Pipeline Tragedy Illustrates the Hell Called Lagos

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Lagos, Nigeria i

Vendors sell their wares along a stretch of public-transport buses parked on Cater Bridge in Lagos, Dec. 21, 2006. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
Lagos, Nigeria

Vendors sell their wares along a stretch of public-transport buses parked on Cater Bridge in Lagos, Dec. 21, 2006.

Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

A pipeline explosion earlier this week in Lagos, Nigeria, killed hundreds of Nigerians seeking fuel. The death toll is now at 265. Noah Adams talks with New Yorker writer George Packer, who says the tragedy is not surprising in a mega-city dominated by poverty and desperation.


In Nigeria, Africa's top producer of oil, people are willing to risk death to steal gasoline. The reasons are poverty and shortages. In Lagos this week in the dark of early morning, a gang of thieves tapped into a pipeline, left gasoline spewing out. People from the neighborhood came with cans and even plastic bags. There was an explosion and fire. The death toll is now given as 265.

Back in November, George Packer wrote an extensive story about Lagos for the New Yorker magazine and he joins us now to talk about the pipeline tapping and the city's other problems.

I bet you weren't surprised to hear about this event, this fire.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (The New Yorker): Well, it's unusual for these explosions to happen in Lagos. They're more common in the oil delta to the east of the city, but it's not unusual for large numbers of people to die in Lagos because of some disaster.

Just a few years ago, there was a series of massive explosions at a munitions depot and an army barracks. Hundreds of people were killed, either by the explosions or in the stampede, and it shows you what living conditions are like in Lagos where as many as 10 or 12 people are packed into a single room in these very dense slums. And it also shows you how desperate the struggle for survival there is with people willing to tap into pipelines, electrical lines, etc., simply in order to be able to afford the basics.

ADAMS: In your story, you write all of Lagos seems to be burning, including the garbage pits, of course. In your mind's eye, it looks like “Mad Max” combined with “Blade Runner,” but set in an African country.

Mr. PACKER: And I would throw in Dickens as well because in some ways Lagos reminds me of the horrors of a 19th century newly industrializing city with massive slums. Lagos sort of combines that with the postmodern desolation that you evoke with “Mad Max.”

The cityscape is quite apocalyptic. Traffic jams can last four or five hours. The slums are everywhere. The garbage is everywhere. Markets are everywhere. People are constantly buying and selling. There's no differentiation between residential and commercial and industrial areas. You see people doing savagely hard labor in the middle of a modern urban street.

The struggle to survive is on the surface of life everywhere and it creates both a kind of terrible intensity but also a certain amount of vitality in Lagos.

ADAMS: Sixteen million people and you say 600,000 people are arriving every year from other parts of Africa. This is a mega city of the future. Some people find a certain vibrancy and promise in the scene that others find just a specter.

Mr. PACKER: Well, mega cities like Lagos and Bombay and others have become the subject of great interest and even a certain amount of faddishness in the West. Some urban theorists like Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas regard them as sort of a prototype for how cities are going to evolve all over the world without order or rules but with sort of their own self generating principles of organization.

But to me, this is only an idea that could incur to you if you don't live there. The people who live in Lagos find it to be pretty nightmarish and the prospect of it swelling to 23 million in the next 10 years and becoming the third largest city in the world does not fill them with hope. It fills them with a certain amount of horror because it's simply - day to day life there is nearly intolerable and simply keeping your head above water requires all the energy you've got.

ADAMS: You mentioned by the way, and we should point out, that Mr. Koolhaas, the architect, gained some of his perspective from the safety of a helicopter.

Mr. PACKER: Right. And he wrote that what's seen from ground level to be a burning garbage heap turns out from above to be a sort of a self-organizing urban phenomenon.

But people live at ground level and at ground level, Lagos is a pretty hellish place and is a place where people have to struggle to the limits of their endurance simply to have enough to eat and get by from day to day.

ADAMS: George Packer. His article about Lagos is in the November 13 issue of The New Yorker Magazine.

Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. PACKER: My pleasure.

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