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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
film
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
News
video
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Infrastructure / Development Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunity to join a...

Recruitment Genius: Partnership Relationship Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Partnership Relationship Mana...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Developer - Xamarin

£45000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software development compa...

Recruitment Genius: Student Support Assistants - Part Time & Full Time

£14600 - £17600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are passionate about sup...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore