Schools are closed because teachers have gone on strike.

Of course, there is always the danger of misinterpreting signals in Africa. The other day, in one of Lagos's notorious traffic "go-slows", a man brandishing a clutch of dead rats emerged from a line of biscuit and chewing gum vendors. I recoiled as he stuck them through my window, horrified that such foodstuffs should be sold for public consumption. He turned out to be promoting a brand of rat poison.

There is, in fact, plenty to eat in Lagos. But food prices have spiralled as wages have remained static. As the ubiquitous beggars and street touts attest, many people are struggling to feed themselves and their families. Yet this was until not so long ago the richest country on the continent after South Africa.

The police supplement their pathetic salaries (about pounds 5 per month) by extorting money. I was recently held by armed policemen after I had taken a photograph in the street; I was not released until I had paid them to their satisfaction. On Lagos Island the menace of roaming "area boys" (petty criminals) has increased since their masters started paying them in hard drugs.

For the dwindling number of foreign visitors, the risks, though real, are short-lived. Diplomats and expatriate businessmen cocoon themselves in guarded compounds. Nigerians have to face the stark reality. The man who hired me a car on arrival had recently had his Mercedes stolen at a petrol station by machine-gun wielding youths in broad daylight. Another man I met was one of half a dozen householders whose homes in a popular residential district were systematically robbed early one morning by a gang of 20 youths. Their area is now protected by an armed vigilante patrol.

So extreme is the breakdown in social cohesion that the bodies of traffic accident victims are left lying in their cars or by the roadside. A nun's corpse lay by the road for three days before anyone thought fit to remove it. People are simply too afraid of being attacked by marauding gangs or of being held to ransom by the police.

Occasional public executions of criminals are held but, in reality, little is done to placate the growing anxieties of the people. The Abacha regime rules by decree. The rot in the body politic, which set in well before his arrival, is so pervasive that it looks certain to continue even after he goes.

Today's government broadcast is unlikely to mark a new depar-ture for Nigeria's 100 million inhabitants. In the past 35 years there has been only one example of a military ruler voluntarily handing over power to a civilian administration: General Olusegun Obasanjo. And where is he now? In jail.

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