Nigeria may have ‘apocalyptic traffic’ and luxury tax hikes but it also has endless music and radiant butterflies
Friends occasionally ask whether Nigeria has lived up to the expectations I had before I started spending most of my time here. If you took my expectations, turned them upside down, trashed them, made them both better and worse by a factor of hundred and in a million different ways, that’s what it’s done.
Every tiny moment brings something brilliant and unforeseeable. Get pulled over at a checkpoint on your way home from the polo and a man armed to the teeth will ask you nothing more menacing than what you’re planning to have for supper when you get home. Go to the supermarket and end up in a long conversation about the glory of God and why in my village church in Hampshire, no one really dances.
This isn’t a place you can plan for because it isn’t a place that respects plans. Oddly, this makes it at once more and less stressful than being in London. If time is endlessly elastic, if phone networks are erratic, if traffic is apocalyptically bad, just try having a regular day of meetings and see what happens.
As Africa’s largest exporter of crude oil, the recent tumble in global crude prices is big news here. I hear waiters discussing Brent when I am at the bar, I hear whole programmes dedicated to What This Means For Nigeria on the radio.
Earlier this month, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala announced plans to raise taxes on items including private jets and luxury cars in a bid to shore up government revenue. These tax hikes aren’t yet in place, but their impact should be easy to gauge on my street in Abuja, where Lamborghinis and Porsches tear up and down nightly on their way between the city’s clubs and champagne lounges.
Nigeria and Singapore — where I used to live — must be some of the only countries in the world where you can see an old man pushing a barrow of rubbish down the same street where cars worth hundreds of thousands of pounds are parked.
For now the music hasn’t stopped – literally. Lying in bed at night I can hear the hammering bass of a nearby club, and this weekend I went to a fast food joint that served vintage Mo’t alongside Nigerian staples of jollof rice and pounded yam.
Lagos and Abuja are very different beasts, and Nigerians and expats alike often pop down to Lagos from the capital for a weekend party fix. Abuja, only the capital since 1991, is said by Nigerians to lack the soul of Lagos; a fair comment, though maybe not a fair face-off.
Lagos, according to the slogan on the state number plate, is Nigeria’s centre of excellence. It’s also the centre of commerce, of style, of spirit, of hustle. Home to more than 20 million people squeezed into, onto and around a patchwork of islands, lagoon and mainland, this is the last place on earth you’d have put a city, and yet here it is.
We were partly in town for Afropolitan Vibes, a monthly outdoor music event and dance free-for-all in Freedom Park. Trumpets, drum solos, waist-wiggling, snazzy styling and an endless beat to fuel it all: this is the Lagos spirit come alive for the night. There are book stalls, music sellers, boys hawking cups of palm wine from calabashes. It is wonderful, apart from the palm wine, which I am afraid to say I don’t have a taste for; it ends up on the floor thanks to some rather vigorous dancing.
After the noise and energy of Lagos, it’s on in search of a little peace, and we head down the coast to the city of Calabar. An important trading port in centuries past, Calabar is now known as one of the calmest and most relaxed places to visit in Nigeria.
Between terrifying reports on Islamist militant group Boko Haram and misplaced fears about the recent (well-contained) Ebola virus outbreak, bad news from Nigeria tends to trump its extreme natural beauty in the international imagination.
If you want to know how gorgeous Nigeria can be, come to Calabar, which is perched by a wide and slow river on a hill in the greenest green forest. It is said that the forests around Calabar have the highest concentration of butterflies of anywhere in the world, and the city waterways are dotted with acid-bright dragonflies.
We spend a slow afternoon drinking cold Hero beer and snacking on peanuts in the garden of the lovingly-curated National Museum, watching palm-sized butterflies sun themselves on satellite dishes and empty glass Coke bottles. Who needs expectations when you have this?
Clementine Wallop is a writer and consultant living between Nigeria and London