It was when I was in a police cell at the C.I.D. (Central Intelligence Division) in Lagos; the cell I was in was named “the Kalakuta Republic” by the prisoners. I found out when I went to East Africa that “kalakuta” is a Swahili word that means “rascal.” So, if rascality is going to get us what we want, we will use it; because we are dealing with corrupt people, we have to be “rascally” with them.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti speaking with music producer John Collins, 1985
Fela also renamed his communal compound “Kalakuta Republic,” proclaiming it an autonomous zone free from the laws and jurisdiction of Nigeria and open to people African descent worldwide — especially to all persecuted Africans…The newly fortified Kalakuta Republic was fairly self-sufficient, with farm animals, a free health clinic, and facilities for rehearsing and recording.
Fela: the Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, Michael Veal, 2000
Here are four ways in which Lagosians have come to create, in a way, their own little Kalakuta Republics.
The power in Lagos, as everyone here knows too well, is inconsistent at best. The power company still makes you hook up to their power, and you have to pay pretty much whatever the utility tells you to pay (many homes don’t have meters, and those that do often don’t work).
So if you want electricity guaranteed, you must have a generator.
This is Neighborhood Watch goes DIY-gangsta. Fight crime by putting up gates and sealing off the neighborhood. This gate goes into the pocket of Ikeja where the Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic is found on Gbemisola Street. These neighborhood-sealoffs were banned by the government several months ago I’m told, but the order has yet to be really enforced. So right now, some of the gates have guards. Some are more loosely observed by the nearby neighbors, a focal point of people coming and going.
Preemptive 419 Warnings
Nigerians don’t even joke about 419 anymore. The pre-payment scams are so seriously embedded into the culture here that it’s practically passe. One of the more recent variations on the usual email 419 we get in the US, and which Nigerian con-artists perpetrate on other Nigerians, involves a stranger who scopes out your property, and then attempts to sell it to a third party. That’s where this warning comes from. You see them on houses everywhere.
As far as I can tell, there are no private individuals who have attempted to create their own personal telcom systems. But there’s a heavy reliance on mobile phones in Lagos because the landlines were unreliable. The sight of “masts,” as Nigerians call them, is something you can’t escape. They also represent the every-person-for-themselves mentality, just higher up the food-chain.
The government has been aggressively nurturing a rapid growth of cell phone companies. Some of the country’s billionaires continue to make their fortunes on mobile networks. They’ve performed an odd kind of acupuncture on the Lagos skyline. “No one here understands these things give you cancer,” said Seun Kuti on his roof, as we looked at the horizon.