Is Lagos Safe?
Is the thought of travelling to Lagos for work or leisure filling you with uncertainty? Do you keep asking yourself, Is Lagos Safe? Perhaps you have read one of those annual security reports that rank Lagos near the bottom of global city safety rankings, somewhere between Damascus and Sana’a, with a side of Chicago South Side thrown in for good measure.
According to these reports, Lagos is one of the most dangerous places in the world, where everything from walking on two feet to breathing oxygen can get you robbed or killed, and you especially don’t want to be a foreigner because that triples the risk factor. Is all of this true, and if so, what will your likely experience of Lagos be? Well, it’s best to start with the bad news.
So here’s the thing – Lagos does have quite a bit of crime – a lot of it in fact. The National Bureau of Statistics recently published a report stating that 45,385 crimes were reported in Lagos in 2016. The majority of the reported crimes were classified as ‘Offences Against Property’ and ‘Offences Against Person’, which basically means theft, criminal damage and personal assault. That statistic might sound like an awful lot, but bear in mind that the population of Lagos is estimated at anything between 17 and 21 million people. This means that the statistical crime rate per 100,000 people in Lagos is about 267/100,000.
To put that in perspective, the equivalent crime rate in New York is about 2104/100,000. Of course this does not mean that Lagos is actually safer than New York, because the inefficiency of Nigerian law enforcement means that many crimes are not detected or reported. Even then, it is worth bearing in mind that in real terms, Lagos is actually not necessarily more unsafe than anywhere else. We’re about to start exploring some reasons for this.
A major reason why Lagos is probably safer than you think is that like any other city, crime rates vary drastically by neighbourhood. Just like Manhattan and Queensbridge are likely to have vastly different crime rates due to the sheer economic difference between the two New York areas, Victoria Island and Oshodi also witness very different crime numbers.
If you are coming into Lagos as a casual visitor or an expatriate worker, it is very unlikely that you will frequent any of the neighbourhoods identified as trouble spots in Lagos. One thing you will see that might make you slightly uncomfortable is just how unequal different parts of the city are, and how that translates into divergent living standards.
If you live on a quiet street in Ikoyi, you are likely to enjoy the very visible presence of armed police and paramilitary protection around the clock. This is not the case for Mushin or Igando. In other cities, many undesirable elements avoid upper class neighourhoods because they are unfamiliar with them, even though they are physically able to visit those places at will. Lagos on the other hand, is one place where people are actively profiled by law enforcement and private security before gaining access into middle to upper class districts. The economic stratification and resultant crime differential is not subtle or unspoken at all. So if you spend the majority of your time within the wealthier parts of the city, chances are you will probably never be disturbed.
Another reason Lagos is not Mogadishu is that there are private alternatives to the inadequate public security services. These private security services often have a liberal remit to bear firearms and patrol large areas of the city, which unsurprisingly are the wealthier parts. You have probably noticed a pattern of economic distinction between low crime and high crime areas, and unfortunately, this is the reality in Lagos. Many expatriates work for firms that hire private security outfits or armed police under private arrangements, which is all completely legal.
The final and most overlooked reason why you will probably not lose your kidney in Lagos is that you largely control your own security situation. Robbers, thieves, assassins and other assorted terrors of the Lagos night all work with information. If they do not know enough about you, they cannot get to you.
If you want to live ostentatiously and move around like you are on Safari in the Serengeti when you are in Lagos, you should also have a huge budget for security, because you will attract a lot of undesirable attention to yourself. Loud jewelry, drop-top coupes, flashy spending habits and a rich-kid attitude will draw the wrong kind of crowd to you. You really cannot make the distinction between bedazzled hangers-on and thieving opportunists over here, because it doesn’t exist. So you need to keep your circle as small as possible, establish a reliable routine, make friends with your neighbours and other useful people, and above all make it clear that you are not swimming in oodles of cash.
This is especially pertinent if you are visibly an ‘Oyibo’, i.e non-black foreigner, because the general impression is that all ‘Oyibos’ in Lagos are working for oil multinationals and getting paid the annual Nigerian median wage daily. Even if that is true of you, or perhaps especially if it is true, nobody needs to know. Keep all your income and financial information secret. Also try to avoid having many people over at your place, especially if you do not know them.
All of this is not to say that you will definitely never face any challenges with crime in Lagos. It is after all, the largest and most economically vibrant city in what is still a very poor country. You might heed all this advice and still be unfortunate with a crime incident, but for the most part, your experience in Lagos will be one of discovery rather than regret. The vast majority of Lagosians will view you as a polite curiosity, and not as prey. You will probably make a number of great friends and have the time of your life.
Just don’t mention how much you make.