National Geographic : 2015 Jan
104 national geographic • january 2015 What’s wrong with this picture? Corruption is what’s wrong—and because much of it exists on the federal level, Lagos is largely powerless to overcome it. The striking professors and the underpaid police are fed- eral employees. That petro-titan Nigeria must import fuel to attempt to meet consumer de- mand is the result of the petroleum ministry sitting helplessly by while the country’s refin- eries deteriorate and gas marketers hold back production to jack up prices. And the chronic power outages throughout the city are also the fault of the bureaucrats in Abuja, according to Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who serves in the Nige- rian House of Representatives. “And they’re not tapping the gas that’s there. So the problem is that the plants aren’t being powered,” the Lagos representative told me. Dabiri-Erewa was once a TV reporter. As a federal lawmaker, she witnesses firsthand the kind of wanton corruption that the government- owned Nigerian Television Authority would never have allowed her to cover. “It is a real phe- nomenon,” she said somberly. “And it’s done with impunity. Someone working in the government owns a private jet. A civil servant steals a billion naira [six million dollars] in pension funds, and he’s walking about freely. Not one federal official has been punished for corruption—not one! Here in Lagos there’s lots of everyday ingenuity. You see people surviving by selling oranges or phone cards. Still, all of this corruption has to be demor- alizing for the average Nigerian.” It does more than demoralize: The unscrupu- lousness comes at the expense of hardworking Lagosians—unless, of course, they’re willing and able to play the game. Chiagozie told me that bureaucratic corruption routinely affected his livelihood. “Most electricians like me are seeking a job with contractors,” he said. “But some of them aren’t engineers. They’re teachers, or some- thing else, and they just happen to have a broth- er who works in the government. So when a contract comes their way, they hire a subcon- tractor. And the subcontractor is able to pocket a lot of money by using inferior materials. And they won’t hire me, because I insist on using the best material. If I were to use inferior material, the building might collapse, and then the gov- ernment would arrest me and take my license away and make me pay for the damage. This happens all the time.” When I asked Kola Karim if the federal gov- ernment’s sorry reputation made Western in- vestors wary of doing business in Lagos, the worldly CEO elaborately dismissed it as a non- issue. Companies partnered with companies, not with bureaucrats, he maintained. “What does government do for you anyway, apart from charging you more taxes?” he said. “Look, it’s not about who rules anymore. Lagos is a train that has left the station. And you can only slow it down—you can’t stop it. So it doesn’t matter who comes next. This is the fun of democracy! It’s not about [President] Goodluck Jonathan! It’s about progress! Forget politics!” I left the offices of Shoreline pondering these words of Karim, a genuine patriot who gen- erously donates time and money to Nigerian causes. It’s difficult to begrudge him his yellow Ferrari and his vacation homes in Miami and Marbella, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, and the fact that his children, who live in London, stand little chance of being kidnapped by Boko Haram. Still, Karim said it himself: Lagos may never be stopped, but it can be slowed. It is not immune to the forces paralyzing less fortunate regions of Nigeria. And when I observed to LAGOS MAY NEVER BE STOPPED, but it can be slowed. It is not immune to the forces paralyzing less fortunate regions of Nigeria.