I returned to the University of Ibadan the next morning, a dewy, sun-drenched Saturday. The campus reverberated with the sounds of smacked cricket and basketballs, and tae kwon do groups grunting and kicking the air. I was excited about watching a dog show, although I’m not a lover of dogs. I find little charm in their excitability, funky-smelling fur, hot fetid breath, and eyes that glisten with an irritating mawkishness. It’s always been a source of personal pride that Nigerians don’t love dogs quite the way the English do. Nigerian canines know their place and, thankfully, are emotionally independent. They trot around the margins of society without bothering anyone around them, in refreshing contrast to their Western counterparts who will bound up to any random stranger for a hug, tummy tickle or breathless French kiss.

Learning that Ibadan students were partaking in the dog-loving madness should have disappointed me, but after the previous day’s tour of the university’s decline, I needed confirmation that the apocalypse was at arm’s length.

For several years now, the university’s veterinary students have held a dog show at the end of each academic year, sponsored by a dog food company. They had ring-fenced a section of the playing fields with a line of colourful triangular flags. At the registration desk I met the lead organiser, a fresh-faced student called Oyelami Oyetunde.

“Ken Saro-Wiwa was my idol at school,” he told me. He said he enjoyed reading Mr. B Goes to Lagos, one of my father’s children’s books. It was heartening to know that someone as young as him knew who my father was.

“What do you think of U.I.?” Oyelami asked.

“I like it,” I replied. “It’s nice to see everyone carry on as normal despite the financial hardship.”

“Well, we have to.” Oyelami smiled.

All the students looked like they were having fun. The hip-hop song “Who Let the Dogs Out” thundered out of loud speakers, followed by D’banj’s ubiquitous “Booty Call”—I must have heard that song at least five times a day on my trip so far. A student danced to it, shaking his arse in front of a female friend who looked on in mock disdain. As their classmates play-fought one another and giggled endlessly, a boy of around seven wandered among them carrying a tray of peanuts on his head. He was so much younger than the students, yet comparatively somber in demeanour, his instinct for horseplay overridden by his need to earn a living. For him, Saturday was just an ordinary workday.

Nearly two hours after the show was scheduled to begin, competitors began arriving with their dogs at the registration desk. A particularly vicious pit bull, which had lunged violently at a student earlier on, paced around the gated verandah of a nearby building. Thankfully, it was kept on a chain leash.

On the edge of the field, a muscular man with ‘Prosperity’ tattooed on his shoulder swaggered about with his large alter-ego of a bull mastiff. I realised then that nearly all the dogs entered in the competition were either Rottweilers, pit bull terriers, Alsatians or mastiffs, many of which were tethered by metal chain leashes; there were very few toy breeds about.

“Why are all the dogs aggressive breeds?” I asked Tobi Opanuga, the dark, stocky event coordinator.

“I don’t know. I think maybe Rottweilers and Alsatians are cheaper,” he suggested as the animals growled at each other and salivated menacingly. The white pit bull lunged at someone for a second time near the pyramid of canned dog food.

“Please, take your dogs back,” a student organiser advised.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” said a buck-toothed girl, nervously eyeing the dog.

“Just relax!” her colleague told her with a carefree giggle.

At the registration desk, the organisers recorded the dogs’ weight. They did this by first weighing the owner on a set of bathroom scales, then asking the owners to cradle their pets and recording their combined weights. One student crouched cheekily on all fours while his classmates tied a pink ribbon around his neck and lifted him onto the scales. Their fun was disrupted when the mastiff lunged at the pit bull. It put everyone on edge. We eyed the pit bull anxiously as its owner muzzled its white face and held it on the scales. Then a massive Alsatian jerked its head under the registration desk, prompting two girls to scoop up their chairs in panic and step back, tittering nervously.

A crowd of about 500 spectators gathered behind the cordon lines in the sports field. The music stopped playing, and the MC (one of the veterinary students) asked everyone to pray before the competition began. During the initial confirmation stage, each owner brought their dog to the judges’ table to be inspected for pedigree and appearance. I expected the dogs to adopt the fastidious positioning I’d seen at dog shows in Britain, their heads held at a regal angle and their hind legs stretched backwards. But, true to Nigerian tradition, the dogs weren’t trained to stand still, let alone pose, which made an entertaining change from the exactitudes of the UK Kennel Club.

