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Published: October 2nd 2018
A tale of necking bottles, bottle necking and de-bottle necking
Driving up onto the 12 kilometer long Third Mainland Bridge from Victoria Island back to the mainland, undulating skeins of almost neon-blue coloured smoke and can be seen lying over the shanties near the water. A more general blanket of smog was also visible in the grey afternoon light masking the dun coloured buildings behind and blurring perspective.
It had been ten years since my last visit to Nigeria’s dysfunctional, vibrant and frustrating megacity. In that ten year period the population has grown from an estimated nine million people to fourteen million. In reality nobody is sure of the true population of Lagos with some saying there may be 22 or 24 million people crammed into the city area. They pour into the area from the countryside together with nearby Benin and Togo and this dramatic population growth is contrary to the declining birth rate. There were signs of progress everywhere, with new buildings and developments springing-up along the creek. Swathes of land not evident before have been magicked from reclamation projects. A number of new hotels and commercial buildings were noticeable additions to the aging stock from the 1970s heyday. It was also evident that a shortage of cash due to the recent recession had arrested progress in places with mottled looking stumps of new constructs left moribund and quiet. Slum clearance has flattened some areas; as if some titan has trampled across sections of the City.
However, the City’s two main inter-related defining factors; pollution and grid lock had not changed nor seemingly improved. Lagos is still running off a proliferation of diesel generators. Inefficient and constantly tripping they are a solution for the lack of a working electricity transmission grid. The polluting effects are compounded by gargantuan traffic jams, where a 40 km trip back to the airport can take three or four hours. Battered vehicles of every description send out great rolling gouts of black smoke as they periodically surge forward to take the advantage of a gap. The air is a veritable steamy broth of volatile compounds and particulates. It is this level of air pollution that is responsible for an estimated 170,000 odd deaths per year in the whole of Africa (although this seems to be a conservative estimate if you have been in Cairo on a bad day).
It was something worth reflecting on when we stopped off at the Newcastle Hotel. On trips gone by this place was a noticeable landmark on the way back to the airport. The curiosity of my colleague, an ardent Newcastle United supporter, was also engaged after having passed it over 40 times on various trips. The Newcastle Hotel therefore represented some weird, sub-bucket list tick point that needed to be fulfilled. The squat building is easily spotted from the road with the hotel name emblazoned along the top story in 10 foot high fairground style lettering, fat with unnecessary cuticles and flourishes.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, the interior represented a forlorn sight. The 24 hour dining room was deserted. It rather resembled a reception room from a bad 1970s wedding anniversary in Manchester with magnolia walls and overdressed seat decorations of red cloth, multiple bows and other trappings. The menu of Indian food was extensive. Several rounds of bottles of Gulder and Star Premium were paradoxically sobering in the quietude.
Next to the Newcastle is a rare secure crossing point over the ironically named Express way. The steel foot bridge provides a dystopian view back down the expressway for a good couple of miles back towards the city. It is a good place to view the segmented steel snake of traffic that sits semi stationary and slowly slugging forward in either direction.
Further along the road to the airport the blunt authoritarian response to the endless road gridlock was in evidence. Road conditioning had taken place with hefty concrete blocks separating the traffic lanes. The bulldozers had been heavily at work along the sides of the expressway and the effects were dramatic. Several roadside buildings had simply been cleaved. Half the buildings had been left standing with empty rooms braced internally against collapse. Others had been left precariously upright like stacked sheets. It was an odd sight.
In one or two places, buildings that had obviously had their entrances lopped off were now, once again, back under construction and encroaching to their boundary line. It was an indomitable reaction to abrupt change and fittingly symptomatic of the City as a whole.
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