I cannot hope to describe Lagos, except in throw-away lines about shimmering prosperity, practical, dirty industry, and huge neighbourhoods of those who have descended on the city to seek a share of its gold, but cannot find it.
The city is the mightiest in Africa, a tribute to its position on a vast natural habour and its confident establishment as a hub of Empire, and oil. It escapes the news in the northern world though, in Britain, where many of its people end up, or Europe. Last week the name of Lagos should have been blazoned over the headlines, but it was hidden away; an inside-pages “and also”.
When an American cop killed a single unarmed man, the cities of America rose in protest and much more, and across the Atlantic in places unaffected by the scandal there were protests of thousands crowded into the streets, expressing, regardless of race, fellow-feeling and incontinent rage. In Lagos though the police have been gunning down innocent citizens for years, and robbing, raping and extorting, all with impunity. Nothing was heard here.
Then on 20 October, a protest to demand the end of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad marched through the streets, and the police opened fire. This was not a morally ambiguous encounter like those that scar America, but plain murder. Maybe the Lagos police have become inured to it, but each body that fell is a father, a mother, a son or a daughter. The next day there were more, and more as gangs joined in.
Where were the crowds on the streets of London, or anywhere else? Surely Nigerian Lives Matter too?
The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke up, and he knows Nigeria well. There was silence from everyone other usual commentator. If you know one, ask him or her why.
Some passing eyes might have thought ‘SARS’ was just one of those Chinese respiratory diseases, which made the hashtags a bit unfortunate, but the Nigerians know what it is and they have learnt to tremble at it.
The squad was abolished when the protests began, but its members are still in the police, still facing no consequences for what they did, not ever will they.
There is a bit of nostalgia in my view of Lagos and prefer to think of the better things, and there are plenty of these, passing over the seedy side of the city, but it is a great city. It is not one of the lawless wildernesses of Nigeria – it is not the Sahel in the north nor the Delta in the south-east. It can prosper when its people are allowed to aspire – and not be beaten to death for looking flashy, which was the SARS way of working.
It is all going wrong now – with no law, the rioters have taken the opportunity to fill their pockets, and destroy those entrepreneurs who were making an honest way and providing employment and service to the community: just as the commercial life of Lagos thought it was relieved of the depredations of SARS, that hope is torn apart by rioters. Angels weep over the city.