Whenever I woke up in Lagos I was pretty aware that anything might happen. This may not be unique to Nigeria, lots of under-developed countries have daily surprises, but in my experience and in those of almost every prolific traveller I have met, Nigeria takes it to a whole new level. Let me illustrate with some stories of my stay in the Federal Palace Hotel, my regular haunt for my first few trips until I moved into an apartment.
The Federal Palace Hotel was a Five Star Hotel…..with rats. I would fall asleep in my £100 a night hotel (this was in 1980s so we are talking a serious amount of money then), to the sound of rats scratching and shuttling along my lowered ceiling. More than once, whilst having a drink or meeting in the lobby bar, a rat would run across my foot en route to ‘dinner time’ in the kitchen. In the normal world I was used to, in the unlikely event this happened, hotel staff would be aghast and would take corrective action. In Nigeria, the more you protest, the funnier it is apparently.
Africa has an almost ‘Zen like’ culture. Staff would smile and nod, chuckle, appear to listen and then go back to sleep. I am not sure what Nigerians do at night but during the day it seems like most people’s job descriptions seem to involve regular napping. In the local patois, they are ‘very diligent’ at catching up on their sleep.
I remember on one occasion, hearing The Voice, mentioned in my previous piece, thumping the Reception Desk loudly at 8pm one evening demanding to speak to ‘The Duty Manager.’ Eventually, he succeeded in rousing someone from their slumbers under the desk to announce to them ‘The telephone in my room does not work’. Myself and the other regulars who were enjoying a beer (which occasionally had a dead cockroach in the bottle) looked at each other thinking ‘Whose telephone works?’
The Duty Manager said that he would get an engineer to see to it first thing the next morning, ‘No problem.’ With that he went back to sleep under the desk and The Voice, not believing a word of it but feeling he had stood up for standards of times gone by, went back to his room. Now, I should explain that the Duty Manager’s integrity was intact because if anyone tells you in Nigeria ‘No problem!’ the one thing you can be sure of, is that you have a problem. It is short hand for ‘Nothing works. There is nothing I can do about it. I want this pointless conversation to end before I have to tell you some lies but I don’t want to upset you. Have a nice day.’ The phones almost never worked then, not just in the hotel but in Lagos. The Duty Manager was just showing good customer service!
In offices, almost everyone would have a phone on their desk and a secretary to answer it, which would have been ‘most advantageous’ (more dialect) had the phone ever rang but it of course it almost never did so it was largely there just for looks and so was the secretary. As the phones didn’t work so people relied on hand delivered messages and just had meetings at random, hoping to catch people ‘in their office’. This would have been an excellent tactic, except everyone else was also out of their office trying to catch someone else in their office. Consequently Lagos was gridlocked by traffic full of business people and messengers on the way to each others’ offices. Still at least they were busy! . (By all accounts mobile phones should now have rendered all this redundant but Nigeria is still a face to face culture so the traffic is still gridlocked but at least you can make meetings that don’t happen more easily)
When you did arrive at a business man’s offices, the Receptionist who was invariably doing her nails, studying for an exam or sleeping, would say ‘He has travelled.’ This would always be delivered in a tone of both resignation at the futility of her job and annoyance that you had interrupted her from one of her three other important activities listed previously.
It took me a while to understand that ‘He has travelled’ was actually a useless piece of information. It could mean he has gone to his village outside of Lagos for a month, he has gone abroad for a week, he has gone to visit his mistress for a few hours or he is in Lagos’ permanent traffic jam trying to find someone else in his office. I soon learned that trying to narrow it down to any of these was an exercise in futility. Receptionists were invariably just like witnesses that didn’t know anything of a crime, and you just have to ‘let them go’. I mean, why would a businessman’s secretary know where he was going or indeed show any interest. You had probably woken her up from her daydream of a better job, one that she was eager to return to the minute you had gone.
It was commonplace to see eager-beaver American Businessmen, on a one week business trip to Lagos, go from being energetic and overconfident super aggressive types with their intensive schedule, to quivering wrecks within 3 days when not one of their scheduled meetings had actually materialised. I would go for between a month and three months and achieve maybe a quarter of what I had intended and quite a few things I hadn’t. You just had to ‘go with the flow’ or lack thereof. Nigeria chewed people up, like a flatulent goat and then sent them on their way with nothing to remember but the steamy heat and interesting tropical smells.
There are many other things one should know about the Federal Palace Hotel. It was expensive. It was always full. It was owned by the government. It lost money every year. How does a hotel that charges £100 per night, pays its staff very little and is always full lose money? Simple. People would settle their bill for cash. When it was time to pay, 50% or less in cash to the Chief Accountant and your bill would be lost. Everyone knew this, including the Government, but as long as everyone got their slice that was all that mattered. Every year the hotel got more subsidies and every year it put its prices up. Every year it was full and every year it lost more money.
One of the consequences of this alternative economy, was that NEPA (the Nigerian Electric Power Authority) might cut off the hotel for not paying its bill. This sounds dramatic, but NEPA was also known as No Electricity Provided Anyway so the threat was more theoretical than real. You never know if the power the hotel had lost was because it hadn’t paid its bill or because NEPA had lost power anyway, which could last anything from an hour to 3 days typically.
The good news was that the Federal Palace Hotel was a 5 Star hotel and so it had a generator. The bad news was that often no one remembered to order petrol for it. After 2 days of no electricity on one occasion (and no air conditioning in 100 degrees heat and 100 percent humidity) one of my fellow guests and myself went to alert (A.K.A. wake up) the guy responsible for the generator, to be told ‘ There is no fuel. The hotel has not paid the petrol company.’ Direct action was called for.
Myself and my fellow guest jumped into a cab and took it down to the fuel depot by the port. We then paid (dashed) a random tanker driver to take his full tanker to the hotel, with us in the tanker’s cab. We got to the hotel. He filled the hotels tank and the generator started working. Heaven! A quick journey to the Hotel’s Offices to see the Chief Accountant and he gave us our cash back. We said ‘We obviously do not have a receipt?’ ‘No problem!’ he replied smiling.
Another day in Nigeria had slipped by.