Anything the night brings, the night brings.

Tuesday, May 1.

The human engine must come into the shop now and then for the occasional tune-up. These weeks in Lagos – loud, loutish, bullying, an invigorating kick to the head – have left me battered. The cost has been physical, emotional – financial, too. Daily life in Lagos is exorbitant; a decent cup of coffee – the Super Unleaded that keeps my engine thrumming, to extend the metaphor – costs N500-700, or close to five American bucks, forcing me to resort to low-octane Nescafe in order to cut costs. Food, too, has been a constant drain, without a kitchen at the AAF to cook for myself. Seven U.S. dollars will buy me a chicken leg and some bland jollof rice at a Western-style fast-food joint. (Calibrate these costs against your own daily expenditures, readers, and you’ll get a sense of what it means to be a freelance writer.) Instead I’ve been frequenting a hole-in-the-wall in the Falomo Shopping Centre, Ofada Hut, where a plate of beef stew and jollof, or a tongue-scorching plate of ofada stew, is just half the price. The downside, of course, is that the food is prepared Nigerian-style: drenched in palm oil, deep-fried, and liberally peppered with red-hot chilis. This scorched-earth campaign has ravaged my taste buds and intestinal tract; there are days when it seems there’s a faucet attached to my bowels. No doubt I was a sight those first few days, mopping at my brow with each forkful of jollof I shoveled into my mouth. Slowly, though, my body has adjusted; I can almost feel my taste buds straining toward each chili now, like a plant phototropically yearning for sunlight. I’m reminded of Lucia, a housemate in Ouagadougou, who had spent large portions of her childhood in Lagos. She had developed a taste for Nigerian food, and there was no going back: everything else seemed bland by comparison. And then there is the narrator of a story in E.C. Osondu’s Voice of America, who says, “Any white man that eats pepper must return to Lagos.”

Leaving Lagos might pose the greater challenge. Add to all this stress the debit-card misfortunes that have plagued me since leaving Joburg. Here I was a victim not only of fraudsters, but of my own cosmic stupidity – an unwavering faith in the guardian angels who have watched over me through years of hard African travel. In Africa, it seems, even the guardian angels have a dark sense of humor. I had arrived at O.R. Tambo on the morning of my flight to Nigeria, cleared customs, and only realized minutes before departure that I’d be touching down in Lagos with all of R100 – about twelve U.S. dollars – to my name. This seemed like a foolish gamble, even by my standards. But the last of the ATMs were on the wrong side of immigration; my only option was a forex bureau, which offered to give me American dollars withdrawn against my bank account in the U.S. This they did – along with an additional $700 that, I discovered two days later in Lagos, had been used to purchase tickets to Cape Town, pushing my bank account into the red. As I was coasting over the Gulf of Guinea, pondering all manner of misfortunes that might lie ahead in Nigeria, a con artist back in Joburg was perpetrating that most common South African fraud: the cloned debit card. The bank was quick to credit the money back into my account, but my card was cancelled. Now a fresh challenge: finding a way to get a new card to me in Lagos. Even in my dire situation, the bank refused to send the card direct. I had to find an intermediary. Fortunately, luck was on my side: a Canadian friend, a filmmaker, had a co-producer who was flying into Lagos from Vancouver the following week for the AMAAs. The card went to my parents in Brooklyn; my father, the perennial ass-saver, Western Union’d it to Vancouver. Days later, I gratefully met the producer and my new debit card on the red carpet at the Eko Hotel.

Within the week, at an ATM on Awolowo Road, that card, too, had been cloned. Two cards in two countries, in the span of four weeks. (Those guardian angels, yukking it up again.)

There was a way around this newly visited trauma: the bank, as it turned out, was temporarily able to “unlock” a previously cancelled debit card. Each time I went to the ATM, I had to call my bank’s fraud prevention squad, answer their rote security questions, and have them unlock the card long enough for me to withdraw money. Picture me red-faced and sweaty, calling an international number at exorbitant rates on Nigeria’s shoddy mobile network, while the traffic roared by me on Awolowo Road. (For security purposes, I could only call from the ATM, and the bank rep had to stay on the line for the duration of the transaction.) Withdrawing money became a terrific ordeal, and would continue to be, for the remainder of my time in Nigeria and Cameroon. But still, I could get my money. In my usual half-assed, hand-wringing way, things had come together.

But the stress was still there; life had become a daily exercise in managing it, calibrating the pressure valves, letting off just enough steam. Drinks, of course, were involved. One night I was out on V.I. with my friend Tolu, an Edinburgh-based architect who was back in Lagos on a short-term consulting gig. Our group consisted of a bunch of hard-drinking revelers with the sorts of bland jobs you would expect in any great metropole: two architects, a lawyer, a couple of civil engineers. It was after midnight: the preening hour in Lagos, when the city’s long-stemmed beauties gathered in the warm glow of conspicuous spending and mutual, if bitchy, admiration. We were at Likwid, an upscale lounge that, in the span of the following hours, would get increasingly packed with attractive young Lagosians in European clothes and American-tinged accents. Tolu lit a cigar, eyeing a nearby table of tall girls in short skirts. “They’re drinking Belvedere, so we can’t send them a bottle of Belvedere,” he said, his tone disconsolate. How seductive his life appeared to a vagrant writer! If only my biggest problems consisted of figuring out which bottle of top-shelf liquor to send to a bevy of beautiful, tipsy girls. The night was draining me; I had steered clear of the Belvedere but was spending N1,000 for each can of Amstel. I had burned through my last naira and had to dip into my last-ditch reserve: a solitary hundred-dollar bill that was supposed to get me through the week. The bar couldn’t change it; I had to appeal to Tolu’s brother, who exchanged it at a favorable rate, barely putting a dent in the stack of thousand-naira notes in his wallet. While I was ready to raise a white flag on the night, though, Tolu was stalking the dance floor in predatory circles, his temperature rising by degrees of mischief. “Anything the night brings, the night brings,” he said.

You will not find me my slapping my forehead in Lagos or Kampala or Nairobi at such high-end shenanigans; I had seen enough of this life already, understood well that for a growing class of Africans, a bottle of Belvedere, a flat-screen TV, a well-stocked refrigerator full of European beers and imported condiments, were considered the normal trappings of a successful life, just as in the developed world. Well, these were my spiritual kin, in a sense. It’s hard to divorce a contemporary American male from the circumstances of his upbringing, and a certain degree of material comfort remains, after all these years, the elusive benchmark by which I judge my life. (Not for nothing have I found a cozy home in Joburg, where I can approximate a New York lifestyle at a third of the price.) It is impossible to adequately describe to an American who has never set foot on African soil the profound sense of contentment, of spiritual well-being, that I feel whenever I leave behind the clamor of some African street for the fluorescent-lit confines of a Shoprite or Nakumatt, the shelves abundantly stocked with canned goods and hair care products, the workers diligently affixing price tags to the toothpastes and deodorants. Outside is African chaos, is uncertainty and Gomorrah; but in those safe havens of commerce I can find familiar name brands in orderly aisles, or buy a kilo of tomatoes without engaging in the bloodsport of bargaining with some slit-eyed market woman.

Yet a certain type of ambivalence persists. Too much time in Bogobiri among the aje buttas, or lunching with the technocrats in power suits at Chocolat Royal – the menu a pastiche of Western standbys and international whimsies: Philly cheese steaks, Italian subs, teriyaki, yakitori, something called the Bora Bora Pacific Salad – and you risk falling into the somnolent trap of the “sleepy middle classes” I’d heard lambasted last week. Here I remember the joke about the man who ordered a glass of room-temperature wine in a Lagos restaurant which, when delivered, was cool to the touch – a chill that matched the temperature in the air-conditioned dining room. Reality is a DIY construct; no doubt the waiter had watched the processional of Range Rovers and Mercedes Benzes pulling into the parking lot each day and assumed that life in Lagos’ higher spheres and tax brackets was a hermetically sealed, air-conditioned affair. And wouldn’t have been too far off the mark. What could be a greater sign of material success than the ability to bend the weather to one’s whims – to keep the swampy, malarial heat of the tropics at bay with the flick of a few switches? The besuited officials in dazzlingly shined shoes who scurried from their air-conditioned cars into their air-conditioned banks and homes and offices lived in a bubble kept at 18°C; the messiness, the tropical squalor of Lagos, was always on the other side of the window pane.

I’ve enlisted the help of the pavement pundits to keep a sense of equilibrium. It is never difficult, in an African city of soaring unemployment, to find a group of garrulous men on a shaded bench or beneath a shop awning, discoursing on the day’s events. Often they will congregate by a newspaper stand, scanning the headlines for conversational fodder, firing off polemics like a low-rent version of the Sunday morning talk shows. I have encountered these men – itinerant day-laborers, out-of-work taxi drivers, ersatz security guards, rangy youths with useless certificates from unaccredited schools – on street corners across the continent. (The women, who are usually too engaged with keeping the house, looking after the children, and managing the market stall for such idling, exist in a different sphere entirely. Yet any frequenter of an African market will appreciate how well these gossipy multi-taskers can keep both the household and the rumor mill running.) I often wonder what a difference it would make if this continent could harness all that wasted manpower. What a difference for the environment, too. No telling what all that hot air and bluster and CO2 is doing to the ozone layer.

In Lagos I don’t have to go far: just steps from the front door of the AAF, under a tattered MTN beach umbrella, a group gathers daily, as faithful as congregants at Sunday mass. “Problems, crises, bombings, bombings,” begins a typical harangue one morning. “Our only prayer is to solve these problems.” They are mostly in their 20s, skinny, hard-contoured youths in cheap market clothes imported from the Far East, knock-off approximations of a globalized, urban youth style: distressed denims, t-shirts with mindless slogans, belt buckles festooned with dollar signs. They treat me with the natural deference of Yoruba youths to their elders, greeting me as “oga”: an elder statesman, a white man no less, lending the assembly some gravitas. Today’s speaker is selling airtime from a small leather manpurse around his neck. Occasionally he will break from his discourse to tear off an MTN voucher, stuffing small denominations into his satchel and scratching off the PIN with a coin. “I voted for this Jonathan, but not again,” he says. Murmurs of assent from the groundnut gallery. There is no power at home, he says, his house has been without water for three days. Still, the president only offers idle promises. “Already he started the campaign for 2015,” he says. I ask if he thinks Jonathan will win again, and he huffs. “He will do how we Nigerians do,” he says, making a few complicated hand gestures that seem to imply the stuffing of ballot boxes.

The sun moves, the shade shifts, the bodies are rearranged to make the most of the growing shadows. Someone’s baby arrives, a small gurgling boy with milk stains on his shirt. Everyone brightens, coos, clucks their tongues. Already at their age, there is pressure to marry, start a family. The strains on fatherhood here must be immense. A driver I meet down the road sighs when he talks about the challenges of raising his three children. “I am not an M.D. of a company,” he says. “For a driver, the money they pay, how can I train more than three?” He makes an elaborate show of patting his pants and adds, “The pockets are dry.” Lately he has been planning a trip to his village in the east: he has a fiancée waiting for him there, and their wedding day is just weeks away. But it’s been months since his last visit; the pressures are too great. The last time he went home in his Sunday finery, freshly arrived from Lagos, his relatives accosted him with their financial problems, their bottomless needs. “Everyone that sees me, they ask, ‘What did you bring me?’” he says. “I just think, ‘Please, just let me go. Let me go.’”

Later that week I’m careening down Awolowo Road in the back of a tuk-tuk – a Keke Marwa, in Lagos parlance, in honor of the military governor of Lagos State who brought the three-wheeled vehicles here in the ‘90s. Beside me is Tochukwu – T.C. – a man I’d met at the AAF earlier in the week. He is a gentle, moon-faced, garrulous jack-of-all-trades. Occasionally he helps with setting up new exhibitions at the gallery, but with nothing on this week, he’s offered to accompany me to Lagos Island for the afternoon. He came to Lagos from Ebonyi State, an Igbo province in the east of the country. His first trips to the city were with family – wedding parties, funerals, the endless formal engagements of Nigerian custom – but by his late teens he began to travel here on his own. In his 20s he moved to Ajegunle, a notorious Lagos slum, and then to Lagos Island, under the stewardship of a distant relative from his town. His oga, he says, was a good businessman, a good man. For newcomers thrust into the hierarchical structure of Lagos life, such stewards guarantee safe passage; they act as a frame of reference in whatever enterprise one might hope to embark upon. The lanky boys selling sunglasses and celebrity gossip rags on the Falomo Bridge have their oga as a guarantor, insurance for the wholesalers who supply them with merchandise that they won’t vanish with the day’s earnings before the supplier receives his cut (usually about 90 percent of the profit). T.C.’s uncle taught him the clothing business, traveling to Italy and bringing back leather shoes and belts and stylish clothes that they sold from their shop. It was a five-year apprenticeship, and then T.C. was on his own. He stayed in the garment business, selling quality imported goods – not the cheap Chinese replicas he scoffs at in the markets. The Chinese had come and ruined everything, he says, but still, business was good. He moved out of Lagos Island and onto V.I. For a while, he helped curate exhibitions at a local gallery. He is 36, still single. “I am patient,” he says, as we step out of the Keke and dissolve into the market crowds. “There is no hurry.”

Around us, though, there is nothing but hurry and bustle. Though we have no appointments later in the day, no schedule to stick to, T.C. walks briskly through the streets, as if energized by the rush and clamor. Lagos Island is loud, constant, relentless: the honking of horns, the thrum of generators, the ambient noise of thousands of voices raised in the din of human commerce. (“City of sonorous chaos,” wrote the poet Chiedu Ezeanah, “out of which destitute music growls.”) Once this place was as placid as the lagoons surrounding it; when the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, today’s metropolis was just a string of fishing villages and farms. It grew swiftly as Lagos emerged as one of the major hubs for the West African slave trade. By the time the British arrived in the mid-1800s with a view toward stamping out the trade for good, they had determined that occupying Lagos was “indispensable to the complete suppression of the Slave Trade,” an occupation that they undertook, in the colonial parlance, “not without some reluctance.” Having established this vital beachhead, they quickly pushed into the interior and developed trade links with neighboring kingdoms. Before long these territories were amalgamated into the British Protectorate of Nigeria, which would join with the Lagos colony in 1914 to form the Federation of Nigeria. Immigrants flocked to Lagos – the de facto and, later, administrative capital – from across West Africa, joining the ranks of freed slaves and their descendants returning from Brazil, the West Indies, and the newly independent state of Liberia. Lagos Island’s mixed-up, mottled character was established in those early years – a character still reflected in the island’s architecture, with its Portuguese and New World influences – and the city mushroomed as its commercial importance grew. By the 1880s the city already had a railway and telephone links to Britain; by 1898, its increasingly jumbled streets were lit with electric lights.

New arrivals from the interior must have been struck by the city’s size and dynamism, this awful harbinger of the modern world. A century later, as Lagos swells to improbable proportions, the place is still overwhelming. It is impossible to name all the sights, the bewildering avenues of retail, the souq-like labyrinths of merchandise piled floor to ceiling, the endless chain of supply and demand. T.C. steers me across the street, into a market for imported clothing: cheap Chinese knock-offs of last year’s fashions, oceans of denim, headless mannequins buttoned into frumpy blouses. The sellers are young men in jeans and Nikes, affecting hip-hop postures. “Oyibo!” they call out. “Oyibo!” “White!” They chase after me with stylish loafers, cut-rate imitations of some European design, holding them up to eye-level for further scrutiny. Three men stand in a line, each holding the same white communion dress on a hanger, staring dolefully past the disinterested crowds.

Traffic is sluggish, the okadas and Kekes reduced to a crawl in the face of this human logjam. We duck beneath some rickety scaffolding and squeeze into a narrow alley, and it is like we’ve crossed a border, arrived at some new frontier. The shops are selling bright bolts of fabric, colorful prints on Dutch wax cloth. It is the province of womanhood, of brides-to-be: the customers are pinching lace cloths between their fingertips and shushing the infants on their backs. The faces you meet here are shrewd, impenetrable, prepared for the pitched battle that comes with every transaction in Lagos. A beggar passes us, reciting Koranic verses in Arabic through a megaphone. Gutters are carved into the alleyways, brimming with dirty run-off from the night’s rains. “Pure water!” a woman calls out, carrying a plastic basin full of water sachets on her head. The stalls are endless: you could blanket the Gulf of Guinea with all that fabric, the colorful prints that are covering Nigerian haunches from here to Maiduguri.

There is a method to all this retail madness. The markets are carefully organized; beyond the shaded alleyways, the dark alcoves protecting those bright fabrics against the color-devouring sunlight, we step into the open air. Now we are surrounded by dry goods: tins of sardines, cans of Milo, sacks of rice and sugar that load-bearers will heave onto their heads before staggering into the pressing crowds. The shops are arranged identically, the products, the prices, are exactly the same. How does a merchant turn a profit amid such sameness? Perhaps it is the sheer demographic weight of Lagos commerce, the numerical conviction that no amount of sellers can ever meet this megacity’s demands. I suspect, too, that there are internal politics, subtle allegiances: a woman newly arrived from some distant village will probably seek out a kinsman for her business. The kinship ties in Nigeria are strong, advantageous. Even in this city of 15 million, a newcomer can hope for a soft landing.

Stepping through this crush of human traffic, prodded and squeezed on all sides, we arrive in a vast haircare emporium: wigs, shampoos, dyes, miles of extensions. A fat, haughty woman is trying on a wig, preening for a small hand mirror. “It’s too short,” she says. “It no look good.” The attendant scurries off. His face is an asterisk of concentrated passion; there is no whim, no demand he won’t cater to for the sake of the sale. He comes back with his arms full, a great ball of synthetic hair, as if he’s hugging an acrylic Labrador to his chest. The woman begins to try them on, frowning into the mirror, refusing to grant him the small advantage of her pleasure. Finally, a hint of a smile cracks her face. “Give me this one black,” she says, jabbing with her fat finger. The attendant stuffs it into a shopping bag. “Another one,” she says. “Give me this one brown. Another one.”

And so it goes. Leaving this galaxy of wigs and extensions we enter the jewelry market, its glass display cases neatly stocked with cheap earrings and bangles and gold wristwatches. T.C. stops to flirt with a young woman. (“This one does not know me,” he says, as we turn away. “She sees we are the same tribe.”) Nearby a neatly dressed man with a jeweler’s loupe bends over a wristwatch, his fingers fiddling with a small screwdriver. He pauses, looks up, smiles. I am met with many friendly greetings and marriage proposals. Moving back into the open air, we come to a street that seems entirely overrun by wall clocks in different shapes and sizes; just as quickly, we turn onto a street lined with hundreds of children’s bicycles. No commercial need goes unmet here. Another block is crowded with copy machines; further still, dozens of hospital gurneys and wheelchairs on the sidewalk, coated with a thin layer of dust. Whatever isn’t readily available on the street is likely to come your way on the head of some rangy youth knifing through the crowd: socks, belts, water sachets, mangos, wooden stools, knots of ginger, dried fish, prawns, Lucozade, soy milk in recycled water bottles, slices of watermelon and pineapple, peeled oranges, loaves of white bread. Wheelbarrows push past us, loaded with apples and blue jeans and cellphone accessories. With the lunch hour upon us, husky women trundle by balancing wooden tables on their heads, laden with the pots and plates and takeaway containers they will use to dish out the afternoon’s meals.

The raucous energy of this street carnival exists in a vacuum of sorts; Lagos Island is a husk of abandoned office towers and derelict buildings, relics of a decades-long decay since the government moved the capital to Abuja. The Societe Generale Bank is boarded up; the Savannah Bank building – a black-glass tower of failed aspirations – sits vacant, awaiting tenants. Across from one teeming market we pass the weathered shell of the Bristol Hotel. In its colonial-era heyday the Bristol was a choice spot for visiting dignitaries. According to a well-known story, a colonial office official of Sierra Leonean descent, one Ivor Cummings, arrived one March afternoon in 1947 with a white English colleague. The official inquired with the Greek proprietor if there was a reservation in the name of Cummings. The hotel owner said that there was indeed a reservation for a Mr. Cummings and, turning to the colleague, asked when he would arrive. The two men were outraged; when Cummings identified himself to the flummoxed proprietor, the Greek scurried off, leaving a black clerk to deal with the fall-out. Flustered, the clerk tried to explain to Cummings that blacks couldn’t be admitted into the Bristol – a delicate task, no doubt, from one black man to another. A bellicose Cummings stormed off. Later that day hostile crowds poured into the hotel and trashed the lobby. The Greek proprietor was forced to flee the country.

I’m a sucker for such tales of colonial-era come-uppance; they are like period pieces furnishing the living room of my imagination. Closing my eyes I can picture bespectacled Cummings in his suit and Oxford-knotted necktie, an air of erudition about him, a set of matching leather suitcases at his feet. This is just the latest in a long string of indignities; hard to imagine the love and loyalty binding him to a crown that regards him as second-class. Behind him a queue of white guests is growing impatient. The bellhops circle nervously. The clerk at the desk, buttoned into his colonial-era vestiture, is grappling with the humiliating task of turning this dignified black man away. These two men inhabit different spheres entirely – Cummings makes trips to London, hosts garden parties attended by foreign dignitaries – yet here they share the common stain of their blackness. The red-faced Greek removes himself from the scene, eager to avoid any complications. The color rises in the Englishman’s cheeks. Genteel Cummings, in that mosaic-tiled lobby lined with potted palms, a fountain tinkling musically across the room, raises hell. No blacks! “You mean as guests? For you are black yourself,” he accuses the clerk, according to one account. Perhaps here the clerk burns with a secret pride; aware of the greatness of the moment, he is privileged to be laid across the sacrificial altar, to be the vessel into which Cummings pours his rage. When the mob arrives that night, maybe it’s the clerk himself who stokes the flame.

It is hard to conjure that vanished world on the delirious streets of Lagos today. The colonial gentility, the haughtiness of white privilege, is long gone. One blogger, recounting the Cummings story, told of the broader protest movement it sparked: it was, in effect, the death knell of the pre-independence era in Nigeria. In the years that followed the country was swept away by a tide of nationalism, and by the pan-African fervor ignited by Kwame Nkrumah; black consciousness, black identity, became the rallying cry for a generation of activists and future leaders. The radicalness of this moment in time is impossible to fully appreciate half a century later; today’s identity politics in Nigeria are played out against a backdrop of class and tribe. Blackness is an obvious fact. I wonder if the fissures formed by these newer divisions will create the same unbridgeable divide that race did 50 years ago. Class consciousness, after all, is the subtext of most encounters on the streets of Lagos. An example: on the way back to Ikoyi, our danfo gets stuck in a go-slow off of Awolowo Road. The driver, undeterred by the line of cars ahead of us, pulls into the empty lane of oncoming traffic, hoping to speed to the intersection before the light changes. We’ve almost reached the corner when an SUV turns into our lane. It is a muscular, polished vehicle, and the man behind the wheel – athletic, well-dressed, exuding class signifiers that are apparent even from our vantage point – is understandably put off by the danfo blocking his way. His facial muscles tense, and for a moment, I have the sense that this is just one small scene in a larger drama. The recklessness of this city’s danfo and okada drivers is one of the Lagosian’s favorite talking points, a scab relentlessly picked at dinner parties. No doubt the man in the SUV has been cut off, bullied, harassed by these daredevil drivers before. It is a point of principle that he stand up for himself today. Besides, he has the law on his side. He inches forward. The danfo driver, cursing, puts the vehicle into reverse. He waves his arm violently out the window, but the SUV continues to advance. The cars are backed up in our lane; there’s no chance for us to merge back into traffic. The driver’s rage is complete, consuming. A crowd has begun to gather – no telling which way this stand-off will go. As we back down the block a traffic cop approaches the vehicle. “I just wan buy fuel,” says the driver, gesturing to a gas station on the corner. He seems convinced that the logic of this statement is irrefutable – that to drive 200 meters down the wrong side of a two-way street is justifiable, if there’s fuel to be had. The cop is lenient; he lets us merge into the flow of traffic without writing a ticket. As the SUV muscles past us, the driver regards our danfo with the sort of mute, wrathful judgment of some Old Testament patriarch. Our own driver seems shrunken, chastened. There is no telling how often he has had to swallow his pride when confronted with such an overt show of superior strength. Yet when we reach the corner, his face breaks into a broad grin. He whips us through the gas station, cheating the flow of traffic, and cracks a joke at the cars stuck at the red light behind us. However briefly, he’s come out ahead.

