It was long after dark on the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, outside Lagos, and traffic had barely moved in five hours. Through the rear window of our Land Cruiser taxi, I could make out an apocalyptic scene: six lanes of buses, 18-wheelers, fuel tankers, and sedans, wedged bumper-to-bumper in both directions. Curses and horn blasts pierced the diesel exhaust–choked air. Brakes screeched as vehicles inched forward. I lay down in the backseat, trying to get some sleep. Moments later, I felt a thump, and the car rocked violently back and forth.
“These crazy men—they steal the headlights!” my driver exclaimed. Crowbar-wielding thieves were prowling the traffic jam, preying on captive motorists. “Don’t get out the car,” the driver warned.
Lagos, a megalopolis of 21 million people, has been plagued for years by a gamut of urban problems: exponential population growth, crumbling infrastructure, poverty, crime, corruption. But nothing had prepared me for the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, the gateway to Nigeria’s two busiest seaports, Apapa and Tin Can Island, and home to what may be the worst chronic gridlock in the world.
My driver chose this coastal route while taking me from the Benin border to Lagos, a distance of about 40 miles. What I had assumed would be a routine commute turned into an epic, 12-hour journey, and a lesson in the dysfunction and criminality of Africa’s most populous nation. The ordeal suggests the challenges that lie ahead for Nigeria’s recently elected president, Goodluck Jonathan, who has pledged to root out corruption and to make his country run more efficiently. As Nigeria struggles to contain Boko Haram, a jihadist group based in the north, this highway anarchy also raises questions about how the government can deal with the threat of international terrorism when it can’t even get its roads under control.
Our journey was relatively uneventful—by Nigerian standards, anyway—until we approached the outskirts of Lagos, where the highway abruptly disintegrated into a moonscape of deep potholes and eroded asphalt. Here, three lanes squeezed down to one. A flatbed truck carrying a 40-foot-long steel container bounced up and down in front of us, its unsecured load sliding toward the rear. “Watch out!” cried my traveling companion, Sam Olukoya, a Nigerian journalist for the BBC, and our driver hit the brakes as the massive container edged closer to tumbling off the truck. “These things fall down every day, and people are crushed and killed,” Olukoya told me.
Eventually we neared the dreaded Mile Two, close to Tin Can Island, a chaotic merger point beset by flooding, construction, illegal truck-parking, collisions, packs of hoodlums, tanker fires, and occasional blasts (a tanker carrying 33,000 liters of fuel tipped over and exploded last February, killing three people and incinerating 36 cars). Traffic ground to a six-hour halt.
Lagos gridlock hasn’t always been this bad. But the city’s population has nearly doubled since the late 1990s, and a fuel subsidy has made gasoline cheap. The government repealed part of the subsidy this year, but Nigerians still pay only $2.75 a gallon, which has made owning a car—typically a broken-down, secondhand American gas guzzler—feasible for millions of people. And rapid growth in truck and oil-tanker traffic has overwhelmed Lagos’s ports, which handle 75 percent of the country’s imports. As a result, truck drivers use the expressway as a parking lot, waiting for days to return empty shipping containers or to pick up fuel and cargo, bribing police and port officials to look the other way.
But the biggest problem appears to be the unsavory ties between Nigeria’s political and business elites. Under the military dictatorships of General Ibrahim Babangida and then General Sani Abacha, both from the north, a small group of northerners came to dominate the trucking business. These men have reportedly played a key role in shooting down every effort to improve or privatize the country’s moribund, British-built rail system, ensuring that almost all goods must move by road.
According to Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), “Traffic behavior is more or less directly related to levels of government corruption.” Vanderbilt cites a clear correlation between traffic-fatality rates per miles driven and a country’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption index. (In terms of road safety, the Scandinavian countries fare the best; Nigeria is near the bottom of the list.)
In March, Nigerian authorities made an attempt to unclog the highway, arresting illegally parked truckers and confiscating 120 vehicles. The Nigeria Truck Owners Association retaliated by calling a one-day strike that crippled the ports. The next day, traffic was as calcified as ever. About half a dozen agencies—the Inter-Ministerial Implementation Committee on Port Approach Roads in Lagos, the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency, the Federal Road Safety Commission, the Vehicle Inspection Officers—share responsibility for keeping traffic moving on the highway, but all of them are considered toothless.
After our six hours of paralysis on the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, we finally began to move. It was 10 p.m.; we had been on the road since noon. I could just make out the lights of Victoria Island, our destination, and felt a glimmer of hope. Our driver inched right, toward the exit ramp. Then came another thump. The car rocked back and forth, and our taillights were gone too.
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