By Stephanie McCrummen
Blocks of rundown flats in Festac Town. (Andrew Esiebo/The Washington Post
LAGOS, Nigeria — It was once a place so full of middle-class promise that locals called it Paradise Village or Little London, for its orderly grid of streets, palmy boulevards, parks, and new apartment buildings painted in pastel greens and blues. Lion statues marked one entrance to the suburban enclave on the bushy edges of Lagos, and an iron gate marked another.
“It used to say, ‘Welcome to Festac,’ ” said longtime resident Victor Udoh, 38, standing at the entrance one recent afternoon. “Now just look at it.”
He walked under a rusted yellow bar heralding the barely recognizable place that his neighborhood has become: a network of lightless streets and decaying apartments where water hasn’t run since 1995, generators buzz all day, and people cram into one-room living quarters that used to be called “face-me-I-face-you” but are now called “face-me-I-slap-you” because of how harsh life can be.
“Welcome to Festac,” Udoh said, this time with irony.
Nigeria is often associated with two things: the Boko Haram insurgency and oil. In recent days, attention has turned to the upcoming presidential election, the most competitive in Nigerian history, which many people fear could explode into violence.
But the fragility of Africa’s most populous democracy is also evident in the daily grind of life in neighborhoods such as Festac, where residents have watched corrupt officials sell off public parks and buildings, basic services vanish and life otherwise erode into the sort of every-man-for-himself hustle that Nigerians fear will be their country’s undoing.
“Festac town is like Nigeria,” said Toni Kan, a writer who is working on a novel about Lagos. “Big on promise, dismal when it comes to fulfillment.”
Once, a point of pride
It began with a big party. The government built Festac town to house musicians and artists who came to Nigeria for the pan-African cultural extravaganza called Festac ’77, a kind of Woodstock for the continent underwritten by Nigeria’s booming, newly nationalized oil industry.
Like the festival, the town was meant to be a point of pride, a showcase for the kind of society that Nigeria’s government could deliver. Festac had its own post office, power station, and police and fire departments. It had a sports club, health centers and public schools. It had streetlamps that flooded light onto the sidewalks in the evenings.
After the festival, the government held a lottery, and soon here came the Udohs, the Nwonus and the Ikes through the gates and into the fresh-painted apartments and bungalows.
It was hardly the only middle-class neighborhood in Lagos, but it was one of the most deliberately planned, and until the mid-1990s or so, the government could be counted on to haul trash, maintain grass and run red buses that took commuters to and from work.
“I thought it was the beginning of everything,” Udoh said, recalling how it felt growing up here, wearing a crisp uniform to school, imagining a future in business or government. “When we were young, the government would always say, ‘You are the future of tomorrow.’ Now we just try to make our own strides, because if you wait for them, you’ll starve.”
Now it was afternoon, and he headed to the apartment where he still lives with his mother, who was a nurse until the health center where she worked closed, at which point she began hawking peanuts. Udoh makes about $40 a month hustling work as a hairdresser.
“These streetlights used to work,” Udoh said, looking up at the spindly metal poles, useful now only for campaign posters for President Goodluck Jonathan — “Let’s Do More!” — and opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator now smiling down in a black tuxedo.
Udoh detoured into a vast market of muddy paths and lean-to stalls crammed with vendors selling smoked fish, tomatoes, socks, chickens, cellphone cards, shoes and DVDs, an unplanned sprawl that spills onto the edges of Badagry Highway, where cars periodically careen into the market.
“It’s so dangerous,” Udoh said. “The local government says this is illegal, but they get fees from all these stands — they make so much money from it.”
He turned onto a road lined with homes whose gates had “this house is not for sale” spray-painted on them, a phrase that began appearing all over town when there was a rash of scammers selling houses out from under their unaware owners.
He passed cinder-block walls spray-painted with the names of gangs, the Enu Boyz and the Kingston Boyz. He pointed out a parking lot that used to be a park where he played.
“They sold that,” Udoh said, referring to the government.
He noted the Tastee Chicken restaurant across the street; it used to be the housing authority office, where his mom could complain if trash wasn’t picked up.
They sold that, too,” he said. “They sold everything they could to get rich.”
He turned onto Road 22, buzzing with the sound of a hundred generators.
He passed by a cellphone store where two former classmates, unemployed wedding photographers, were sitting on white plastic chairs at 3 p.m. Next door was a “protel,” a storefront hotel where an old classmate works as a prostitute, and down the street were Internet cafes that until recently were the unofficial offices of “Yahoo boys,” jobless young men who’d spend all day e-mailing Americans, claiming to be the son of a diplomat who’d inherit millions if only he could get money for bribes.
Finally Udoh arrived at a block of four apartment buildings, their 1970s paint now faded and splotched with black mold, their balconies tied with webs of electrical wires and facing a courtyard of dirt.
“We used to have grass here,” Udoh said. “It was lush green. There was a lot of fresh air coming in.”
‘Almost like . . . village life’
In the courtyard were rows of blue water tanks and boreholes where residents have finessed their own water; a heap of old furniture from a recent eviction; a pile of firewood that some people use these days for cooking when there is no money for kerosene.
The air smelled like burning trash and gas from generators.
“It’s almost like we are going back to village life,” Udoh joked.
Recently, he said, the government sold a town water tower to a Chinese businessman who has connected pipes and meters to the apartments, but few residents have signed on.
“We don’t trust it,” Udoh said, explaining that people are afraid that the man will jack up prices. “It’s too good to be true.”
Udoh opened a heavy iron gate that surrounds his apartment like a cage. He’d installed it to ward off thieves, whom residents now deal with “jungle justice” style, he said, because the police usually handle robbers by taking a cut of the bounty and releasing them.
Recently, he and other residents chased a robber through the courtyard, caught him and began beating him until Udoh recognized the man, he said.
“He was from my class,” he said. “I told people, ‘Beat him, but don’t kill him.’ I think I saved his life. Really, he was just trying to get something to eat.”
Udoh walked into his apartment, which was dark and hot in the late afternoon.
“Hi, Mom,” he said to his mother, who was sitting on a couch she bought around 1983. Gloria Udoh said she remembered watching Festac ’77 on television, marveling at the dancers and singers.
“It was something that made us so proud,” she said. “By then, everything was okay. This place was like a foreign country.”
Gloria said she has started storing rice and water for Election Day, when residents of Festac — a melting pot of tribes — usually lock their doors and stay inside. Victor said whatever election violence may erupt will have more to do with a power struggle among greedy elites and their proxies than any kind of hatred among neighbors, who are too exhausted to care.
“For years they have left us . . .”Gloria was saying about Nigeria’s leaders, and just then there was a click, and then quiet. The buzzing stopped.
“Oh,” Victor said, looking up, surprised. “They have brought the light.”
A ceiling fan began whirring. The television blinked on. A newscaster started talking about the election and an army operation against Boko Haram in the northeast, all of which seemed to exist on another planet.
A few minutes later, the power blinked off again, and the buzzing resumed.