If you think your city's costly, try Douala or Libreville

Americans reeling from the spiraling cost of living should count their blessings -- they might live in West Africa. Despite the "underdeveloped" label most uninitiated pin on the region, prices in cities like Abidjan, Lagos, Douala, and Libreville would jolt the highest rollers on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue.

In a recent survey of the world's most expensive cities, executives selected Lagos, Douala, and Abidjan first, third, and fifth -- well ahead of traditional deeppocket towns like London, Paris, and Tokyo.

There are a host of reasons for the apparent anomaly of high-priced towns in low-income countries, ranging from simple greed to more complex factors like transport costs and customs duties that can sometimes double the price of incoming goods.

But whatever the causes, the West African exorbitance is usually a shock to a first-time visitor.

Hotel rooms in most of the coastal cities start at more than $50 a night for a single, and go up sharply from there. Lagos's Holiday Inn runs $100 a night for a single room -- frequent disruptions of water and electricity at no extra charge.

Meals in even mediocre restaurants will generally cost $50 for two, with the fancier places taking care of $100 or more with little problem. (This correspondent almost choked on a bland Chinese lunch in Lagos when the $60 check -- for soup, two plates, and a drink -- arrived.

Nonetheless, visitors' costs are relative bargains compared with those encountered by residents.

Landlords in many of the cities where expatriate housing is short, like Lagos and Douala, require a year or more rent in advance at prices that are nothing short of astronomical.

"The last time I saw a house available on Ikoyi Island (Lagos's prime residential area) they wanted 75,000 naira (about $125,000) a year, six years in advance," an oil company executive said several months ago. That's roughly three-quarters of a million dollars -- rent, not mortgage -- for the privilege of a front door key.

Lagos's legendary price levels stand well above those in the other west African cities -- but some, like Douala and Abidjan, are closing in fast.

"In the last year, rents in Douala have doubled," a real estate agent said not long ago. A United States businessman who moved from Libreville to Douala complained that "Libreville is worse. For a two bedroom apartment smaller than [the standard Douala unit] I paid $2,500 a month."

Western consumer goods, from food and clothing to automobiles are no better. Because of high customs duties and the cost of importing most items, things like men's and women's clothing, shoes, and cosmetics can run anywhere from double to four times costs in the US.

In Douala a Chevrolet Caprice costs about $20,000, canned goods like tunafish children here run anywhere from $100 to $150 per week, and can be twice that in food-short Lagos.

Landlords and retailers point to the high cost of importing everything from cars to building supplies as the major reason for the steep cost of living.For the most part, financial sources generally agree that the retailers' prices are justified, but point out that landlords are doing a lot better than their colleagues in the US.

"These guys are amortizing a 250,000 naira home [about $400,000] in three years," says a US housing specialist in Lagos. Real estate agents in other countries report much the same.

Part of the problem, ironically, is that almost all expatriates living here receive either subsidized housing or ample allowances to compensate for the sky-high costs. And that, some experts say, hikes prices all the more.

"They don't know how to say 'no,'" said a real estate agent here.

And unfortunately, while the expatriate costs are aimed at the wealthy foreigners, the overall inflationary impact, and its inevitable economic dislocations, hit local people hardest. "Its getting so a normal Cameroonian can't afford to live in Douala, anymore," complained a manager of a small business here.

In Lagos, the quick money to be made in expatriate housing has all but dried up investment in badly needed low-income housing. The private market is not addressing the 75 percent (designated as poor in the Nigerian capital), said the US housing expert. The unsurprising result, he added, is that almost three-quarters of the 4.5 million residents average a toilet for every 38 people , a water tap for every 49, and a kitchen for every 54.

Most telling statistics of all: Average space for the more than 3 million poor resid ents of Lagos is a stifling 2.5-square meters, the size of a small closet in the US.

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