The sun shines on all Nigerians.

Wednesday, April 25.

There’s a convivial buzz when I arrive at the Terra Kulture gallery on Victoria Island one steamy weeknight. By now this low-wattage hum has become as familiar to me in Lagos as the deep, throaty thrum of the city’s ubiquitous generators – a salubrious din of feminine flattery and real estate tips, punctuated by the guffaws of men with paunches as robust as their portfolios. The scene is virile, expectant; there is a giddy awareness among us that vast sums of money are about to be spent. The view from the far side of the Third Mainland Bridge might be one of squalor, injustice, and unparalleled misery, but at tonight’s art auction, the cream of Lagosian society is prepared to do what it does best: put on a show of conspicuous consumption.

The men are in linens and monogrammed shirts and sport jackets with pocket squares; the women are elaborately made up and accessorized by their men. I suspect the collective cost of the fashionable eyewear in the room rivals the GDP of neighboring Benin. The walls are hung with works by contemporary masters like Ben Enwonmu and Bruce Onobrakpeya, but it’s not a stretch to say that for many in the room, the paintings amount to little more than expensive wallpaper. The action is on the floor, where some complex social pecking order is no doubt being reaffirmed. After a protracted bit of foreplay, the night’s emcee steps to the podium. “Please put your phones on vibrate, so you do not interrupt someone who is going to spend some millions,” he says, to approving laughter.

In 1999 the Nimbus Art Center in Ikoyi held the first auction of contemporary art in Nigeria, bringing in N22 million (around $1 million at the inflated official rate at the time, though closer to $250,000 at the black-market rate). It was a clear indication that a local market for contemporary Nigerian art existed. Nearly a decade later, in April 2008, Arthouse Contemporary Limited held the first of a series of auctions that quickly became de rigueur events for a small but dedicated band of serious collectors. Their first auction netted N76 million ($630,000); just seven months later, a second auction brought in N93 million ($770,000). Arthouse owner Kavita Chellaram told Arise magazine in 2009 that the April auction had a 90 percent success rate. “The second one took place in the thick of the credit crunch when, in auction houses elsewhere in the world, sales had halved,” she said. “We still managed to sell over 80 percent of the lots.”

The auctions were a revelation. The appetite for Nigerian art was ravenous among local collectors. Onobrakpeya’s panel work “Greater Nigeria” sold for a record-setting N9.2 million ($75,000); Yusuf Grillo’s “Blue Moon” for N8.8 million ($72,000). When the London auction house Bonhams held its first “Africa Now” auction in 2009 – a show dominated by Nigerian artists – the country for the first time seemed to be carving out a small but vocal niche in the global art world. Yet the burgeoning scene in Lagos – like so much in this megacity – is largely booming behind closed doors. “How much is known of the local collections being put together now in Lagos?” asks Jess Castellote, in his preface to the gorgeous coffee-table tome, Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections. “How many people outside a small circle of art enthusiasts in Nigeria are aware that several of the top collectors in Lagos acquire an average of 100 contemporary art works per year and that these works are not kept in New York, London or Brussels, but in Lagos? How many people know that in Lagos alone, there are well over a hundred full time visual artists living off their work?”

Private collectors are driving the market, but even the most avid buyers, like Yemisi Shyllon and Sammy Olagbaju, are relative unknowns to the general public. Clearly the booming art market is benefiting from the broader economic surge across Nigeria, and the emergence of a professional class with the disposable income to nurture it. (Shyllon is an engineer; Olagbaju, a banker.) The fact that many of these collectors spent significant portions of their lives abroad has no doubt helped to import the Western idea of art as a status symbol. It can be a worthwhile investment, too. Peter Areh, owner of Lagos’ Pendulum Art Gallery, told Arise, “Before now, people were looking to stocks and shares [as investment vehicles], but when they began to see that you could buy art for one naira today and sell it for three naira tomorrow, the market expanded.”

The lots at Terra Kulture are moving briskly. My companion Uzo – who was born in Nigeria, but only recently returned after schooling in the States – is busily making notations in the margins of her catalog. She’s just begun to take an interest in the local art scene, dabbling, dipping a toe in, not sure whether her interest is the start of something – collecting? curating? – or a passing phase. Like so many of the restless young returnees I’ve met these past two weeks in Lagos, Uzo is looking for her niche here. You see them in Bogobiri, hunched over their MacBooks, fussing with business plans and proposals. There’s a gold-rush mentality among them, a sense of impending fortunes to be made with the right idea. If not a new app or a VOD platform for Nigerian movies, why not art? Certainly this world has its own aphrodisiac appeal; during a round of fierce bidding for one hotly contested lot, the spiraling figures send a nervous buzz through the crowd. The build-up is excruciating, exquisite. When the hammer drops and the painting finally sells for more than N8 million, the ovation is swift and spontaneous. There is something distinctly Lagosian about our applause at this spirited burst of spending. The effect it has on the room is contagious. When the lot number is called just a few minutes later of a painting Uzo has had her eye on all night, she gets a restless itch. The bidding stalls at N150,000 – just under a thousand bucks, an amount she’s trying to talk herself into. But she’s too slow to decide; the hammer falls. She sighs, scribbles the final bid in her catalog, and dog-ears the page for future reference.

After the last lot is called and the crowd files out, you can feel the high mood of the night beginning to dissipate. A certain uneasiness, an unfulfillment, settles in the bones. Uzo – still readjusting after years in the Pacific Northwest – admits there’s a degree of ennui to the Lagos life. “When you spend some time here, Lagos is so small,” she says. “You can only hear so many times about someone’s big house, their new car, their trips to Ibiza.”

I’m reminded of a conversation I had one morning at Bogobiri, when Chike, the hotel’s charismatic co-owner, was bemoaning the country’s “sleepy middle class,” who spend their days burying their heads in office work and their nights knocking back overpriced drinks at the Radisson Blu. I could picture them, the same Nigerians you see on billboards and in TV ads, cheerful families in bright dresses and polo shirts eating Indomie instant noodles and washing their hands with anti-bacterial soap. It’s hard for me to begrudge them their sanitized, corporate-branded happiness. But Chike was resolute. The long-simmering insurrection in the Delta was still on a low boil, he said; the violence in the north had grown increasingly harder to contain, and was threatening to spread south. Across the country, there were deeply entrenched issues of economic inequality that no one had the courage to address. “We’re a nation at war,” said Chike. “People don’t realize that.”

“The middle classes are looking after themselves,” said John, the publisher of an educational magazine. “That’s the reason there was no African Spring, or Nigerian Spring. Even at the bottom, there’s a greedy spirit. People are just fighting for themselves.”

There is more than a shred of truth to this. Across classes and cultures, Nigerians are famously complacent. What shocked – and heartened – so many about January’s Occupy Nigeria protests was that for the first time, millions of Nigerians were able to cut across class lines and find common cause with one another. (Worth noting is the fact that it took removal of the fuel subsidy – one of the few tangible goods from which all Nigerians benefit – to do it.) Should such unity be so hard? For decades this country was ruled by a succession of military strongmen, followed by elected leaders whose track record has been spotty at best. Corruption, repression, thievery, and brutal thuggery have been systemic and indiscriminate for so long that you’d imagine victimhood alone would serve as a kind of rallying cry. Yet here you run into the curious inverted logic of Nigerian life, where the government’s crimes and failures, coupled with a general malaise, have instead turned the average Nigerian into an island, cut off from his neighbors. The admirable self-reliance you so often find has a darker political dimension: it allows the country’s leaders to – often literally – get away with murder. Without accountable leaders, Nigerians are forced to fend for themselves; and because they’re accustomed to doing so, they end up lacking both the willpower and the political muscle to hold their leaders accountable. “If there’s no water, you go get a bucket,” a man once told me. “If there’s no light, you turn on the generator.”

Speaking with Chike and John that morning, I found myself in the middle of a very Nigerian sort of conversation – one in which political, social and economic decline are directly tied to a general moral waywardness, a straying from Providence and Scripture. “There are no fruits of Christianity in this country,” said Chike. “It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or a Muslim, because it has no bearings on your day to day life. If you are Christian, you go to church for two hours on a Sunday morning, and that’s it.” The pastors, he said, were a farce: they passed around the collection plate, passed it again, and only after the second offering did they spray the congregation with holy water. The worshippers pushed and shoved, muscling their way forward to receive his blessing. And the country’s leaders were no better, hollowed out by a cancerous moral rot. Someone mentioned in passing that the former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida had recently been seen in a wheelchair; he had a young boyfriend who had “almost tore apart his rectum.” “This is what they’re getting up to,” said Chike. A look of disgust passed across his face. It was as if some Biblical prophecy had come to pass, with even the decrepit infrastructure and the failures of NEPA part of some broader judgment. “The Lord said let there be light, and there is darkness in Nigeria,” he said.

Driving toward the mainland later that week, I notice a government billboard proclaiming, “The sun shines on all Nigerians, no matter who.” This might be true, for the sun does not discriminate; but the fruits of Nigerian life, as Chike pointed out, are more fickle. The shops along Awolowo Road – AV Posh Interiors, Exclusive Lights, The Great Room (“…bespoke interior design”) – are no more meant for all Nigerians than the lunch menu at Chardonnay or the velvet-roped bacchanals of Bacchus. Yet this is true of any society; and, again, it is hard for me to begrudge a man his happiness on the sole basis that he’s managed to succeed in a country where most haven’t. Not all the wealth in Nigeria has been plundered; not every hand has been tainted by some ill-gotten government contract, a 419 scam, a dash. This might seem like an obvious point; yet so much of what seems obvious to me here in Lagos would seem less so if you were reading the morning news in New York, or Sydney, or Berlin.

One afternoon I’m having drinks with a friend in her apartment on V.I. – a beautiful penthouse pad with 180-degree views looking across creeks and mangroves toward the harbor, and the distant blue-gray smudge of the Atlantic. Container ships chug through the narrow channel separating us from a small island dense with coconut palms. The island looks idyllic, untouched. I’ve read of secret hideaways dotting the lagoons surrounding Lagos, playgrounds of the rich and famous: an elite antithesis to the floating slums of Makoro. Late in the day the sun is dipping, the light softening. From the 13th floor of an apartment tower on one of the world’s priciest pieces of real estate, it seems possible to keep Lagos – this manic, unhinged metropolis – at arm’s length. But my friend tells me about the day she saw a bloated corpse drifting along the water below her window. A few days later, another. “That was really sobering, to see that,” she says. “It makes you realize there’s a whole different world out there. We’re so safe and protected here.”

After dinner her housekeeper tells us a popular story that has made the rounds in Lagos. A man is returning to Nigeria after 17 years abroad. His brother, who is a soldier, arrives at Murtala Muhammad to welcome the prodigal home from Germany. But the flight is delayed, and when he returns hours later, there is still no word of the arrival time. After a long wait, the man decides to go home, reasoning that his worldly brother can find a taxi to take him to his house in Ikoyi. It’s late when the flight finally lands, and because the roads are dangerous, there is no taxi driver willing to drive to Ikoyi. The hotels near the airport are booked, so the driver suggests dropping the man at the police station, where he can pass the night safely until the driver returns for him in the morning. The next day, when he arrives at the police station, there’s no sign of the man. The duty officers – who only arrived that morning for the day shift – have heard nothing of this man, who has mysteriously vanished in the night; they were only told of a confrontation with an armed robber, whose bullet-riddled corpse was left in a nearby ditch. Fearing the worst, the driver approaches the ditch and sees the body of the man he had brought there the night before. His heart is racing; he suspects foul play. He goes to the home of the man’s brother in Ikoyi to tell him the horrible news. The soldier accompanies him to the station to make some inquiries, listening impassively to the same denials. But he recognizes his brother’s clothing on one of the off-duty policemen, and the driver spots a suitcase the man was traveling with: it had been full of U.S. dollars, the man had told him, that he was bringing into the country. They say nothing and part outside. The soldier returns to Ikoyi and makes some calls to his army friends. A truck arrives, full of heavily armed soldiers. They return to the police station and begin shooting indiscriminately, killing dozens. “In fact, it was horrible,” says the housekeeper, shaking her head. The bloodbath was total, a purge. To this day, the police station has never reopened. Within weeks, a low-budget movie had hit the streets of Lagos, elevating the story to myth. The housekeeper says I can find the movie at any DVD shop.

