Nigerians try to clean open sewers, haul away mountains of garbage; Lagos, a city struggling to save itself

When people speak of Lagos as the ultimate in urban nightmares, they're thinking of sprawling shantytowns like Ajegunle embedded in the teeming heartland of Africa's most congested city.

In the musical language of West Africa, Ajegunle (pronounced aja-GUHN-lee) has a poetic ring to it, but there is nothing poetic about this teeming, pestilential place - a violent, lawless no man's land without roads, without water, without electricity, without planning, and, until recently, without sanitation or even hope.

The bright lights of Lagos beckon rural workers, turning Nigeria's capital into one of the world's fastest growing cities. The sad reality is often not higher paying jobs and better education, but the squalor, disease, and joblessness of places like Ajegunle - ''the jungle,'' as it is known locally.

But now Ajegunle, one of the most densely populated and worst-served areas of Lagos, has been targeted by the Lagos State government and the World Bank as part of a project to upgrade services, improve access roads, and bring in clean water.

Even now sanitation trucks, a new sight in this wasteland of overcrowded lean-tos, open sewers, and overflowing hills of refuse, are beginning a cleanup operation that had not existed before.

The operation is not without its risks. Ajegunle is so desperate that it lives on a knife edge. The air sizzles from tropical heat and pent-up emotion.

The slightest provocation - an arbitrary ruling by an orange-shirted traffic policeman or a trivial argument over the price of eggs - can rage into a riot. Any authority is immediately suspect in an area that feels it has been denied man's most basic needs.

A Nigerian traveling in a marked government car in Ajegunle sped away when the car was identified, and a hoarse and angry cry went up: ''There's the man who steals our money.''

Taxi drivers in dented cars, almost inured to Lagos's frequent traffic accidents and armed robberies, pale at the thought of Ajegunle. They won't drive there. Alternative transportation must be found, and those who visit don't travel alone.

The Western visitor must slink unobtrusively into the back seat of an official car to visit the shantytown. The black driver must not look like an official, otherwise he may be pulled from the vehicle.

Doors are locked. Windows must be tightly closed despite the suffocating heat. The car must not pause. The engine dare not cut out. A suggestion to mingle with the crowds is sternly rebuked.

''They would tear you limb from limb if the mood turned ugly,'' an official of the Lagos Waste Disposal Board says. ''They would take one look at you. They would see your wristwatch and your gold wedding band. And they would know you were rich. Those two items are worth more than several months of food to them.''

Even the most cursory visit obtained through a back-seat window is a riveting education into the human plight and degradation of life for men, women, and children who must cook and eat over open sewers - sewers so clogged by garbage and human refuse that black pools of stagnant water ferment and bubble in the hot sun.

Ajegunle could hardly be worse. Like Calcutta in India, the poor and dispossessed scour the garbage piles to retrieve items of value - a piece of sheet metal to shore up the rickety house or even a button to put on a shirt.

Ajegunle is not representative of all of Lagos but speaks to many of the city's problems. Even on Broad Street, the main thoroughfare, there are craters at busy intersections that are neither repaired nor cordoned off. They are large enough to swallow a jeep, broad enough for six people walking abreast to topple into. Below, as in most parts of Lagos, lurks the malodorous sewer that sometimes only shifts its cargo when the monsoons strike, spilling refuse and raw sewage across the streets.

Lagos was built on an open drainage system. The idea was that the outgoing tide in this coastal lagoon city would carry the effluent out to sea. Tidal gates would then seal the city in. But with tidal gates in disrepair, all the sludge that floated out comes back in on the next tide.

The city's problems have as much to do with its streets as its drains. All over the city rusted hulks of cars lie abandoned under overpasses across which they once sped unhindered by any speed limit. Hundreds of cars lie buried in side streets under mountains of accumulated garbage. Many are the victims of accidents or were abandoned when they broke down. There is such shortage of spare parts that many cars cannot be repaired.

About 40,000 are abandoned on the streets of Lagos each year. By 1985, on the basis of population growth and increased consumer affluence, the number of wrecked cars is expected to reach 75,000 a year.

Streets clogged with traffic and sewers choked with refuse seem to sum up the congested, chaotic condition of Lagos. The situation proved so embarrassing to Nigeria's leaders that steps were taken to move the nation's capital to the more idyllic setting of Abuja in the center of Nigeria, but the costs, compounded by corruption, have slowed the building of the new seat of government.

Long before dawn, thousands upon thousands of bleary-eyed Lagos residents stagger to their feet and brace themselves for a long day's work that can mean a three-hour commute into the city center from homes in outlying areas. When these commuters get to their desks, they frequently drop off from fatigue.

The drive often is punctuated by traffic jams that have become known as ''go-slows.'' The go-slows frazzle the tempers of drivers, but are a boon to an army of vendors who line the main highways waiting for that delectable moment when traffic grinds to a halt and they can proffer their wares. Their goods range from ice buckets to hot water bottles, from coat hangers to calculators. One resident of Lagos ventures that the hawkers live so precariously that a riot would break out if they were prevented from selling their wares in this illegal manner. The traffic seems to defy solutions. Officials tried to remedy the problem with a program that allowed cars with even-number license plates to travel on one day and cars with odd-number plates the next. But this has only compounded the problem. Traffic increased because many commuters bought second cars so they could drive every day. Officials also commissioned the building of concrete overpasses to arc traffic up and over the shantytowns - but to little avail. Traffic remains a nightmare.

