The long bridge in Lagos is quite a story. You can feel her curves beneath you as you move, and if you’re still you can feel her sway and vibrate like a drunkard. There’s an incessantly honking Toyota Camry behind you. Outside the window a guy selling pirated DVD’s walks past, followed by another selling red oak plantain chips. Your eyes meet his, he pulls closer. You don’t need to honk or beckon him over; if you didn’t mean to patronize him, you wouldn’t have held his gaze for more than a millisecond. You wind your window down, and make the transaction. Two for N200. He gives you your change before you hand him the money. You both know the drill.
You can look to your right at the sleepy lagoon, with its bare chested fishermen canoeing sharply, awake to the early morning opportunity; past it, the three housing blocks of the University of Lagos, tower above the city’s newly crowned technology capital, Yaba. Drive further down and you can see the shanties of Makoko, stilts rising up from the water in proud defiance, a story of too many clashes with the governments of any given day. If you look hard enough there’s the blue roof of the floating school, evidence of the charity of Millennials in Lagos and talented architects.
You can be forgiven for not taking in the sights though. There’s more than enough to occupy your attention in the busy traffic. Unless you leave your house before 6.30am or after 10 am – in the evenings, before 4pm or after 10pm – you’ll be stuck in it. The Olympic slap-slap-slapping of rubber slippers as hawkers chase seemingly interested drivers, the grifting confidence of the ones who sell fake windscreen wipers, dog leashes, jump cables that only work for one week after purchase, and that pink rubber hose thingy for transferring fuel from a jerry can to your car, during fuel scarcity – Chinese solutions to Nigerian problems.
On any given day, there’s a minimum of four lanes formed on the bridge. You want to stick to the inside left when you’re tired or in a tranquil mood. It’s the sanest lane, the first lane. You can’t swerve left. So, it moves more predictably than the others. The only problem is, this is where all the cars that want to break down, break down, and that can be infuriating. Also, sometimes, in really bad traffic the man in front of you will come out of his car, pull his zipper down, and piss shamelessly on his tyres. He won’t look at you when you pull up beside him, honking about decorum and proper manners. When you gotta go, you go.
The second lane from the left is for young people in Elantras, Second-hand Accords and Kia Rios. They’re slightly late for work, but they’re not ready to scratch their nice cars. The drivers here are sensible, but a lot more aggressive than first. Second is safe, second is quick.
Third is quicker. Third has Land cruisers with newspaper reading bankers in the back seats, Danfo buses with conductors trading insults with their passengers, some lorry with Julius Berger construction workers crammed in its back like sardines. And it has a station wagon full of kids, the driver swerving like a drunkard. Third is in a hurry. There are people really, really late for work; there are taxi and Danfo drivers, for whom time (and fuel) is literally money. You don’t argue if your car is scratched on third. You know what you signed up for.
All the trouble on the bridge starts from fourth. Half the traffic on the bridge is because fourth lane drivers are so very badly behaved. At Oworo, the bus drivers stop abruptly on the road to pick up passengers. Horns blaring, the drivers behind them swerve into third, and cause everyone else to move left into poor first. Traffic. At the Ebute-Metta exit, fourth drivers try to be smart and cut the line, causing that insane bottleneck when the others refuse to let them back in. It’s not uncommon to see drivers fighting on fourth.
Third Mainland traffic heaves along in the early morning, sound tracked by the inspirational tapes and music of its sleep-deprived travellers. The evenings belong to the radio. Hilarious complaints and political commentary on Nigeria info, the Britamerigerian accents on The Beat FM or the brash pidgin humour of Wazobia FM keep you company as you crawl home. Everyone knows the rules. It’s slow and steady, with the assurance of an end. For most people in Lagos, that’s a good enough deal.
Every now and then, some rich Oga or Madam comes along in their bulletproof cars and wailing sirens, and distorts the delicate equilibrium of this body of traffic. Once the convoy passes, there’s a slight maddening: some smart ass Corolla driver who was waiting patiently beside you, swerves into your lane, hazard lights blinking, trying to follow the convoy, to cheat, to pretend like he is one with this speeding comet of upper class oppression. He doesn’t get far.
Third Mainland Bridge is just. The cheater moves a maximum of three cars ahead, till a smarter fellow cuts in front of him, hazard lights on, trying the same formula. Balance is restored. He switches his hazard off and pretends to take a phone call while you all judge him as you pass. We’re all in this together in Lagos, except we can’t afford military convoys.