“That was this Nigeria at that time,” she says.

I’m hoping for some fun. (That’s how to do it.)

Sunday, April 22.

“Nollywood is dead,” an entertainment lawyer told me one night over drinks at Bogobiri.

It sounded like a bold, even reckless, statement: the Nigerian film industry, after all, is still churning out close to 1,000 low-budget movies a year. The film business, however wild and unregulated, grosses hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Nollywood stars are household names across West Africa, their sexual exploits and petty beefs and formal wear scrutinized and dissected by the overzealous editors of more than a dozen weekly tabloids. I had ostensibly come to Nigeria to report on Nollywood for Variety. If one of the world’s most prolific film industries had died an untimely death – or if it were going through its death throes on my watch – it probably warranted at least a couple of column inches in the Hollywood trade rag.

“They tried to build something too fast before they really had anything,” he continued. And here he started to make his case. It wasn’t that the madly prolific Nollywood producers and directors were throwing down their HD cams and taking up profitable jobs as 419 scammers. The industry, for all its flaws, is still the creative lifeblood of sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation, a provider of tens of thousands of jobs, and a way for Nigeria to flex its cultural muscle across the continent. Nollywood isn’t going anywhere. The problem, he explained, was that filmmakers had become so caught up in their famous system of rapid-fire releases – putting out Sinner’s Love 4, for example, fast on the heels of Sinner’s Love 1, 2 and 3 – that they failed to build the proper structure to support a healthy, functioning film industry. In fact, the more I’ve spoken to people in the film business these first two weeks in Lagos, the more I get a sense of an industry in crisis, and not entirely sure which way to turn.

If you’ve read a Western news story on Nollywood in the past few years, you’ve probably come across the claim that the industry produces 2,000 films a year. This is a misleading figure for two reasons: first, because it was based on a highly flawed study conducted in 2006; second, because comparing Nollywood’s prolific output to its Holly- and Bolly- counterparts is both unbalanced and a bit unfair. Those industries’ movies are being screened in theaters from Miami to Mumbai, while Nollywood pics go straight to VCD, to be viewed in living rooms and shabby video shacks across Nigeria (and, thanks to piracy, the continent). Just 20-30 Nigerian movies are released in the country’s cinemas each year. Most are commercial flops, even by the modest local standards. (The highest grossing Nigerian film of all time, Ije, made just over N50 million – around $310,000 – at the box office in 2010.) Those that do succeed still struggle to recover their production costs, because once a movie has left the theaters, the revenue streams dry up. Piracy has killed DVD distribution in Nigeria. Many filmmakers will avoid DVD releases altogether, hoping to make back their money at private screenings – hotels, churches, universities – once their films have left the theaters. (Ije still hasn’t been released on DVD; The Figurine, a highly regarded film by the director Kunle Afolayan, was just released in January – roughly a year and a half after it left the theaters.) It seems like an odd way for a filmmaker to beat the pirates – gouging out the eyes to spite the face.

The problem that my lawyer friend was getting at is that all of this exists on a wobbly foundation. Formal financing is almost non-existent; most Nigerian producers finance their movies out of pocket, or through loans from friends. (Commercial banks charge extortionate interest rates – up to 30 percent – on loans. It’s not uncommon for a producer to put up his house as collateral.) Distribution chains are poorly organized and undermined by piracy. Copyright laws are weak, and rarely enforced.

It’s important to understand that there are two very different strains of thought in what one might loosely refer to as the “Nigerian film industry.” One still adheres to the established Nollywood model, in which a film is shot on a frantic schedule and a very low budget; released straight to VCD; and (hopefully) snatched up by enough consumers for the producer to recoup his costs. (By all accounts, this model has worked, since the budgets involved are often comically low. Donatus Chikezie, a producer and the general secretary of the Association of Core Nollywood Producers, rattled off a list of titles that had sold 700,000, even a million or more copies, through legal sales alone.) The other – what has been referred to as “New Nollywood” or “New Nigeria Cinema” – is a movement to raise the artistic bar and start producing the sorts of movies that can perform globally. “The whole point of New Nigeria Cinema is to put a proper structure in place… concentrating on distribution, on developing talent, and getting international recognition,” the actor Wale Ojo, who launched the movement in 2010, told me one morning at the Sheraton Hotel.

Here is the conundrum for a Nigerian filmmaker: a low-budget film released straight to VCD will in all likelihood make back its production costs, but will be too technically low-rent to receive that sort of international recognition; but a big-budget film with high production values – something shot on 35mm that will screen at the local Silverbird multiplex and look like, you know, an actual movie – will struggle to break even. Last month, the director Afolayan – generally regarded as Nigerian cinema’s leading light – released his third feature, Phone Swap, a romantic comedy involving the sort of fish-out-of-water hilarity that ensues when two characters from very different backgrounds swap BlackBerries during an airport mishap and, by a series of marginally plausible coincidences, end up swapping lives. I caught Phone Swap at the Palms shopping center last week, and it was a pleasant surprise: well shot, well scripted, briskly paced, and marred by only one embarrassing scene in a Glo shop which almost played as a straight advertisement for the mobile phone provider, one of the pic’s biggest corporate sponsors. All things considered, it was a solid film, one that I could even imagine playing to Western audiences. But after five weeks in the theaters, Phone Swap had grossed just N21 million – not even a third of the $400,000 it cost to produce. What’s popularly referred to as “Nollywood” can in all likelihood continue on ad infinitum. But to make movies that can compete at Cannes or Tribeca or Berlin – something that all the top Nigerian talents aspire to – requires the sort of growth that hasn’t happened yet.

Everyone I speak to believes it’s coming. Part of the reason that movies make so little in box office receipts is that there are so few theaters to show their films. The first Nigerian multiplex was built in 2005; today there are just nine in a country of more than 160 million. That’s likely to change dramatically in the coming years, as commercial growth in Nigeria keeps pace with a rapidly growing middle class with increased spending power. More shopping malls are coming to Lagos and Abuja and Port Harcourt and Ibadan, and they’re going to build around the anchor tenants – Shoprite, Game, a Silverbird or Genesis cinema – that bring in foot traffic. Ten new theaters means a filmmaker will suddenly be able to double his box-office revenue. I’ve been given conservative estimates of another 30 movie theaters in the next five years. Kene Mkparu, a veteran of Britain’s Odeon cinema chain, and managing director of Filmhouse, says his company alone should be able to roll out 20-25 theaters in that same timeframe. “We haven’t even begun to scratch the potential of cinemas in Nigeria,” he told me. Afolayan was also optimistic. “With the rate at which cinemas are beginning to develop, if your budget is 50 million (around $310,000), and your film is good…I believe strongly that it can actually gross $1 million,” he said.

Set against this backdrop of cautious optimism – a sentiment you rarely encounter in this swaggering nation – the Nigerian film world is gearing up to host the eighth annual Africa Movie Academy Awards. The organizers have been relentlessly touting this as the most prestigious award ceremony on the continent, despite the fact that Burkina Faso’s biannual FESPACO film festival – a far grander pageant – has been doling out its prestigious golden stallions to African filmmakers for fifty-some-odd years. The AMAAs have been, up until just a few years ago, a largely Nigerian affair. (They also seem to exist in their own hermetic world of self-congratulation: in the days leading up to the ceremony, about one in five Nigerians that I spoke to – at most – had heard of the awards, outside of people working in the film industry.) Only recently have the AMAAs become more inclusive; last year’s big winner, the wildly entertaining noir thriller Viva Riva!, was a co-production between South Africa and the Congo shot in Kinshasa. Looking over this year’s list of nominees, though, which almost entirely ignore the traditional cinematic powerhouses of Francophone West Africa and the Maghreb, it’s hard not to get the sense that the AMAAs are largely being propped up as an Anglophone counterweight to the awards in Ouagadougou.

It is a stroke of good fortune that I’ve come to Lagos in time for the ceremony, which is being held here for the first time after a puzzling seven-year run in Port Harcourt. (On the surface, Nigeria’s oil capital would seem like an odd venue for the awards, given the logistical challenges of more or less packing up the whole entertainment industry and flying it in from Lagos, not to mention the general unrest in the Delta, and the fact that more than one prominent Nigerian actor has been kidnapped and held for ransom in the past. I am told, though, that some under-the-table quid pro quo between festival organizers and the local government had something to do with it, an understanding which no doubt owed to a very baroque series of promises and back-scratches.) On the afternoon of the ceremony Lagos is putting its best foot forward as host. The scene at the Eko Hotel on Victoria Island is both splashy and ad hoc. Warnings that the formal red-carpet ceremony will begin, according to the invites, at “4pm prompt” are misleading: at half-past four, the red carpet is still being rolled into place. Dozens of attendees are gathered by the reception area, looking resplendent: jaunty men dressed for magazine covers; women in elaborate aso-egi with the pouty hauteur of royalty. “Nigerians are really into the whole see-and-be-seen thing,” a magazine editor once told me. I would perhaps go a step further to say that they treat formal wear with the sort of gravity the rest of us show colon cancer. It is hardly surprising that Lagos society has spawned dozens of tabloid rags and websites dedicated to celebrity style and the weekly calendar of red-carpet events. You can pass an enjoyable afternoon trolling through the catty comments sections on blogs like Bella Naija and Linda Ikeji, where the veil of respect and deference draped across daily life in Nigerian is rent to pieces by what one imagines to be long, red, manicured nails. (“Nigerians are so bitchy,” said my editor friend. “They’re so hypocritical because they have to be over-complimentary.”)

By 5pm there is a parade of long-legged, immaculately coiffed girls struggling to negotiate the stairs from the lobby to the pool bar in their impossibly high heels. Watching them is entertaining sport for the many single men clustered around the bar. In the crowd I notice some dimly remembered faces from film festivals past. A Kenyan friend, a high-powered MBA, suddenly materializes from the thicket in a cocktail dress, looking unsurprised to see me here. We make breezy talk, as if bumping into each other in Lagos were the most logical thing for a Kenyan and American living in Nairobi and Joburg, respectively. Africa can be small like that. After a few minutes her attention is drawn away by a man by the pool. “Isn’t that a real actor?” she asks her friend. (The actor, it turns out, is Isaiah Washington.) They flit off. I finish my drink and return to the reception area to watch the new arrivals. Everyone is either taking pictures with their camera phones or waiting for their pictures to be taken. The paparazzi – a formidable force in Lagos – are everywhere. I spot a Nigerian friend, Nonny, an entertainment journalist, decked out as if she were planning to collect a few trophies herself. We watch a young starlet vamping for the photographers. “Is she famous?” I ask.

Nonny gives her a dismissive once-over. “No.”

“Well,” I say, “she’s sure trying to be.”

Toni Kan arrives at half-past six in a blazer and a shirt unbuttoned at the collar. All weekend he’s been assuring me that the AMAA invitation’s dire warnings – “Door closes at 6pm prompt!” – should be taken as little more than suggestions, gentle prods. He shows up looking unhurried, perhaps just arriving from a previous engagement. There aren’t enough boxes on the social calendar for Toni Kan to fill. We have drinks by the pool with a couple of young filmmakers, waiting for the slow, casual migration that will mark the general consensus that the show is about to begin. Sitting at a nearby table is a beautiful young Nigerian couple; only later, after he’s taken the stage, will I recognize the man as 2Face Idibia, one of the country’s biggest pop stars. The trees are being rocked by a gentle sea breeze. An athletic, middle-aged man is doing laps in the pool, his face submerging and then coming up, gasping for air.