Now comes the most ambitious project of all: an attempt to build a metro transit system. If it gets off the ground, the elevated railway will run from the capital's northern fringe to its commercial heart on a lagoon island 18 miles to the south. Ideally, it would remove a million cars from the streets and ease traffic congestion.

The multimillion-dollar project, already negotiated with a French consortium, would be the first of its kind in black Africa. Its existence is by no means assured. Nigeria, now severely squeezed economically by world debts, may not be able to afford the price. Some urban experts say the building of a metro costs too much money for too little effect. They suggest Lagos could achieve similar results for a fraction of the price by improving bus transportation, creating separate bus lanes, and other less grand measures.

Lagos's problems are not uncommon in the developing world, where rapid urbanization overwhelms the fragile resources of the city. What makes Lagos's dilemma acute is that its rate of urbanization is so high.

While Bombay, Calcutta, and other Asian cities inch along with an annual population growth rates of about 3 or 4 percent, Lagos gallops at more than 9 percent a year. The impact on this city in recent years has been staggering.

From a city with only 500,000 residents in 1960, Lagos, fueled by the oil-boom years of the 1970s, has ballooned to 5 million inhabitants, according to some estimates. Various United Nations bodies put the figure at a more conservative 3 to 4 million.

''It is growing so fast nobody really knows how big it is,'' one Nigerian says. By century's end, Lagos is expected to have a population of more than 13 million, even by conservative estimates.

Attempts to throw back this tide of migration tax the ingenuity of most planners. Owaise Saadat, deputy representative of the World Bank in Lagos, points out that since the internal growth rate will remain high, Lagos's population will skyrocket ''even if you put an iron curtain around the city'' to keep rural Nigerians out. Saadat thinks the root of the problem is refuse. He sees it as the recurring link in the chain that snarls Lagos.

''Refuse goes into the drains and the drains get clogged. Once they get clogged, they overflow the roads. The roads then get broken and get into disrepair. Once they get into disrepair, the traffic slows down, and you get problems of time loss and frustration. So everything is linked.''

The Lagos Waste Disposal Board plans to continue to upgrade the garbage collection process, expand the area served, and better maintain its equipment if a proposed $184 million program is approved by the new military Lagos State government. About $101 million of this would come from the World Bank.

If the program is approved, Lagos will have a fleet of hefty bulk haulers, which can scoop up as much as 40 tons of refuse. More waste would be carted to the mangrove swamps to the north of the city. The waste becomes landfill, which helps the city by reducing the mosquito problem and adding needed land to overcrowded Lagos. There are plans to extend garbage collection by 25 percent to reach areas such as Ajegunle.

Since drains collect much of the refuse that causes clogging and overflow during torrential rains, the clearing of drains is another priority of the Lagos plan.

Right now 20,748 acres of this city is vulnerable to severe and frequent flooding because Lagos is situated on low-lying land and the clogged drains can't cope with torrential rains in the tropical rain forest climate. The World Bank says it is involved in a program to improve the drainage system on more than the 8,000 acres of Lagos. Sixteen more miles of stormwater drains are to be built. But clearing of the drains has become a first step in upgrading the city infrastructure.

Some of the existing drains had not been cleared for 15 to 20 years. They had become so silted that people could walk across them. Two amphibious dredges were called in. The transformation was so stark that several pedestrians plunged to their death because the cleared drains were now 6 feet feet below the surface of the road.

According to Zaccheus Ajogbor Amism, a zone manager for the Apapa and Ajegunle disticts of the Lagos Waste Disposal Board, a vital part of the board's program is simply educating poor people about hygiene. Too often a mother makes no connection between the health of her child and the flies hovering above the open sewer.

The third prong of the program is to find new ways to raise revenues to pay for city services.

Records show that only 50,000 houses were listed the last time the city was assessed back in the 1950s. Another 10,000 houses were later added to the register. But there are at least another 100,000 houses that are not on the assessors rolls or being taxed because Lagos does not have the administrative capacity to handle this. The financial problem is compounded because taxes on homes are based on home value assessments made before the oil boom, which caused property values to soar.

On the basis of assessments in other Nigerian cities, Lagos could earn itself a windfall of 50 to 60 million naira if these assessment problems were corrected. Even on the basis of only a 75 percent collection rate, Lagos could garner 40 to 50 million naira (about $56 to $70 million). When the World Bank funds run dry, the city would have a continuing resource to fund its activities.

Mr. Saadat is realistic enough to know that while Lagos is starting to come up with solutions, the problem of rescuing Lagos remains a ''gargantuan task.''

Can the city be saved?

''It has to be,'' a foreign consultant says. ''It's a major part of Africa. The third world is too important for the rest of the world to allow it to fail.'' The Waste Disposal Board already has seen mounds of refuse decline through more efficient management and mechanization.

''Problems seem insurmountable,'' this analyst explains, ''but there is always a solution to improve the situation. We don't allow ourselves to run into a brickwall. If need be we'll burrow under the wall.''

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