“The Boardwalk of Lagos,” NYTimes, 21 December 2012
LAGOS — For the first time, Monopoly, the American board game, has been customized for Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. The counsel on the box: “Stay sharp — because there’s only room at the top for one. For everyone else, there’s bankruptcy.”
The name of the game is real estate, but this is good advice for anyone in the city’s Hobbesian informal economy. Lagos wouldn’t be Lagos without the creative capitalism of street hawkers, pastors and pay-toilet operators alike. Layer on the unpredictable traffic and electricity, and every day is like pulling a “Chance” card.
The new edition of Monopoly, sponsored by Bestman Games, the Lagos state government and two local banks, is being marketed as a charming holiday gift — and a welcome spotlight for one of Africa’s fastest growing cities. Nigerians who have never seen Atlantic City or London can enjoy recognizable touchstones like Opebi Road and the Palms shopping mall. The airport, bus station, shipping port and stock exchange stand in for the railroads and utilities of the original.
Monopoly Lagos still relies on the arithmetic of its predecessors: ranking real estate. It’s a telling exercise. More than any other place I’ve visited in Africa, the city’s 11 or so million residents are separated by huge gaps in income and quality of life. The rich here are among Africa’s richest, while the poor are among its poorest. Unfortunately, the board game captures the inequality for posterity.
At one end of the rent spectrum is Banana Island ($400). Its enviable homes and high-rises rest on reclaimed land, filled in to house wealthy Nigerians weary of the crowded mainland. It is Lagos’s secluded answer to Park Place and Mayfair. At a recent holiday party, a half-orchestra and visiting opera singers serenaded an up-market crowd. The evening ended in fireworks, shot from a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
Sitting less pretty is Makoko ($60), the impoverished stilt city hovering inches above the lagoon for which Lagos is named. If you cross the seven-mile Third Mainland Bridge early enough, you will see resident fishermen returning from their predawn labors, sails stitched together from canvas and plastic. Even if you could buy “land” in Makoko, flooding and the threat of eviction make it an uncertain bet.
Next to Makoko on the game board is Agege ($60), the neighborhood by the airport where my grandmother lives. The onetime suburban area is, as a result of urban sprawl, in the thick of it: a tumble of tenements and multiple-family homes. This June, the area became known as the site of a horrific plane crash that killed 163 people. The downed Dana Air flight carried those who could afford to fly and crushed those who couldn’t. The collective grief in the aftermath was a rare moment of solidarity in a city where class divisions reign.
All in all, three-quarters of the listed properties are on the rarified Victoria and Lagos Islands, rather than the “mainland” where the bulk of the population resides. In a strange recapitulation of the property-buying conceit, Nigerian brands like GT Bank and Smooth FM radio have bought advertising space on the board.
The classist choices of the game designers reflect policies on the ground. The Monopoly box also highlights a new suspension bridge connecting Ikoyi and the enormous Lekki peninsula, a popular and fast-growing enclave for the upper middle class. Privately financed and built, the bridge will levy a toll of about $3 each way — out of reach for the working poor.
It’s only the latest forum for wealthy Nigerians to buy their way out of the worst headaches of Lagos, while the less well off do without. In a similarly regressive policy move, the okada motorbikes that served as commuter vehicles for millions were banned in Lagos this fall.
In a land of Blackberries and Nollywood DVDs, there is an analog charm to the pleasures of a board game. Kids may learn valuable lessons, on taxes, managing finances and haggling with landlords (most rent in Lagos is collected for one or two years up front) by playing Monopoly Lagos. But the game airbrushes the disparate struggles of the city — favoring the marketable at the expense of the majority.