The red carpet has finally been fitted into place. Half a dozen TV crews are swarming, corralling the stars. “I’m hoping for some fun, I’m hoping for spontaneity,” a bubbly young actress tells a TV presenter. It is impossible to tell who is famous and who is just phototropically straining toward the Klieg lights. The paparazzi are mostly young men in their early 20s with a look of Dickensian toil and misery about them. Their eyes hungrily prowl the crowd for famous faces. It is not uncommon for a photographer to snap a few pics of a woman striking elaborate poses before asking, “Can you spell your name for me?” There is something seedy and pent-up and sexual about the whole thing, a cocktail of high expectation and imminent disappointment. “Why not smile into my camera, sweetheart?” oozes one photographer. “That’s how to do it.”

The reception hall is large and festooned and full of handsome people making airy small talk. The buzz is low-energy, diffuse; no one seems to be in a hurry to find their seats. Technicians are still testing the lights and running cables between the tables, though the show was supposed to have kicked off an hour ago. Toni steers us toward a row of seats in the back of the hall and then sits there, looking fidgety, eyeing the VIP tables. Behind the stylish glasses his eyes are making rapid calculations, perhaps feeding past promises and favors owed into some complex social algorithm. He gets up and moves briskly to a nearby table and has a few words with a couple of doughty young women frowning into their BlackBerries. After a brief exchange he beckons me over. Just like that, I’m VIP. The women are unanimously uncurious about my presence at their table. Introductions are curt; no mention of their connection to Toni is ever made. No matter. A few minutes later I’m uncorking the bottle of red that is the sole alcoholic concession to the tens of thousands of naira they’ve spent for this table. Toni sits back in his chair, grinning marvelously at how things have turned out. Every few minutes a beautiful young woman will approach like a supplicant at a royal court. I realize how awfully good it must be to be Toni Kan.

It is almost half-past nine when the lights finally dim and the music kicks up and the night’s emcee, the Haitian actor Jimmy Jean Louis, takes the stage. His monologue is undistinguished, greeted with feeble laughter and tepid applause. Distinguished guests are paraded out and trotted around like show ponies. A few minutes are set aside for Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, the festival’s doyenne – a short, stolid, formidable woman who is largely responsible for midwiving the AMAAs into being. She trundles to the podium to sustained applause. Her face, even from the hundred or so dimly lit paces that separate us, seems to be fixed in a way that is determined, defiant. By way of reminder as to why we are all gathered here this evening in our formal finery for a ceremony that’s kicked off at just about two hours past the appointed hour, she announces in a very theatrical voice, “Our objective is to tell African stories in our own words, and in our own way.”

More applause, and not without feeling. Filmmakers anywhere in the world are, I suspect, a species accustomed to crouching in defensive postures, but nowhere is that more readily the case than in Africa. And not without good reason: nowhere else do images feel so politicized and burdened and freighted with meaning. I have perhaps spoken to a few hundred African filmmakers since I began writing for Variety nearly three years ago, and I have learned, across borders and languages, that a determination to act as a counterbalance to Western images of the continent – whether it’s Blood Diamond or the latest bloodbath on CNN – is nearly a universal mission. It is a powerful yearning for audiences, too, despite the ready availability – and, admittedly, rabid popularity – of Hollywood movies across the continent. I often wonder if this is why African viewers are still drawn to their low-budget local melodramas, in spite of their shoddy production values. Even when a boom mic suddenly lowers itself into a scene, or a character’s wardrobe seems to have changed between jump cuts, or the lead actor fumbles his way through the denouement in a way that really never should have left the cutting room floor, African audiences will put up with all manner of technical hijinx because they want to see themselves and their stories onscreen.

“A new wave of African filmmakers has emerged across the continent,” says Anyiam-Osigwe. She gives an impassioned plea for African nations to tear down their borders to allow for the free movement of people, ideas and capital – a concession to the fact that a number of filmmakers aren’t in attendance tonight because of visa hurdles. Finally she calls for greater investment in African film, which she says “cannot be done without the infrastructure support of corporate Nigeria and corporate Africa.” Here she receives her finest ovation: nothing quite stirs the Nigerian heart like the potential of a solid investment promising appreciable returns. Then the lights dim, the music strikes up, and the show finally begins.

Enough column inches have been wasted through the years on awards ceremonies dragging their Louboutin heels into the wee hours. And Nigerians, especially, are not known for brevity. (To paraphrase an old saying: a Nigerian speaker’s oratorical powers are measured by the strength of his legs.) Suffice it to say that the ceremony moves along with the briskness of rush-hour traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge; that the awards – which feature an endless procession of “Best Film” statuettes, including the categories of Best Diaspora Feature, Best Film by an African Living Abroad, Best Nigerian Film, Best Film in an African Language, and Best Film, full-stop – could perhaps, like a number of Nollywood films, use a bit of editing; that for most of the ceremony’s four-plus hours of self-congratulation, my tablemates seem less interested in the onstage presentations than in the Twitter feeds scrolling across their BlackBerry screens; that the celebrated Nigerian songstress Asa – who belts out a few songs in a fierce, soulful voice – should be famous everywhere, immediately; that my friend Kwame Nyong’o, who wins the Best Animation award for his pic The Legend of Ngong Hills, fills me with a brief burst of Kenyan pride; that the choice of midget leading man Chinedu Ikedieze to hand out the award for Best Child Actor makes you almost pine for the good ol’ days of military rule, when wrong-doers would be lined up on Bar Beach and shot in front of a crowd of spectators; that the technical dominance of the South African film industry affords a couple of brilliant moments of goofy white guys high-fiving and fumbling with the mic at the podium; that, vis-à-vis technical achievements, when the sound cuts out in the middle of 2Face Idibia’s performance – the musical apex of the show – it seems to surprise absolutely no one, and affords everyone in attendance a chance to shake their heads and mutter the familiar refrain, “That’s Nigeria for you”; that the presentation of the night’s biggest awards by such low-rent black American entertainers as Maya Gilbert and Rockmond Dunbar seems like a not ungentle slap in the face to the many assembled filmmakers who have labored for years, if not decades, to develop their own film industries; that after announcing “Maya Gilbert!” in a delighted squeal while handing out the award for Best Actress – a joke that fell flat on its face, and that Maya Gilbert wouldn’t have even briefly considered attempting at, say, the Oscars, and that lends further credence to my belief that Americans, whether white or black, will engage in all manner of self-aggrandizing nonsense on African soil, simply because they can – that Maya Gilbert should have all Africa travel privileges indefinitely revoked; that by the time South African filmmaker Charlie Vundla collects the Best Director and Best Film awards for How 2 Steal 2 Million, the banquet hall is roughly 1/3 full, and the greater part of the audience’s energy is being directed toward the lithe young ushers handing out swag bags; that amid the general hubbub and cheerful commotion following the ceremony, there is some disagreement over which of the Eko Hotel’s nightlife venues will be hosting the after-party; that after some elevator-related confusion, a delegation of South African filmmakers confirms that the rooftop bar is verily and indisputably closed; that the AMAAs have apparently blown their entire budget on putting up foreign filmmakers in the $300-and-up-a-night Eko, an act of generosity which is lost on at least one second-rate American movie star, who appeared in all the local tabloids shortly after arrival, complaining that the supposedly four-star Eko wasn’t up to his exacting standards; that much milling around the lobby commences, putting a slight damper on the high mood of just a few minutes earlier; that after a spirited debate on the likelihood of finding a suitable nightclub in Lagos at half-past one on a Sunday night, the whole raucous lot of us repair to the pool bar, which grudgingly decides to stay open past its usual 1am closing time; that this beneficence proves to be short-lasting, as it takes less than 15 minutes for the thirsty celebrants to empty the fridges of every last bottle of Star and Gulder and Guinness, and even the Johnny Walker Black begins to move briskly at some one hundred U.S. bucks a bottle; that despite our general disappointment and sobriety, the mood is festive, even inspired, with past festivals and filmic triumphs recalled; that New York, too, is fondly remembered; that dawn can sneak up on you, suddenly arriving in equatorial Africa like someone’s snapped open the curtains; and that a certain amount of fleecing by a Lagos cab driver is acceptable at the tail end of a good night.

He cannot just call me mister.

Tuesday, April 17.

Sitting in Bogobiri late one afternoon, two friends arrive, pulling their chairs to my table. I had met them over the weekend: architects living in Edinburgh – a Nigerian and an Irishman – who were spending a week in Lagos, conducting a study on something too abstract for me to comprehend through the Star-fuelled haze that surrounded me that night. A few days later Liam sits beside me, his hair matted to his forehead, his shirt stuck to his chest. He is visibly shaken. There was an event, an encounter, a confrontation on the street which he is too distressed to describe. Tolu claps him on the shoulder, laughing gently. They order tall beers and nurse them while Liam repairs his frayed nerves. Finally he starts to explain: he had taken a picture just down the road – of a building? A danfo? A crowd of hawkers? He doesn’t say – and suddenly there were loud protestations. Men shouted. A few angry youths gathered, got in his face. They began threatening his driver, who tried to intercede. Somehow Liam and Tolu extricated themselves from the scene before it became a melee; the driver was unharmed. It could have been worse. Now they sat in Bogobiri, licking their psychic wounds.

The beers go down smoothly; they grow philosophical. Tolu, who was born and raised in Lagos, understands the undercurrents that pull beneath the surface of Nigerian society, like a strong riptide. Liam put a distance between himself and the crowd on the street, Tolu explains. He hadn’t greeted them or asked their permission; instead, he simply subjugated them to his gaze. Their hostile reaction spoke to the complicated power dynamics that play out in every encounter on the city’s streets: the deference for age and authority, the anxieties over social status, and the complex hierarchies of city life. It’s as if some sub-primal instinct is encoded into the Lagosian’s DNA, so that a man can instinctively perform the social algebra demanded by any occasion to see on which side of the divide he falls: the one who is giving respect, or the one demanding it. Stopped at a red light in a friend’s car one afternoon, a traffic cop approached to accost the driver. “How much you wan give me?” he demanded. The fact that she had done nothing wrong was inconsequential; by virtue of his uniform, he felt entitled to demand some small dash before waving us through. Liam’s encounter on the street this afternoon was different – this time, it was he who was in the position of power – but the angry response to his camera was triggered by the same nervous system, a reflex action when the group’s collective pride had been wounded. How dare he photograph them without even exchanging pleasantries, or introducing himself? It was as if he had tried to colonize their public space, was staking his claim to one of the few places where even a poor man might have sovereignty.

“In Yoruba culture, naiveté can be forgiven if your intentions are noble,” said Tolu the night we’d met. “But certain things will not be tolerated. Disrespect will not be tolerated.” A few nights later I watched an angry man being restrained by the neighbors outside my guesthouse. There had been some altercation that I was too late to witness; all I saw now was the fallout. The man was irate, the muscles straining in his neck as two overpowered youths struggled to hold him back. “Not even my father can beat me,” he said, shouting invectives down the street. “I come from a royal family.” In ancient times, in the days of warring clans and epic heroes, perhaps he would have recited that lineage for us in verse. Still, the intensity of his feeling was profound. He was no man to be laughed at: he was his father’s son. Whatever slight he felt, whatever grievance was being marshaled by the terrible force of his anger, was an insult that rocked the graves of his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, and so on down the line. Day after day, who knows what yoke around the neck dragged this man down? But he had his pride and his royal name. Disrespect would not be tolerated.

In Measuring Time, the writer Helon Habila turns this pride on its head; for Habila it becomes a farce when that pride is distorted, reflected in the fun-house mirror of Nigerian politics. In one scene Habila’s protagonist, Mamo, is lobbying some functionary from the Ministry of Education on behalf of his uncle’s school, which the government is threatening to shut down.

“You don’t understand, Mr. Commissioner—”

“Honorable.”

“What?”

“You must address me as Honorable Commissioner for Education, or Honorable Commissioner, or simply Honorable, but not Mr. Commissioner. We must respect our public officers.” For the first time the voice was raised a pitch higher.

