LAGOS; City of go-slows, lean-tos, skyscrapers

The view from the Eko Holiday Inn - Lagos's newest, though somewhat tarnished , five-star hotel - should be spectacular. Overlooking a small inlet and a white sand beach toward the Atlantic Ocean, the hotel easily has one of the city's most beautiful locations.

But disturbing the view, and the conscience, is a squatters' village, mostly just lean-tos with patches of corrugated metal for roofs, squeezed onto every available inch of beach to the high water mark.

The village is more than just an eyesore for the well-to-do guests at the Eko. It is a reminder of the enormous gap that separates the rich from the poor in this capital city.

Moreover, it underlines the scarcity of space in this acutely overcrowded and still growing urban center.

Overcrowding and income disparity, of course, are not unique to Lagos. Most African capitals have these problems. But like so many things in Lagos, the troubles seem on a grander scale.

Thus $100-per-night guests at the Eko sit at poolside within a stone's throw, and easy view, of the squatters' lean-tos. Foreigners and wealthy Nigerians pay , while 70 percent of Lagos's population, now pushing 5 million, live in stifling boardinghouses. The average space per individual in such quarters is about the size of a smallish closet.

Outside the residential areas, the overriding impression of Lagos is crowds of people everywhere. Markets and temporary shelters, for example, occupy even the dirt and cement catchways under the bridges that link the islands and mainland.

It once took the writer 45 minutes to get through a tiny section of the city. Vendors and residents had expropriated so much of the streets for living and business purposes that only one car at a time could pass, and then only barely.

According to a ''master plan'' for Lagos drawn up by US consultants Wilbur Smith & Associates for the United Nations, Lagos's population, already growing at 10 percent a year, will hit 13 million by the turn of the century.

The plan outlines solutions to the pressing problems of housing, transportation, and sanitation, but their cost - $20 billion - causes some development experts to question whether it should be implemented. Overcrowding will only worsen without the plan, project director Richard Miller said in an interview a year ago.

First-time visitors generally arrive in Lagos carrying a load of preconceptions, most of them bad, along with their luggage. Lagos's image is part fact, part myth - often culled from horror stories that pass among foreigners, some of whom have never visited the city.

The foreign view of Lagos is that its people are rude and aggressive and that the city itself is dangerous, dirty, and inefficient. The reality is something else.

Generally, Nigerians are neither timid nor obsequious, and they are no more rude than, say, Americans in similar situations or occupations. Businessmen here now give Lagos high marks in a number of regards, turning round a reputation for inefficient bureaucracy. And the experience of this reporter and many other visiting journalists is that Nigerian officials compare favorably with counterparts in some other countries. They are open, candid, and accessible.

''The phones work very well now,'' comments an oil company executive. International telex facilities, though crowded, are modern and numerous. They are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - a service unheard of in most other African countries.

There is no getting around the fact that Lagos is dirty, even by sympathetic standards. However, most of the problem stems from the horrendous overcrowding, and the handicap that Lagos is essentially a sand bar with a high water table.With no real sanitation system, open sewers are visible even in better neighborhoods, some literally bubbling in the sweltering heat.

Crime is also a problem. Pickpocketing and purse-snatching are about the extent of aggressive crime in many West African capitals, but Lagos knows armed robbery and rape as well. Vigilante-type hangings and other punishments meted out by self-proclaimed judges are reported in the press.

Lagos also has an abundance of guns. In most African cities, private ownership of weapons is unheard of; here it is a growing problem. Smuggling of weapons is a growing business. Customs officials at Murtala Muhammad Airport here recently discovered 75 German-made revolvers in what was alleged to be a shipment of imported shirts.

But in three trips here over a month, which required travel at all hours of day and night, the most violent exchanges I witnessed were shouting matches between cab drivers in Lagos' ubiquitous ''go-slows.'' Most of these blow over fast.

Many visitors will gather their knowledge of Lagos from a creeping or stopped taxi. Like American cabs, taxis here have meters - the difference is that they're never used. Fares are negotiated in advance, and renegotiated en route. It's generally understood that foreigners pay several times the going rate for Nigerians.

Most drivers are expert at the art of snaking through the go-slows. They also all seem to have a thing about their horns, which they tend to beep every five seconds or so, even on clear stretches of road. Given the considerable number of cabs in the city, the result is quite a cacophony, audible even high up in office buildings and hotel rooms.

Although Lagos suffers from bad (some would say malicious) press, its newspapers set it apart from other West African cities. The city has some 10 or 12 dailies, which provide some of liveliest - and perhaps the freest - reporting on the continent. No politician is spared - not even President Shehu Shagari - from regular and pitiless analysis.

In an area of the world where newspapers are sometimes disguised bulletin boards for government ministries, the treatment of authorities comes as a shock.

''If I feel like it, I can go out on the corner and call the President a bad name,'' says one Nigerian. Nigerian newspapers exercise to the hilt their right to criticize, making Lagos one of the more interesting African cities to cover.

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