The first dog, a boar bull called Razor, casually urinated during her inspection. Thoroughly amused, the crowd cheered as she and her owner paraded past them afterwards. Razor was followed by a pit bull terrier that I’d seen fighting with one of the Alsatians earlier. The extremely po-faced owner of three fat Rottweilers brought his dogs up for inspection, one by one. A more serious dog handler, he had trained his pets well: each of them stood still for several seconds in the correct pose. But as the man walked his trio around the field, one of them, a mean-looking mutt called Tom Cruise, broke free from his leash and ran towards the crowd. Two dozen people turned and fled towards the cricket pavilion.

“I beg, don’t run, o!” the MC implored down the mike. “The dog will pursue you if you run!”

Thankfully, Tom Cruise’s owner caught up and brought him to heel before he could “mingle” with the crowd. After the Rottweilers, a long-tailed American pit bull completed his corpulent trot in front of the audience before the MC introduced the first Alsatian.

“These are known as ‘police dogs’ in Africa,” he said. “If you’ve been to Heathrow or Gatwick Airports, you’ll know they use these dogs to sniff Nigerians.” Wry laughter rippled through the crowd. People were familiar with the humiliating drug inspection at British airports.

“This dog is very clean, cleaner than most of you,” the MC joked, announcing a small terrier. “This dog bathes every day . . . more than those of you who don’t have running water in your house!”

Two orange-coated mastiffs paraded around the field, followed by a small shitsu, which had the crowd cooing in admiration. “It’s so cute,” a disembodied voice sighed from behind me. Cute? This wasn’t the Nigeria I knew.

“People in Ibadan are getting crazy about dogs,” Tobi enthused. “Many of them have never seen these breeds before.” He theorised that this dog-loving was down to the American and British films and TV shows on satellite television. All around me I witnessed people indulging this strange obsession: a professional dog breeder handed out fliers and let spectators peruse his Dog World magazine while he informed a friend that “dogs are not used as a method of security in Ibadan banks”; three young children pored over a veterinary lecturer’s copy of the Encyclopaedia of Dog Breeds. And over to one side, a small crowd jostled to stroke a tiny Alsatian puppy on offer as first prize in the raffle.

After the interlude, the organisers resumed the proceedings by announcing the discipline segment of the competition. Everyone quietened down. We watched the white pit bull with a curly tail jump through a rubber tyre held by its owner.

“Audience, what do you think of this dog?” asked the MC. The audience had been granted a 40 percent share of the vote in this section of the show.

“Yeeesss!” everyone cheered.

A man entered the field with a tiny terrier. He tossed a ball for the dog to fetch, but the miniscule animal couldn’t retrieve it because the ball was too big for its mouth. For a full minute, the dog tensed its legs and ground its little face against the ball, struggling to wrap its jaws around it. The crowd fell into a concentrated silence and willed the terrier on. Its owner swallowed with anxiety. Finally, the terrier succeeded, and scuttled towards its owner with the ball in its mouth. The crowd roared in congratulation.

Next up was the aggressive pit bull, which held up its paw for an uncharacteristically friendly “handshake.” A friend of its owner then baited it with a stick and ran towards the crowd. The owner let go of the leash and allowed the dog to chase his friend. The snarling beast sprinted towards my section of the crowd near the judges’ table. I mentally prepared myself to dive behind someone. Others stood, tense, ready to flee. But seconds before the pit bull ploughed into us, its owner suddenly commanded it to stop. It did. Nobody was impressed. The crowd, shaken and disapproving, remained silent, unable to muster even the laughter of sweet relief.

“Audience, what do you think?” asked the MC. We responded with a smattering of uncomfortable applause.

Afterwards, spectators were invited to photograph the dogs in the center of the field while the judges deliberated on the results. In the end, they declared Samurai, the long-tailed pit bull terrier, to be the best dog in show. I walked off the field, back to my hotel, while the crowd poured onto the field to mingle with the dogs. As they stroked the animals and snapped their cameras, I envisaged a Nigeria where dogs were widely affordable, pet food was a billion-dollar industry, and people took their animals on leisurely strolls without fear of being hit by okadas* or stumbling into the ubiquitous open sewage drains. I hoped the country would become like that one day.

For now, though, this dog show was good enough. It was the Nigeria I wished I’d seen in my teens, scenes of normality that poured sugar on the bitterness of military dictatorships and made the country seem a more sane place.

*motorcycle taxis