Zara’s mouth fell open. Mamo could imagine the exasperation on his uncle’s face.

“Honorable Commissioner for Education…”

“Go on.”

The school is shut down in the end – a pawn used against Mamo’s father in the town’s party politics. The Honorable Commissioner’s pride, meanwhile, remains intact.

Habila’s novel is a sly jab at the many Honorable Commissioners, both real and imagined, whose public service to the country consists of currying favors and clawing their way to the next highest rung on the political ladder: the shrewd social climbers Habila refers to as “career sycophants.” No doubt the commissioner’s rebuke to Mamo is meant as a reminder of the lowly teacher’s place in the town’s ecosystem. Somewhere in the Ministry is a man who the commissioner himself will have to address with similar deference: one pictures such characters, who appear frequently in Nigerian fiction, as so many pairs of puckered lips. The protocols they cling to like barnacles are as strictly observed as religious doctrine. Not without reason must a long train of dignitaries parade to the mic at every formal function, receiving adulation and bestowing benedictions according to their rank. (The writer Peter Enahoro, commenting on the tedium of their long-winded speeches, observes that “the power of Nigerian oratory is measured by the strength of the speaker’s legs.”) It is hardly surprising that the shelves of the local bookstores are stocked with the hagiographies of leaders past and present, or that the newspapers are daily filled with full-page advertisements in praise of a certain centennial, or a silver anniversary, or a lavish memoriam to a dearly departed. Such testimonies, I suspect, have as much to do with the giver of well-wishes as the receiver. The songs of praise don’t just elevate the respected elder being showered with tribute; equally implicit is the worth and valor of the signatories whose names appear at the bottom, gilded by association. They are no less deserving of praise and remembrance than their venerated subjects.

“How can a white journalist see it? There are boundaries you just can’t cross.”

The photographer Mudi Yahaya is giving a private tour of the Signature Gallery, one of Lagos’ premier venues for contemporary art. Mudi has helped to curate a new exhibition called “Fresh Vernacular,” an attempt by young Nigerian artists to reframe perceptions of Nigerian and African identity. “We don’t want you to see things in one way,” he says, noting that even the way the paintings are hung in the gallery is meant to encourage visual challenges, difficult narrative juxtapositions. Among the works are his own haunting portraits from the “Masquerade and the City” series, an exploration of the mystical sects – widely believed to possess supernatural powers – which are a deep-rooted part of traditional social structures across Nigeria. Mudi has spent years studying the country’s different masquerades, cultivating relationships among them, earning the trust that allowed him to enter into their secretive world. It was this that prompted his question: how can a white man, newly arrived on Nigerian soil, even begin to burrow through all the layers of complexity, to reach some deeper understanding – not only of the masquerades, but of every subtle sign and symbol in the country’s daily life? How can he make sense of it? How can he even see what he sees?

It brings me back to Liam’s encounter, how he failed to instinctively grasp the situation: though his camera was pointed at a group of men on the street, he didn’t even know what he was seeing. The power of his gaze had a profound and unsettling effect on them. In Yoruba culture, says Mudi, “eyeing” another man – looking him up and down – can have disastrous consequences. Fights have occurred on the streets because a man “looked at you up and down and decided you were useless as a person.” If a woman were to eye her husband and give a dismissive cluck of her tongue, it would be grounds for divorce. Mudi laughs softly, as if astounded by his own words. He walks us through the gallery, stopping before a series of Victorian-style portraits of Nigerians during the colonial era. The colorful dress depicted in the paintings is ripe with meanings he interprets for us, explaining how “clothes and fabrics play a very big part in the politics of Nigerian identity.” He removes his traditional, hand-woven Hausa hat and describes the months of craftsmanship that went into it – work that would be instantly recognizable to a Hausa man or woman. It is like a crown, a symbol which commands respect. “If I wear my cap, and I go into a certain place, he cannot just call me mister,” he says. Mudi knows the words, the symbols, the codes. Though we are standing side by side in the gallery, it’s as if we inhabit two entirely different spaces.

The air conditioning is feeble, and the afternoon is hot, muggy, relentless. Mudi is sweating through his shirt, his face wildly animated as we travel with him through the world of contemporary Nigerian art, into the dark corners of Lagos Island, across centuries of Yoruba and Igbo mythologies. Fact, myth, rumor: it is impossible to separate the strands. In the Delta, he says, men cover their bodies with palm fronds to protect themselves at river crossings. It is forbidden for whites to board the narrow dugout canoes: sometimes a jealous river spirit will drag the boat down, searching for a husband or wife. Certain masquerades are called by drums made from human skins; though the drummers beat them wildly, the frequency is beyond the range of human hearing. The dogs howl, drawn into the drummers’ frenzy. It is known that knowledgeable men possessed of certain dark arts can grip your arm and turn the skin to maggots. Sometimes, a drowned man will reappear six months later, as if reborn.

Years ago, when construction began on a certain bridge in Ikeja, the builders kept encountering problems. Four times the pylons were built and the span was raised; four times it all came tumbling down. It was believed that mischievous water spirits were at work and needed to be appeased. A sacrifice had to be made. Thirty-one cows were slaughtered, but the spirits were still hungry. The lives of five white men were needed. It happened quietly, slowly: a foreman would be crossing the site and suddenly – Mudi pantomimes a swift thrust of the hip – he would be bumped into the dark waters below. The spirits were satisfied. The bridge was raised.

The men vanished without a trace.

He claims to be a writer.

Saturday, April 14.

The poet Odia Ofeimun is launching his new stage production Friday night, a song and dance spectacle called Itoya, at the Musical Society of Nigeria (Muson) Center on Lagos Island. Ofeimun, a wry man with gray tufts of beard and a mischievous wit, notes, as he greets us at the door, that his performance’s maiden voyage falls on the same week as the centenary commemorations of the Titanic’s sinking. We offer our hopes for a slightly safer passage. I am introduced to Ofeimun by my friend Mike Jimoh, a fellow writer, and he shows some interest as I tell him about my work. He offers me a preview copy of the Lagos Review of Books, an intellectual journal he’ll be releasing to the public later in the year. Modeled on its New York and London counterparts, the inaugural issue features essays from Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and Ofeimun himself; a novel excerpt by Tolu Ogunlesi; a handful of poems. Ofeimun wrinkles his face, his pride tempered by typos and problems with the lay-out. “I have a problem with it, too,” says Toni Kan. “I’m not in it.” Toni, a big, boisterous, candid man, a respected writer and critic, is one of Lagos’ social pillars. If he doesn’t appear in the Lagos Review of Books, as I’ll soon learn, it’s just about the only place he doesn’t pop up. Ofeimun promises to include him in future issues; he solicits me, too, for a contribution. “I will not pay you, but the day after, you just might get a check,” he says. Leading us into the hall, he hands me a copy of Lagos of the Poets, a collection of poems about the city, which he edited. Opening it to the front page, he writes an inscription: Christopher, You became a Lagosian after the first day.

Itoya, writes Ofeimun in the program, is an Esan expression that loosely means, “I can’t tell what sufferings I have been through.” It is, in essence, a short biography of the continent, from the horrors of the slave trade through the crimes of the colonial era to the turbulent, corrupt, post-colonial state of affairs today. Hardly has the play begun – the audience still trailing in, adjusting their agbadas, joyously greeting friends over the din of the band – when I hear the sound of beer cans popping open behind me. The sound and light crew, it seems, has decided this performance would best be technically supervised from deep within the sauce. Not long into the first act I feel a tap on my shoulder; a hand in the darkness passes me a beer. Despite the abundant signage warning against the consumption of food and drink in the hall, it feels like a minor heresy. While the audience is mostly entertained by the onstage spectacle, the conspicuous glow of cellphones, the murmured conversations, the couples strategically seated by the doors for a fast getaway, suggest that the Nigerian theater is hardly a sacrosanct space.

Itoya itself feels reined in, as if the shabby pageantry of its costume and set design can’t quite match the soaring vision behind it. Ofeimun addresses the challenges of Nigerian theater in the program, and the need to achieve what he describes as “a living, and standing, entrepot of creativity.” Given the collective talent onstage – the wailing of the horn section, the rhythmic stomping of the dancers – it is easy to imagine how much more could have been done with a bigger budget. Still, it is an entertaining show, marching toward a bright, pan-African vision of the future as the audience bursts into prolonged applause. In the lobby after the performance, Ofeimun is glowing. A few young poets crowd close to him, looking for an autograph, or advice, or some sort of benediction. Five years ago, the Oxford-educated Ofeimun was denied an entry visa by the British Consulate in Lagos; some clueless consular bureaucrat scribbled in an attached note, “He claims to be a writer.” No such difficulties for Ofeimun in Lagos: the reverence for him is absolute. Behind him I see Toni Kan moving energetically through the crowds, laughing his boisterous laugh, greeting everyone, then signaling when it’s time to make our speedy exit.

Earlier that night I had met Toni and his friend, Rafael, at a Lebanese-owned restaurant called La Pizza, next to the parking lot at City Mall. It was an open-air place populated by a mostly male clientele, an after-work crowd in open-collared shirts, a few women in business-length skirts, preparing for the weekend. Fans mounted to wooden support beams pushed the hot air in circles. Rafael and I ordered cold Gulder beers; Toni nursed his signature Guinness and Coke. We’d met through a mutual writer-friend in the U.S., and he was offering me a brisk introduction into the city’s literary scene. Lagos is a city of writers and poets and thinkers, of passionate souls. (Rafael, too, had introduced himself with a self-effacing smile as “a failed writer.”) As we drank our beers, headlights from the adjacent parking lot flashed across our sweat-dampened faces, slowly trailing along the wall, as if in search of some elusive meaning. Toni was telling me about his current book project when the phone rang. It was Mike Jimoh, waiting to meet us at Muson. “We’re on our way,” said Toni. He put down the phone and continued to nurse his beer. Phrases like “I’m on my way” or “I’m coming” signaled, in Nigeria, just the first spark of intent. They comprised a duty-bound obligation that was not, however, bound by time. We drank our beers. Toni wanted to write a Lagos book that hadn’t been done before – something that united the different spheres of city life, the penthouses of V.I. and the slums of the mainland, to show how those spheres intersected and overlapped. “There are people on the islands who have never been to the mainland, except to go to the airport,” he said. Another phone ringing. It was Mike Jimoh again; this time, he was calling me. “We’re on our way,” I said. More headlights lit our faces. I slowly sipped my beer.

After the performance we return to La Pizza, our group having grown exponentially. A surly, hirsute Lebanese man circles the restaurant like a pit boss, barking orders. Tables are pushed together, chairs marshaled into service. Beaded bottles of Gulders and Guinnesses appear, growing warm as fast as we can drink them. It is after nine and the crowd has grown younger, the dresses tighter, the skirts shorter. The air is charged with sex and mischief. Hip-hop videos play on wall-mounted TVs, drawing everybody’s attention. We have to shout to hear each other, the conversation drowned out by the music and the clatter of the fans and the rambunctious laughter coming from each table. Friday night. Toni calls for the waiter and orders two plates of fried gizzards and suya: skewers of grilled meat, rubbed with pounded groundnuts, chili powder, ginger, paprika, and other spices. At night you will see vendors selling suya on the side of the road, grilling the meat over massive braziers, their faces lit by kerosene lamps. The food arrives on paper plates soaked through with grease, a toothpick for each diner to spear the meat; sliced onions and chili powder serve as an accompaniment. We’ve been drinking for hours, straight through the performance, and have worked up fierce appetites. The suya goes quickly. Soon we are drowsy with food and alcohol, a long day spent under the sun, wading through the heat. Beyond the lights of the parking lot, the Friday-night traffic on the street, the dark city is poker-faced, revealing none of its secret meanings. “Lagos is a cauldron,” says another poet at the table. “You can be killed for one dollar, or you can make millions of naira.

“Lagos is an enigma.”

