Where Most Everyone Is a Two-Bit Tycoon

People in Nigeria's largest city need a fistful of business cards.

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The city of Lagos, Nigeria, is best known for its traffic jams, its decibel levels, and the ingenuity of its criminals. Yet even with military coups and power failures, gas shortages and insistent requests for bribes, millions of residents survive - and think big.

Nigeria's love affair with business did not end with the oil boom of the 1970s. The prosperity may have gone, but the taste for it remains. All over Lagos, a city of 10 million, people have reinvented themselves, tailoring their aspirations to the realities of the country's troubled economy.

Take Andy Scott, managing director of Andy's International Hair 'N' Beauty Studio and the Ultimate Sounds Studio, both in one of the city's busiest districts. An engineer by training, Mr. Scott used the profits from his beauty salon to set up the music shop, which consists mostly of five gigantic loudspeakers lined up on Ojuelegba Road in the busy Yaba district. Since "business is not bad," he is considering expanding. He wants to buy a copying machine, which would feature in his next venture - Andy's International Business Center.

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Just across the street, Akin Adeboyejo is having a hard time keeping track of his five business cards. On one, he is a partner in Asmos Architectural Design Company. On another, he is director of operations at Niger Tech - an "import-export" operation and a supplier of "laboratory equipment." Mr. Adeboyejo is also a contractor with Sun Enterprise and the owner of Color Card Lagos, which operates depending on the whims of a dust-covered laser printer. "This is Nigeria," he explains, "I am an architect with a degree from London, and I'm selling cards."

Adeboyejo is one of about 3 million professionals who have paid the price for three decades of corrupt military rule. Many came back to Nigeria with master's degrees from universities in Europe and the United States. "With this economy, we have to diversify," Adeboyejo says. "You can't hope to have just one small business. It would not be enough to feed your family."

Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest oil producer. Its oil revenues amount to $30 billion a year and account for 90 percent of all government spending. Yet the country has never developed an industrial base, and billions of dollars have been lost to corruption, ending up in private accounts all over the world. According to an estimate by London's Financial Times, Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in early June, accumulated $3.5 billion while in power. The personal fortune of another corrupt former African dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, was estimated at $4 billion. It only "took Abacha five years to do what Mobutu managed in 30 years," Adeboyejo says.

Half a block away from Adeboyejo, another Andy - of Andy Investments Ltd. - is also having trouble choosing the right business card to hand out. His five shops are scattered around the neighborhood. "I sell car stereos in one, car tires in another. I sell lubricants and paints and car batteries in the other stores," Andy says. Why doesn't he concentrate all the shops in one? "You can run little shops, not a big one," he says. This is partly to elude unwanted attention from police and government officials, who are on never-ending quests for bribes, he explains.

Others say it is also to avoid paying taxes. "Why should I pay these people a penny of my earnings?" asks another shop owner, who does not want to be named. "It would add insult to injury."

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