Do not try to grasp the system behind driving in Lagos. There is none.
This has to be done. You may accuse me of blatant plagiarism (an interesting habit in this country, however unfounded) of a certain Nigerian writer’s how to’s, but I’ve always been of the conviction that it is better to steal a good idea than to come up with a bad one. In this case I can argue I am more equipped to do this write up, being a very fresh expert by experience. It is after all only a week ago that my car Wilma and I have been baptised by the streets of Lagos.
I am doing this for your benefit, dear chauffeurs who learnt how to drive in Europe, and for no extra fee at all. Read this oyinbo’s guide to mastering Lagos traffic and learn it by heart. It might save your life.
So your imported big wheeled car has come safely off the ship and has been hustled into the country in a way you do not understand completely but for which you paid dearly. She is in the car park and both the gardener and the guard of your compound have already inquired whether you need it serviced or washed or both. It is time to hit the streets of Lagos.
The first thing to do, is grow yourself a very thick skin. You will be shouted at, insulted and flipped the finger to while in traffic. It is all part of the theatre. Do not take it personal. You do not want to become one of those heart attacks on wheels waiting to happen that already crowd the streets of this energetic city.
Now you have become immune to the cursing, you have to forget everything you have ever learnt about priority, traffic rules or the highway code. Think Darwin instead. This is the survival of the fittest. Recalibrate your mind in this manner.
Do not try to grasp the system behind driving in Lagos. There is none. What you have to remember is that traffic is a fluid. Problems, even the ones that seem impossible to overcome, will eventually solve themselves by movement. It just might take half a day.
The good thing is pedestrians in this part of the world know their place: they might as well not exist. Do not mind them. They will get out of the way when you exit your supermarket’s or bank’s car park and will run for dear life when you steer towards them to avoid a pothole.
Okada drivers are a slightly more complicated matter. They show up from every possible angle at any given time, as if a swarm of angry hornets is attacking your automobile. Don not mind them. They are in a hurry to make money. Surely once in a while a motor driver will hit your car (either with his fist or with his vehicle) but he will soon be on his way again to find or drop another costumer.
Your biggest problem is other car owners. They lack any sense of long term insight in traffic movement and tend to seriously get in your way. Confronted with that, remind yourself that even this sort of wahala gets solved with time. It might take an hour for that idiot of a driver to realise he will speed up all traffic – including his own home coming – if he backs up a bit instead of pressing his vehicle’s nose straight into the flow of cars on the motorway. But eventually, he will get the idea.
Now I know in your well behaved oyinbo country you have a tendency to stick to a specific lane, be it left or right. I realise it is hard to oppress, but you need to stop wondering which lane people in Nigeria are actually supposed to drive on. You will never figure it out. Let me whisper in your ears: the Nigerian highway code states it is on the right. Do not under any circumstance attempt to do so. In Nigeria, the drivers on the right lane are even more deranged than others. This is the okada and molue drivers’ lane, filled with non english speaking motor cyclists who never heard of traffic rules or stop lights, where minibuses stop to drop passengers on the highway when all traffic is 80 kilometres an hour and where truck drivers make U turns holding up four lanes of traffic from both directions and in between get out of their vehicles to release themselves. To avoid all this insanity, just keep left. The same things happen there, but less frequent.
As an oyinbo driver, prepare to be stopped over by authorities a lot. By Road Safety to inquire after your fire extinguisher (please look for the expiry date!) and your C-caution (emergency triangle). By Traffic Police popping up out of the blue when you have entered a non indicated one way street from the wrong direction. By the Vehicle Inspection Office who will ask to see every possible slip of paper and document (never keep originals in your car, just copies) they can think of.
Be especially on your guard on Friday afternoons, when these zealous officers want to go out and drink. You do not want to be the one funding their weekend partying.
If you are stopped but have done nothing wrong, do not, I repeat, do not roll down your windows. This is not a matter of whether or not you have done anything wrong. They will invent something. They have a long list of boxes to check, including ‘windscreen offence’ and the ever so agreeable ‘other offences’. They will fine you for not having an orange flowered piece of curtain cloth in the boot of your car. Do not roll down the window and do not respond to their threats. It is a staring contest. If you are not in a hurry, you will win. They need to find other victims on the road to make quicker money from and will release you.
Last, but unfortunately not least. What to do if someone hits your car? Or, as they will define it, if you hit them? Very simple. Start screaming. Insult your counterpart in whatever language that comes natural to you. It does not really matter, because no one is listening. If you do not scream however, your silence will be construed as a verdict of guilty and you will be convicted by a road side tribunal of area boys, boiled ground nut sellers and the occasional traditional chief who was just taking a nap on his carved comfy throne when he heard the ruckus outside. You do not want all these people involved. So scream. After the screaming ritual is over you can both get into your slightly more dented cars and continue your journey as if nothing has ever happened.
Take my well meant advice to heart, and you will eventually master Lagos traffic. Safe journey.
P.S. If you were trained as a driver in Rome, all of this is of no concern to you. When you are used to navigating the streets of the Italian capital, you already possess the skills to be an excellent driver in Lagos. You might even teach Lagosians a thing or two.
Talk to Femke on Twitter @femkevanzeijl
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