“A city is like a poem,” wrote Ofeimun in the book, Lagos: A City at Work. “You enter into it, and you are into a world of concentrated time. Different ages are brought together. Different histories spanning a common geography. And so, you are in the City of God but have not left the City of Man.” The next day I read these words of Ofeimun’s, printed in the magnificent coffee-table tome which, I am told, after its fourth and fifth and sixth editions, continues to sell out as fast as the publishers can print it. I’m fortunate to find a copy at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Yaba, on the mainland, where I’ve come with the German artists from the AAF for an afternoon presentation about performance art. Bisi Silva, who runs the CCA, has managed to put together an extensive collection of art and photography books in the center’s library, in spite of the difficulty of acquiring such books in Nigeria. When friends visit Lagos from abroad, she always has a wish list for them; when she travels, a spare suitcase is always reserved for books. She sighs. Nothing in Lagos comes easy. To run a place like the CCA is to run your own personal fiefdom, where the only way to ensure the lights are on and the paintings are hung is to handle it yourself. “You work for nine hours, and you spend six just trying to make sure everything works,” she says. “It exhausts you.”

Recently a New York-based artist had come to the city for an exhibition. No doubt she had a clear vision of how the show would come off. “Two hours into the opening,” says Bisi, “they were still nailing,” hanging pictures, making adjustments. The artist was nearly in tears. It was the way things went here. “Lagos doesn’t work when you go like this,” she says, making a brisk, chopping motion with her hand. “It works extremely well when you go like this.” She wiggles her hands every which way, as if to illustrate how the dysfunctional chaos of Lagos serves its own peculiar ends. In the art world there are no government grants, no official support. Artists exist in their own shrunken space. Still, they persevere. “There’s so much creative energy here, in spite of the lack of funding,” she says. “People are still doing things.

“It’s a beautiful city, warts and all.”

Trouble na be my work.

Thursday, April 12.

At an intellectual property law conference in Lagos this week, I’m meeting with representatives of Nigeria’s film and music industries, which have struggled to turn their creative output into profit in the face of rampant piracy and distribution problems. Chief Tony Okoroji, chairman of the influential Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), points to the frustrating paradox of the country’s creative industries. “The more music and movies we create, the poorer we become,” he tells attendees in the National Film Corporation’s conference hall. The chief is speaking from long personal experience. In 1976, at the age of 18, he released his first album, Super Sure. In the ‘80s he became one of the country’s best-known musicians, parlaying his success into a career as an advocate and activist on behalf of Nigerian performing artists. He was elected president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, which under his stewardship grew into one of the country’s most powerful unions; later, his relentless activism – during which he organized demonstrations across the country on behalf of recording artists – forced the military government to review its archaic copyright laws. Okoroji was appointed to head the committee that eventually redrafted the outdated statutes.

It was an important step forward for recording artists, yet the bigger problems persisted. Across Nigeria, songs were being played on rag-tag radio stations, in hair salons, on buses, and in other commercial venues where artists never saw a naira for their work. The system was too diffuse; there were too many professional bodies that spoke for too many interests, without a single voice representing their collective interests with the government. Speaking at an industry conference some years ago, where a banner cheerfully announced, “Let the music play!”, Okoroji let loose the spontaneous outburst for which he is still celebrated: “Let the music pay!” It was like a dam had burst. Within months, music-biz stakeholders gathered in search of a way to give their industry coherence, coming together in 2010 to form the umbrella group, COSON.

It was his success with COSON that brought Okoroji to the National Film Corporation this week, as members of the Nollywood film industry seek to replicate the success of the music biz. “There is a new Nigerian spirit that confronts that which appears impossible and…makes it possible,” says Okoroji, to sustained applause. But the obstacles confronting the film industry are great. Chinyere Okorocha, an entertainment lawyer, lambasts the short-sightedness of the government, which has failed to address any of the challenges facing filmmakers trying to enforce their copyrights: the ease of illegal reproduction; poor distribution networks for original works; lack of a regulatory structure; insufficient public awareness. “In Nigeria, our government doesn’t know what intellectual property is,” says Okorocha. “What they know is oil.” Murmurs of general assent from the crowd. Suddenly, the power cuts out. While the government knows oil, it still can’t manage to keep the lights on. There is perhaps a metaphor in this for Nigeria’s creative industries, which are blessed with an abundance of talent – “Nigeria is a brand on its own,” says Okorocha – yet struggle to turn that talent into widespread material gain. Few Nigerians see the benefits of the country’s prodigious oil output, and few Nigerian filmmakers see the benefits of contributing to the continent’s most prolific movie industry. The Nollywood DVDs that proliferate on the streets of Nairobi and Kampala and Joburg, the low-budget shoot-‘em-ups I’ve watched on buses in Botswana and Ghana and Zimbabwe, only profit the pirates who duplicate them and whisk them through the country’s porous borders. Nigerians, again, remain poor in spite of their abundance. “We’re different in Nigeria, and we are blessed,” says Okorocha. “And we need to benefit from our creative genius.”

In the newspapers, in the conversations I have on the street, the government is always described as corrupt, inept: in battling Boko Haram in the north, in resolving the country’s ongoing power crises. That evening, outside Bogobiri, a man is railing against Nigeria’s elected leaders. He points to the snarls of power cables drooping over the street, lifeless for all but a few hours each day. Why is Africa’s largest oil producer exporting oil to all its neighbors, yet being forced to import oil because its decrepit refineries can’t meet the nation’s needs? It is an argument that has gained steam in recent months. Leaks have been reaching the press from a long-anticipated report which will release the findings of an inquiry into the opaque system behind the government’s fuel subsidies. The report was prompted by massive, nationwide protests this January in response to President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to lift the measure – one of the few benefits of oil production in Nigeria that actually reach consumers. Overnight, the price of a liter of petrol at the pump more than doubled. “The protests went on for days,” wrote the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole, in The Atlantic, “at considerable personal risk to the protesters. Several young people were shot dead, and the movement was eventually doused when union leaders capitulated and the army deployed on the streets. The movement did not “succeed” in conventional terms. But something important had changed in the political consciousness of the Nigerian populace. For me and for a number of people I know, the protests gave us an opportunity to be proud of Nigeria, many of us for the first time in our lives.”

If there was pride in the protest, and in the struggle for millions of average Nigerians to find a collective voice, the report’s findings were yet another embarrassing stain on the national conscience. In two years, more than $6 billion had been siphoned away from the fuel-subsidy system, which allows the government to keep prices at the gas pump artificially low. Licenses for fuel importation – a lucrative trade in this fuel-starved nation – were targeted by the corrupt patronage networks that have crippled Nigeria for decades. In 2006, just six companies were involved in importing fuel; five years later, that number had risen to 140. Many spent surprisingly little time performing the task for which they were cashing government checks. In 2009, government officials doled out nearly $800 million in a 24-hour span without properly documenting where the money was going, according to the report. A year later, fifteen fuel importers collected more than $300 million without actually importing any fuel. Earlier in the day, Okoroji referred to the “generator import cabal and diesel distribution clique” who were holding Nigerians hostage. It is impossible not to suspect more than a casual relationship between the country’s power shortages and the well-connected suppliers who profit from them. A small business in Lagos, says the man at Bogobiri, spends 50,000 naira – more than $300 – a day to power its diesel generators. The ambient noise of their constant thrum, the millions of gallons of diesel being coughed up into the sky each day, provide the backdrop to life in Lagos, the sputtering musical score. “I need to join Boko Haram,” he says. “Where is that application form?”

Two hours later, racing across the Third Mainland Bridge, the slums of Lagos Island pass silently outside our windows, black, still, menacing. The darkness is absolute, as if the night had swallowed the western tip of the island, slowly encroaching on the tony precincts of Ikoyi and, in the distance, the well-lit compounds of V.I. It is a fitting symbol, in this city of appalling contradictions, that Lagos’ working poor, numbering in the millions, could be rendered invisible by nightfall. Thirty years ago, Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti sang:

Plenty, plenty light for Africa
Na so-so energy for Africa
Na the big-big men dey get electric
If them no get electric dem go
If they no get electricity
Get plant O
Ordinary light for man nko O

As with so many of Fela’s lyrics, the words to “Original Sufferhead” remain sadly relevant today. Perhaps it’s only fitting, as the dark pall of Lagos Island vanishes behind us, that we are off to pay homage to the departed legend at the New Afrika Shrine, an offshoot of the mythic club where Fela used to hold court. The original Shrine was where Fela preached his tireless sermons against Nigeria’s military dictatorships, the structural adjustments of the West, the multinational corporations that had already begun to rob his country of its resources, under the noses of its corrupt, complicit rulers. In a cloud of marijuana smoke, surrounded by the lithe, gyrating dancers – 27 of whom would become his wives – for which the club was known, Fela became a poor-man’s hero, an icon for millions of Nigeria’s dispossessed. He was a man of the people, but an enemy of the state, which saw his populist rancor as a threat to the officially sanctioned kleptocracy that was running the country into the ground. “In the last military regime, I was the only one to speak out against the government and the army,” he told a British journalist in 1985. “Anything could happen in Nigeria. If they get to the point that everyone trying to rule the place isn’t making any headway, they might drop their guard and ask, ‘Fela, do you want to rule us today?’” Fela never had his chance; his free-wheeling ways were ill-suited for governance. Yet harassed, hounded, arrested, beaten, forced into exile, he endured. In the end, it wasn’t the state’s brutality but his own fast living that caught up with him. Fela Kuti, a proud polygamist who called condoms “un-African,” died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1997. After his death, the original Shrine was closed. Three years later, the New Afrika Shrine was inaugurated by his eldest son, Femi.

The club is buried deep in the mainland; to reach it takes something of a pilgrimage. Efere steers us through the streets of Ikeja, an endless series of turns. He is an entertainment lawyer; the bumper sticker on his car reads: I be lawyer. Trouble na be my work. He is telling us about Fela’s funeral, when more than a million mourners filled the streets of Lagos – the biggest funeral in the country’s history. You could smell the marijuana in the air, he says, burning like incense. When we reach the club he leads us to a table in front of the stage, exchanging a few words with the waiters until the requisite number of chairs materialize. The place is like an airplane hangar, with plastic tables and chairs spaced sporadically around the hall and a few fluorescent-lit pool tables hugging the far wall. Most of the audience are young men in their teens and early 20s, rastas, guys in hip-hop gear smoking joints beneath signs warning that drug use on the premises is strictly prohibited. A few dancers wiggle on shaky wooden platforms surrounded by chicken wire. Femi is onstage, singing, shaking his hips, exhorting the crowd, which is mostly listless. Thursdays’ shows are open to the public – rehearsal for the main event, on Sunday – and the place seems drained of energy. Just a handful of rastas are bobbing on the dancefloor and one-loving their fingers in the air; two white girls of northern European provenance are spastically flailing about. Rob, my American lawyer-friend, is next to the stage, getting close-ups of Femi’s three genetically gifted back-up dancers. Nearby is a small scrum of young men, holding up smart phones and iPads, recording. Femi indulges them with smiles and fist bumps. He is well-loved by Nigerians, but more temperate than his free-wheeling father. (After the show, when we visit him in the dressing room for the requisite platitudes and photo ops, he poses dutifully before going to play with his kids.) He is prompt, business-like, punctual. Not long after we arrived, he said, as if reproaching us specifically, “If you come at 10:45, you have missed four hours of rehearsal.”

Just a few minutes past 11, after a single, brief encore, the dancers jiggle off-stage; the band begins packing up its equipment.

“We said 7pm: sharp. 11pm: sharp,” says Femi. “This is the new Africa.”

The good, the bad, and the beautiful.

Wednesday, April 11.

Organizers of the second Festival of African Culture (FESTAC)*, held in Lagos in the first two months of 1977, were hardly modest about their intentions. The festival, which took place eleven years after the inaugural edition in Dakar, arrived amid a growing tide of nationalism, alongside the conviction that Nigeria – “a nation favored by Providence,” in the words of Achebe – was ready to assume its rightful place on the global stage. The oil boom of the ‘70s came as a sort of benediction for the country’s leaders; flush with petrol dollars, they introduced an ambitious national agenda, building highways, hospitals, and schools, doubling public-sector salaries, and embarking on a bold course of modernization that reflected the country’s newfound prominence as black Africa’s political and economic powerhouse. “To succeed,” said the festival’s organizers, “we must restore the link between culture, creativity, and mastery of modern technology and industrialism…to endow the Black Peoples all over the world with a new society, deeply rooted in our cultural identity, and ready for the great scientific and technological task of conquering the future.” FESTAC was meant to be a triumph of progress and pan-Africanism, a celebration of black culture that drew delegates from around the globe, but Nigeria was clearly both the hostess and the belle of the ball. It was doubtless no coincidence that the new National Theater – said, by some, to resemble the military hat worn by Major General Yakubu Gowon – resembled a crown. FESTAC was Nigeria’s coronation party.

