- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 3, 2012

LAGOS, Nigeria - The traffic begins long before dawn in Nigeria’s largest city. The poor crowd onto benches welded inside dented, clattering buses.

The middle classes sit behind the steering wheels of used imports. As the first sunbeams cut through the exhaust fumes, the wealthy thumb tablet computers in cars with blaring sirens, chauffeured by moonlighting policemen.

They will almost certainly end up jumbled together in one of the epic traffic jams that, if nothing else, serve to bridge the class divide in this metropolis of 17.5 million.

In Lagos, which is predicted to overtake Cairo as Africa’s most populous city in 2015, the traffic jams that Nigerians call “go-slows” can strike at any moment.

Here, drivers are hostage to a road network that hasn’t been upgraded since the 1970s. Bridges are rickety, and potholes swallow cars to the axles.

Trying to beat the rush inspires even more chaos. Drivers ignore one-way signs and race through parking lots. Passengers risk their lives on motorcycle taxis that blast through gaps in traffic without pause or warning, trailing plumes of exhaust smoke.

Bus drivers, whose wages depend on how many passengers they pick up, stop in mid-lane while conductors lean out shouting the destinations.

The rich and powerful have security forces who bully drivers out of their way with leather whips strong enough to crack windshields.

Lagos state forces drivers who go against traffic on a one-way street to undergo psychiatric evaluations at their own expense.

“It is his abnormal behavior that raised the need for psychiatric evaluation,” an official leaflet explains. “We need to know whether such a person should be allowed to drive on our roads at all.”

The new law obliges a court to impose a three-year sentence, regardless of what the psychiatrists find.

Just the way it is

More tough laws are coming, mandating fines of more than $200 — more than three months’ income for most Nigerians — for eating, smoking or using a cellphone behind the wheel.

However, many Lagosians simply acknowledge the traffic as a living, breathing aspect of daily life in a nation where oil money vanishes into corrupt pockets, police routinely harass those they should protect and a livelihood comes only to the swift and the fearless.

“It kind of suits Nigeria in a way. It wouldn’t be Nigeria if it ran smoothly,” said Eby Emenike, a sports agent, idling in her air-conditioned but gridlocked sedan. “It’s all part of it, the honking, the horns, the cars running out of petrol in the middle of traffic. It’s all part of Nigeria.”

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