John Darnton’s Nigerian Stories

Image source: jbdodane {CC BY-NC 2.0}

On February 12, 1976, John Darnton arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, to take up his post as Nigerian foreign correspondent for the New York Times. The following day, he woke up to martial music on the radio and Lieutenant Colonel Buka Dimka’s announcement that he has seized power and assassinated the Head of State – General Murtala Muhammed.

13 months later, Darnton was arrested, jailed and kicked out of Nigeria with his wife and two young daughters by the Federal Military Government of General Olusegun Obasanjo. No official explanation was provided for his deportation but it was believed that his New York Times’ stories about the country displeased the government.

During his short stay in Nigeria, Darnton wrote some interesting observational pieces for the New York Times about the country and its people. I got the opportunity to read most of these pieces earlier this year and it was fascinating to see some similarities between 1976 Nigeria and 2016 Nigeria. A key difference between past and present Nigeria is that the 1976 Nigeria was in the midst of a prosperous oil boom while 2016 Nigeria is in a recession with stagnating oil prices.

Some of the key issues in Darnton’s articles include foreign-trained Nigerians, housing rents, the 70’s cement scandal and Lagos’ notorious traffic jams.


Foreign-trained Nigerians

Darnton wrote about the story of Bayo, a 22 year old Nigerian studying Physics at the University of Wisconsin for four years, who came back to Lagos for a month’s vacation and decided to return back to America after just one week. “I forgot what Nigeria is like,” Bayo said, “the crowds, the noise, the dirt, the overwhelming, helpless poverty. I kept walking around like a stranger, like I was seeing all these things for the first time and nobody else even noticed them.” He continued “I told my parents I would be back as soon as I finished up, but I’m not sure. I don’t know if I can ever come back.”

Darnton also reported about a Nigerian kidney specialist who trained abroad and returned to work at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) but found it frustrating because the hospital equipment was so rudimentary that his expertise was wasted.  There were other complaints from foreign-trained Nigerians that they had to work for white bosses who were no better trained than them but were paid much more and treated with greater deference by their Nigerian employers. Some told Darnton that they were made to work for Nigerian bosses who were recruited because of their ‘family connections’ and were basically incompetent.


Housing rents

Darnton said that housing was a problem in 1976 because “an overheated economy, fuelled by the oil boom, have pushed the rents to an astronomical level.”  Nigerians were abandoning the villages and migrating to Lagos to strike it rich. Expatriates from Britain, America, West Germany and France also came to Nigeria to earn some of its oil boom windfall. This influx of villagers and foreigners into Lagos drove up the housing prices. Rents in Ikoyi Island, a posh area of Lagos, went for $90,000 a year while a modest two-bedroom apartment downtown was $25,000. The rent on these properties had to be paid five years in advance.


Cement Scandal

The Government of General Yakubu Gown before it was overthrown in 1975 by General Murtala Muhammed had ordered twenty million tonnes of cement. This all arrived at the same time and paralysed the Lagos ports. At the peak of this cement scandal, there was a backlog of over five hundred ships which congested the ports and these vessels had to wait over six months to unload their cargo. Most of the cement lost its binding qualities during this time and became worthless for construction. Each day the ships were anchored at the ports; its foreign owners collected $4100 of demurage costs from the Nigerian Government. The cement scandal was one of the reasons why the General Yakubu Gown’s Government was overthrown. An investigation by a tribunal appointed by General Murtala Muhammed revealed that the Gown Government overpaid for the cement purchased and could have saved the country around fifty-seven million dollars if it had negotiated with its foreign suppliers. It was estimated that the demurage bills cost Nigeria around two hundred and forty million dollars. The tribunal also found evidence of kickbacks and bribes between government officials and foreign companies involving “phony corporations, dubious letters of credit and Swiss bank accounts.”


Traffic Jams

A common complaint of people living in Lagos in 1976 was traffic jams. Darnton wrote “that it takes five to six hours to drive across town, a distance of no more than 12 miles, touches every aspect of life. Ambulances cannot make it to hospitals. Taxis cannot make it to the airport, Sanitation trucks cannot make their rounds. Appointments are freely broken, with a universally accepted excuse.” He continued “the previous (General Yakubu Gown’s) Government was toppled in part because it could not eradicate the “go-slows,” and the previous head of state (General Murtala Muhammed) was assassinated while he was stuck in one.” Murtala Muhammed’s successor, General Olusegun Obasanjo, made two attempts to deal with Lagos’ traffic problems. He ordered red-capped military officers to direct traffic at major Lagos intersections in November 1976. These soldiers used three-foot long braided horsewhips to beat motorists who didn’t follow their instructions. Drivers were regularly yanked out of their cars and flogged but these violent interventions didn’t improve traffic congestions in Lagos. The Obasanjo Government then issued a decree in January 1977 which immobilized cars on certain days of the week. Vehicles with even numbers on their license plates were not allowed on most streets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Odd numbered cars were prevented from plying the streets on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Drivers who went out on the wrong days had their cars impounded and had to pay the equivalent of $160 to retrieve their cars. If they failed to retrieve their cars within 24 hours then they would have to wait for 2 weeks and then pay $1000 in storage costs. Taxi drivers were exempted from this driving decree and used the opportunity to increase their fares which priced out the average man. Some rich commuters purchased second cars to secure second license plates and an illegal market in plates thrived.

A Nigerian businessman told Darnton that “anyone who needs character building should come to Lagos. He will learn patience, fortitude and if he survives, humour.”

You still need all three things to live in present-day Lagos.


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