To avoid being held up by submachine-gun-toting highwaymen in the "Dodge City" section of this sprawling capital, a group of Nigerians and foreigners left the downtown island of Ikoyi shortly after midnight recently in a fast moving, three-car convoy through the congested urban slums.
The stark dangers of mainland Lagos' Ikeja neighborhood passed out of mind as the group reached The African Shrine nightclub of big band Afro-jazz king Fela Anikulapo Kuti: an open-air compound, partially covered by sheets of corrugated steel laid on 18-foot-high cement pillars.
After a night of pounding rhythm and harsh iconoclastic lyrics, the gray light of dawn peeking under the steel eaves was greeted by the audience with some relief. It coincided with the end of the show and the conveyed message that it was probably safer now to get back to the marshy three-island cluster that is the heart of this West African city.
Crime is the most dramatic change in the life of this vibrant city in recent years. Ten years ago, it was not considered foolhardy to step out onto the street at any time of night to hail a taxi to a nightclub anywhere. The popular dance then was the West African "highlife."
Disco reigns today, but many Nigerians have to travel out of Lagos to the interior cities to enjoy it because few are willing to drive around Lagos at night.
Since Nigeria's mid-1970s oil boom, Lagos has attracted large numbers of desperate men and women from the countryside who come to the city with few or no skills. The city's population is estimated to have grown from 1 million to 4 million or more in a decade.
Teams of armed bandits, running in size from 50 to 100, regularly raid entire neighborhoods, such as the Iju section of Lagos where 15 residents were mauled and robbed in a five-hour night raid recently.
The marauders stole more than $30,000 in money and property, according to the Punch newspaper. The police showed up at daybreak,
During the past year -- accompanying the rise in food prices and unemployment -- the attacks have taken on an added viciousness, with the victims being stabbed, clubbed or shot after handing over their property.
In the Iju raid, one victim was severly cut on his head and arms with razor-sharp machetes after the thieves emptied his house.
Policeman Benjamin Olatunji described the armed band as an "organized syndicate" that regularly raids sections of the city at night. Lagos Gov. Lateef Jakande said reported violent crimes in the city -- rapes, homicides, armed housebreaking and armed robbery -- have increased in the last year alone from 13,700 to 18,000. By comparison, the official count of similar crimes in Washington for the last fiscal year reached 24,295.
Stories are common in Lagos of roaming night police patrols getting into a fight with raiders and backing down because they are outgunned. The police, residents complain, were sorely neglected under Nigeria's recently ended 13 years of military rule.
The robber gangs have become so bold that they post "bills" in neighborhoods declaring their intention to raid the area in the near future. The chairman of the Papa Asafa landlords association, H. F. Kosoro, complained publicly that police officials demanded that he and his neighbors disband a vigilante committee they had formed to repulse one such advertised raid.
"Unless the police come out in full to protect us," Kosoro said, "the robbers will loot our property and rape our wives."
Dele Giwa, a Nigerian columnist who lived for a number of years in New York City feels that "the Big Apple is a much safer place than Lagos."
In his weekly column, Giwa wrote that the raiders "are now in the habit of sending letters to whole neighborhoods" giving details of their attack strategies and inviting the residents to strengthen their defenses.
One common form of daylight brigandage in Lagos is for armed car thieves, using an old car, to force a driver of a new car to the side of the road and take his car at gunpoint. If there is resistance, such as recently occurred with UNESCO official P. Shankar, the victim is shot in the leg at the first refusal to hand over his keys.If he refuses a secind time, he is shot in the head and rolled out onto the street.