By Bisi Lawrence
“W riters, like teeth,” according to Walter Bagehot, “are divided into incisors and grinders.” He should know. He was the editor of the time-honoured journal, The Economist, for more than a decade until his death in 1877.
I wonder in what category he would have put the writer of the recent article on Lagos—indeed, on the new Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode—which appeared in the news magazine which occupied so much of his earthly life.
The “grinder”, tooth which belongs to the class of molars, would normally do a thorough job reducing the subject to a fine result through an intelligent and detached effort.
That would evince a comprehensive grasp of the entire situation surrounding the issue at hand, whether it be in praise or to show disapproval.
It might even proffer some suggestions towards a possible amelioration to areas where a defect might appear. Bagehot was that kind of writer, and his generation provided a legacy of merit on which the journal has prospered for over a century. He wrote on all subjects, from politics and politicians to justice and judges.
The “incisor” writer, however, cuts and tears as the flat, sharp tooth after which is named. He remains afloat on top of the subject, holding firmly to a subjective point in disdain of other aspects that are not only germane, but of interest to the issue.
It is not a case of expertise, mark you, but one of a set purpose—to cut, and tear and, if you like, hack. It is not a character associated with writers for The Economist, but there you have it. It is an open record that Ambode has been in office for less than six months.
The indictment of his inability to create a rapid change to a situation that has been building up for more than a decade is obviously unfair. The problem of Lagos traffic is basically that of the major cities of the world—traffic control.
It is a predicament that has been known in San Francisco, London, New Delhi, New York and elsewhere. Each metropolitan area has had to deal with it in its own way, and so has Lagos. Traffic is generated by population on the move, and as the influx into the population of Lagos increased over the years, so did the movement of the people.
The genesis of the problem was from the time Lagos was made the capital of Nigeria. The opportunities that were opened up for jobs grew from year to year, attracting people from all over the country. The island was the headquarters for every endeavour. The Secretariat—that is the centre of government business—was established there.
So were the head offices of all the commercial houses and their centres of operations. The island was soon filled and the expansion to the mainland grew apace. Efforts were made to decongest the island with the creation of suburban units like “New Lagos” in Surulere, but it was only the first organized satellite community of Lagos.
The first Lagos State government did the sensible thing in citing the seat of operations some fourteen miles away in Alausa, Ikeja, but it came a little bit too late. A host of establishments had been created by the private sector in commercial houses which still made a daily movement of people to the island a daily function.
Even when the Federal Government eventually re-located the national capital to Abuja, the effect on the traffic was minimal because a host of civil servants who lived on the island still had to commute from the island every day.
In the criss-cross chaos of the traffic situation rumbled in the oil tankers and heavy trailers conveying merchandise from the Apapa port to the rest of the country. There are so many of them and their numbers increased with every season.
The drivers are a lawless breed whose wealthy owners are equipped with the tools for engineering impunity – hard cash and widespread influence. They obey only the rules that are comfortable to them, and those are few. They come from all over Nigeria through the main artery of the traffic between Lagos and the rest of the country.
They are at the core of the city’s traffic quandary. To the undeniable dismay of the authorities, it grows worse every day. But it is not as though they have been sitting on their hands. As far back as the early forties, the idea of the “one-way” street had been adopted on roads like King George V and Victoria Roads on the Mainland, and Bambose Street and Igbosere Road on the Island.
It was quite effective in its time. But the traffic kept mounting. The police had a special division for traffic control whose elements were supposed to be specially trained to handle matters of their specialization. That too worked for some time.
The most senior officers, like Joseph Adeola, who was the State Commissioner of Police, were personally involved. Under the slogan of “KEEP MOVING1”; he saw that vehicular movement was considerably smooth, especially during the rush hours in the morning as well as the evening’.
And then when the Lagos State administration was relocated to Alausa, Ikeja, a further move was made to ease traffic congestion by restricting vehicles with the first figures of their license plates as even, to alternate days of operation on the roads with those which had odd figures as their first numbers.
That too worked in its time but had to be discarded due to the unabated flood of vehicles on the road; thanks to the availability of cars from the importation of second-hand cars, many people merely equipped themselves with second cars and gave them vehicle numbers for use on alternate days.
The report of the British news magazine deposes that Ambode’s big error was in relaxing traffic enforcement laws, like the impounding of cars by the traffic officials. Any Lagos road user would simply laugh at that.
It is well known that such actions created traffic problems of their own and contributed to traffic jams when the owners of impounded cars stay in traffic to negotiate the release of their vehicles with the LASTMA officials, whom The Economist reporter himself describes as “bribe hungry”.
But, in truth, the new head of LASTMA has just affirmed that vehicles that need to be impounded would still be impounded. All that the Governor has attempted to create is indeed a more “civil society”, in keeping with the traditions of the sophisticated citizenry of Lagos.
Governor Ambode is characterised as a man “full of excuses but few solutions” for the traffic situation which is a headache for every Lagosian who has witnessed the futility of the various efforts to combat it in the past. An example of the excuses the Governor is chided over is the statement that, “traffic is always bad during the rains”. And is that not true?
But he has been working on the challenge of the traffic since he got into office. Like his illustrious predecessor, Babatunde Fashola—now the Federal Minister in the position of a hydra-headed responsibility—Ambode has been known to be personally involved in traffic direction within the city of Lagos. He also recently urged the Federal Government to step up to its responsibility of employing contractors to resume their work at the Apapa Link Road.
And that brings us to the point that the foreign reporter missed completely: this is all about a problem that hardly belongs to the Lagos State government. The highway that feeds into the Apapa port is really a Federal Government road.
The State government has borne the responsibility to the tune of some fifty-one billion naira already, just for the sake of its citizens’ welfare. If there is anyone out to cudgel somebody’s head for the horror of the traffic in Lagos, he would be in a better position to look towards Abuja. But would they not know a fact like that at The Economist? Walter Bagehot must be fuming in his grave.
The genesis of the problems of Lagos was with the inception of the Island as the centre of every official and social endeavour. But, more telling still, Apapa remained the sole port for the country for decades. It still is. Almost all the petrol tankers that feed the entire nation fill up from there.
Almost all the goods for industrial and domestic purposes are imported through there to be distributed all over the country. And so thousands of tankers and container carriers congregate there every week, driven by all sorts of characters whose mentality is guided by a common disregard for the law. The only solution is to get other functional ports. And that is patently beyond Ambode’s position and powers.
But Governor Ambode is working, as every Lagosian will testify.