The National Theater was an architectural and technological marvel; FESTAC President Chief Anthony Enahoro called it “the center of Nigerian national life.” (Enahoro was later dismissed for embezzlement.) The 5,000-seat main hall included a rotating stage, an orchestral stand, and headphones at each seat, so that audience members could listen to translations in eight languages. Closed-circuit TV sets lined the halls and were installed in each of the bathrooms. Along with the performance spaces, two massive exhibition halls were used to display sculptures, musical instruments, and works of modern art by African artists. In the conference hall, a wide-ranging colloquium drew scholars from more than 40 countries.

If pan-Africanism was on the agenda, dissent was in the air, too. Wole Soyinka, unmoved by the lavish spectacle put on by FESTAC’s organizers, was critical of “the robots of leadership with their narrow schematism” who had mismanaged the continent in the two decades since independence. Soyinka – prescient as ever – was in fact foreshadowing the dark years that lie ahead for his country. The collapse of oil prices in the 1980s put an end to the ambitious development agenda of the ‘70s, while structural readjustment sought to rein in soaring foreign debt. Parastatal industries were sold off; the civil service was decimated; the naira collapsed. After a brief fling with civilian rule, Nigeria returned to military dictatorship in 1983, with the first of a series of coups. Though Lagos – the economic and cultural heart of the country – continued to grow at a rapid rate, infrastructure projects were put on hold. The city became unsustainable, and in 1991, the government fulfilled its long-planned goal to relocate the capital to Abuja. The National Theater, though still a source of great civic pride, rusted with disuse, and was virtually abandoned. In the years that followed, FESTAC’s legacy was tarnished by leaders of Nigeria’s religious establishment, who claim the festival’s traditional spectacles had lured the country into idolatry, and precipitated the downward slide that began shortly after the closing ceremony.

Driving out to the National Theater on Wednesday morning, the forestalled vision of past urban planners is like a concrete pall over the city. Lagos’ web of multi-lane highways and cloverleafs and long, arcing bridges was built for a city of three million; today, with more than 15 million people wedged into this rapidly growing megalopolis, you can feel the infrastructure straining under the weight of the constant traffic flow. “Go-slow” is an optimistic euphemism for Lagos’ traffic jams; often, you’re not likely to go at all. Capitalizing on the gridlock, young entrepreneurs snake through the logjams, hawking cold water and soft drinks, DVDs, Nollywood tabloids, belts, shoe racks, hard candies, flavorless biscuits, cellphone credit, wristwatches. (A curious phenomenon: the DVDs are almost entirely sold by dwarves, who congregate in hostile-looking scrums along the road’s shoulder.) This form of creative self-sufficiency – a determination to find a way in response to the failures of the formal economy – seems to permeate every quarter of Lagos life. I have hardly noticed any beggars during these first days in Lagos, but nearly everyone is engaged in some sort of commercial hustle. The security guard at a fast-food joint requests “something for Christmas” after opening the door for me; a group of area boys harasses motorists for a small contribution to reward them for filling a pothole with gravel. Beneath the city’s flyovers, men shave heads with electric clippers; women braid hair; tailors mend pants with foot-pedaled sewing machines. At a wedding reception outside City Hall, men greet arriving party-goers with stacks of 1,000-naira notes. Wedding guests will often “spray” the bride and groom in tribute, laying bills on their foreheads and shoulders as they dance. But to spray with musty old naira notes is unthinkable, so these money-changers will swap your rumpled bills for crisp new ones at a 15 percent mark-up.

Disorder reigns in Lagos. Yet while the relentless growth of the past three decades has hardly been kind to the city, attempts are being made to return to the great master plan of the ‘70s. Since taking office in 2007, Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola – whose name and smiling visage appear on garbage trucks beside the slogan, “Excellence starts with cleanliness” – has introduced sweeping initiatives to pick up where his predecessors of the ‘70s left off, building new highways, improving old ones, and implementing projects to add more green spaces to a city whose palette is varying shades of rust and gray. Beside an expressway off-ramp, men in city-issue overalls tend to a modest garden in a small public park, another man sleepily mowing the lawn. Not far from the National Theater, a vast compound ringed by concertina wire-crowned walls bears signage, emblazoned with Chinese characters, for the Lagos Rail Mass Transit Project, a $3 billion initiative to relieve traffic congestion and stitch together some of this city’s far-flung quarters. Later in the week, at Bogobiri, an oil executive will laud the effect that Fashola and a generation of young technocrats are having on the country. “There’s very small numbers who are effecting change, but they are becoming very powerful,” he says. “They’re not shouting, but they are whispering.”

This morning I’m sharing a ride with a group of German performance artists, co-habitants of mine at the AAF. They’ve come to Lagos on a fact-finding mission, hoping to link up with local dancers and artists ahead of a performance they’re planning for the Lagos Live arts festival in December. Today they’re meeting with a dance troupe called the Squad 1 Republic, one of more than 50 groups of artists, dancers, filmmakers and musicians who make up the Artists’ Village: an informal collective that has mushroomed on the land adjacent to the National Theater. Though the theater, despite recent renovation efforts, effectively stopped functioning years ago, the surrounding land – something like sacred ground – continues to sprout artistic seedlings. There is something powerfully symbolic about this yearning for continuity, for totems that hold their mythic weight. When we arrive, a young dancer named Mike greets us warmly and leads us into Squad 1’s performance space: an open-air studio with a sloping concrete dance floor, shaded by zinc awnings and lined with narrow wooden benches and stools. For six months the troupe has been using its own money to slowly improve the space. First they poured the concrete; then they staked a few wobbly posts into the earth and hung the metal sheeting. There are small improvements to be made when they find the money, but for now, their presence here in this much-coveted space is good enough.

The group has already finished rehearsing for the day; under the midday sun, without a breeze stirring, the heat even in the shade is appalling. Mike walks us through a traditional mask dance Squad 1 is preparing for an upcoming performance – something that highlights “the good, the bad, and the beautiful” of Nigerian life. Like many young Nigerians, the dancers have strong opinions about the wayward path their country has taken, the steady decline since a Golden Age they are too young to remember. Memories of FESTAC had already begun to dim by the time the dancers of Squad 1 were born; throughout their lives, the National Theater has sat like a toadstool among marshes and reeds which a reporter for The Punch once described as “a dumping ground for all manner of wastes, as well as an abode for nefarious persons.” Well, the nefarious persons are in government, too, and decades of corruption and mismanagement have made sub-Saharan Africa’s erstwhile beacon a symbol of something bleaker. “All the thing that hasn’t changed is our tradition, our culture,” says Mike, his face fixed with a pride and perseverance that seem to mark Lagosians, like the tribal scars of the north.

In the afternoon I have a meeting in Ikoyi, near the gray concrete shell of the old Federal Secretariat building, a monolith that was abandoned when the capital relocated to Abuja. The Germans drop me off outside a mechanic’s garage, an open-air graveyard of rusted minibuses and sedans on cinderblocks, awaiting the life-giving alchemy of some mechanic-mage in soiled overalls. It’s the lunch hour, and a Coca-Cola umbrella guides me to a chop stall in the rear of the garage, a brisk woman in a colorful wrapper circling, spooning out rice and peppersoup, counting out change from the roll of bills rumpled into her bosom. There are three long picnic tables crowded with mechanics on their lunch break, and a few men in business suits waiting on oil changes and tune-ups. The matron stands over me and cocks her hip. I scan the plates of nearby diners, the dark sauces and stews. “We have rice,” says the woman. “We have fish. There is no chicken.” A young serving girl says something from behind a large, bubbling pot. “We have chicken,” says the woman, correcting herself. I order a plate of white rice with a small dollop of a dark, peppery sauce, and a single breast of stringy chicken. A small wooden door swings from an opening onto the street. Written across it, in chalk, are the words: Mama Segun Food Canteen – As u come – God Bless u.

A handsome young man in an agbada sits across from me, working at his teeth with a toothpick. The place before him is empty, flecked with bits of rice, pools of stew. He has already eaten, he says, but he’s waiting to collect a passport from the a government bureau nearby. Is he preparing to travel, I ask. He laughs. No, it is the passport of a Chinese businessman; a company employs him to bring the documents of foreign nationals to the immigration office: to wait on the queues, hand over the relevant forms, wait for their processing. The tone of his voice is neutral; it is a job. A young girl with tribal scars across her cheeks squats behind him, sifting through groundnuts, raking them with her fingers. Each time I glance toward her our eyes meet, then she quickly looks away. Which of us, I wonder, looks more exotic to the other?

I shovel the rice into my mouth, eat like a laborer. The food is mercifully bland: my taste buds have already been scorched by Nigerian spices, the maniacal reverence for chili peppers. I make eye contact with an elegantly dressed older man nearby, tipping his bottle of ‘33’ Export Lager into a glass, and make a few comic complaints about the heat in Nigeria: the food, the weather. “That’s why Nigerians are so strong,” he says, his face lit with pleasure as he takes a long sip of his beer. The man’s age and comportment, the royal cut of his agbada, the bearing that gives his cheap plastic chair the look of a throne, give him an air of eminence. Mama Segun exchanges frequent words with him, soft asides, and I suspect this canteen is a joint enterprise. I mop at my brow. An old man, hearing our conversation, my complaints, shifts his belly and adjusts his glasses. He has been waiting all week, I suspect, to find an audience for his grievances. The rains used to come this time of year, he says; now everyone is waiting for them. The weather is unpredictable. “The water is rising from here to Vietnam,” he says. “China. India. Malaysia.” He pauses. “Australia.”

We mumble our general agreement.

New customers arrive. The turnover is high. Men eat, depart; others replace them, smiling at me, offering greetings. A small bar, dusty bottles arranged on a wobbly table, offers all the disreputable liquors of the developing world: Esplendido, Elliot rum, Seaman’s whiskey, Night Train Express. A girl is selling individual cigarettes. The scarred woman rakes the groundnuts with her long fingers.

“Japan,” says the old man.

On the pavement outside there is a mechanic, a man in his twenties, bare-chested, the muscles piled one on top of the other, like a totem pole. His head is poking into the driver’s side of an SUV, where a plump woman is staring impassively into the middle distance, unwoo’d by whatever advances he is trying to make. He sees me walking on the passenger side and calls out. “Hello!” he says. “Salaam!” I go over to greet him, and he seems taken aback by the gesture, the obinyo’s sudden warmth. His name is Aladey. “I’m the big man in Nigeria,” he says. “Second only to Obasanjo.” His voice has a beautiful, musical lilt to it, the inflections of pidgin English, of Lagos’ working-class slums. The woman in the SUV, he says, is his wife. She laughs, protests, playfully waves him off with the back of her hand. I laugh, too, shaking my head. Aladey fixes me with a look and asks why she can’t be his wife. He says it in a friendly way, but I can see there is a test implied, too. Is it because he is poor, because he is uneducated, because he is not really the big man in Nigeria? I tease him, point out that she repelled his kisses. “In my country,” I say, mimicking the woman’s gestures, “that is not how we kiss our husbands.”

Aladey laughs. “I can see that you are very playful,” he says. “I greeted you, and you came to me.”

He takes me gently by the wrist and walks with me along the road’s shoulder. He came to Lagos from Oyo State – Yoruba country – but he speaks Igbo, and Hausa, and English. It allows him to communicate with his customers and neighbors, with everyone in the mixed-up cauldron of Lagosian life. “I love everyone,” he says. “That is why we are alive, oh. We must love each other.”

*For the following passage, I am indebted to Andrew Apter’s FESTAC for Black People: Oil Capitalism and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria.