There are many striking similarities between navigating the daily chaos of urban traffic in Lagos, Nigeria and attempting to do business ethically in Nigeria. For one thing the objectives are generally the same — to arrive alive, unharmed, and without any damage to your car or your reputation.
This objective would seem to be utterly impossible to any outsider looking in, except that millions of people manage to do both every single day without incident.
According to a 2016 Report by the U.S. Government’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) on Transportation in Lagos:
Driving is a major safety concern throughout Nigeria. Although traffic laws exist, enforcement remains almost non-existent.. . . Accidents are frequent and often involve fatalities. . . . Vehicular accidents frequently draw large crowds that may become confrontational. The lack of medical response and adequate trauma facilities is also a concern.
Driving in Nigeria is indeed a major safety concern. Anyone who has battled through a four-hour drive from a meeting in Victoria Island to catch a flight at the Airport in Ikeja, Lagos (a distance of less than 29 kilometres or 17 miles) on a rainy Friday evening can attest to this.
The traffic jams are legendary. Vehicles stall and break down right in the middle of the road, with no effort made by their drivers or anyone else to move them to the side. The lane-demarcating lines are faded or non-existent. Even when they’re there in black and white, people cross them with little or no consequence. Drivers cut in front of one another sharply, very aggressively and without indicating. Indicating is for the timid and the naive, as everyone knows you will never be allowed to change lanes the minute you signal your intention to do so.
There are no traffic marshals anywhere to ease the pain, but important government officials do come by from time to time and bully their way through the chaos, facilitated by armed police escorts. Experienced motorists, alerted by the sound of approaching sirens, deftly join in their wake and enjoy much faster passage, leaving many behind to curse their luck and drivers for not taking similar advantage.
There is the ever-present risk of hitting or being hit by everyone else. A fender-bender is more likely to be resolved by the swift exchange of insults and blows, not insurance details. If you’re the innocent victim in the sleek SUV, unfairly bashed by a reckless commercial bus driver with a load of impatient passengers, you immediately become the symbol of the corrupt, unforgiving and oppressive elite in society against whom the less fortunate must forever unite. You will receive no sympathy or assistance from anyone on the scene.
So think about all this for a moment. Given the documented state of play on Nigerian roads where traffic laws exist but enforcement remains nearly non-existent, authorities do not require safety inspection of vehicles, driving habits are unpredictable, accidents are frequent and often involve fatalities, and the lack of medical response and adequate trauma facilities is a serious concern, does any right-thinking person drive or allow himself to be driven anywhere in Nigeria?
The answer is a shocking Yes. Millions of perfectly sane people are actually driving all over the place in Nigeria right now – believe it or not. Kids are being dropped off and picked up from school, appointments are being kept (the traffic notwithstanding) and the overwhelming majority of these people are arriving at their various destinations alive, unharmed and without any damage whatsoever to their cars.
Similarly, millions of people are going about their daily business ethically, without violating any laws either locally or internationally. Services are being rendered, goods are being supplied, contracts are being won, payments are being remitted and official permits are being granted without bribes being demanded or paid to anyone. People are doing business without suffering any damage whatsoever to their reputations.
How are they doing it, you ask?
I cannot speak for everybody, but I can share a few tips from my own personal experience: Start out as early as possible. Be extremely alert. Pay very close attention to everything going on around you. Drive defensively, keeping a safe distance from other vehicles and giving yourself room to maneuver.
Learn to read the “language” of others and anticipate lane-changes before they happen. You must have excellent brakes and the reflexes of a fighter pilot. Know when to insist on your right of way and when to concede with dignity. Always calculate your risks. Be kind and courteous to others, regardless of their own lack of courtesy or consideration. Learn to hold your tongue and your temper.
Finally, recognize that sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do but wait patiently for however long it takes to move ahead again.
Paul T. Oki is an experienced lawyer based in Lagos, Nigeria and the founder of a leading web-based Due Diligence Service that assists the international business community with due diligence enquiries about Nigerian companies. He can be reached at [email protected].