The truth about doing business in Nigeria

For those who can stand the heat (and the corruption), Nigeria has proved a very lucrative market.

by Michael Peel

At the heart of Lagos Island stands a statue of Herbert Macaulay (1864-1946), founder of Nigerian nationalism. The figure bears silent witness to a great cheer that has just erupted. It's late 2005, and the noise is coming from a group of young men in the courtyard of the dilapidated public library opposite, whose metal bars make it look more prison than place of learning. A broken window reveals a scraggy and uninviting book collection, but the men are elsewhere. They are greeting their boss, Adekunle Godwin Talabi, who walks in front of them with the cool and cockiness of Rocky entering a boxing ring. His support chorus howls with a volume worthy of the Las Vegas cheap seats.

The serenade demonstrates the power of Talabi, one of a new generation of bosses in the society where Macaulay once held sway. Here, Talabi is sovereign master of government and business. He combines the roles of tycoon, policeman and immigration officer. Commercial interests include DVD retail, a barber's salon and a security company. Crucially, though, he is the 'chief of all boys'.

'I am the chairman,' he says. 'I am the manager.' This means he is the head of a group of young - and not so young - men known universally as 'area boys'. These gangs have traditionally controlled large parts of Lagos Island, the city's historic centre, extracting money from everyone, outsider or insider, who wants to do business there - or simply to pass through. Talabi, whose undisputed domain runs from the Bookshop House crossroads to the northern end of Odunlami Street, describes his boys as his 'army staff' and 'soldiers'.

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