From the land of crocodiles and pythons, on to the Sahel
It was a Wednesday, the 21st of December 2016 as I set out from Port Harcourt to Abuja. All enquires the day before, on flights to Abuja returned inconclusive. Arik? On Strike. Aero? Yet to resume. Air Peace , Dana? Fully booked till Xmas. So I decided to make a bold dash on road. The harmattan is yet to birth in the Garden City, and the humid heat, polluted burnt-hydrocarbon air, ubiquitous siren-blaring convoys, and gun-totting security men of different hues, prevailed. I set out early, but the frustrating traffic was already there.
A thick fog and low clouds enveloped the city, up to Aba, reducing visibility to a few meters and requiring you to drive with headlamps on. As I negotiated my way out of Port Harcourt, from the Old GRA, I passed Garrison Bus Stop. The cadaver on the other lane, apparently a mad person, was still unattended to, after two days. This too was a homo sapiens, I grumbled as I approached Bori Military Camp, passed Air Force Base, and hit the expected heavy traffic at the 1st Artillery, and then 2nd Artillery Bus Stops. The Yuletide is here and amidst the traffic, folks smart, sharp and determined, where already crowding the sidewalks and shops. I pulled into a filling station for fuel. A radio programme was blasting from loud speakers at the station’s walls: “This is Radio Biafra International, it’s either Biafra or nothing…”, the presenter rapped, like a rock star from a pulpit. I quickly paid the fuel attendant and fled. I recall that “Operation crocodile smile” launched by government is in place. With the long haul ahead of me, crocs whether laughing, smiling or grinning should be evaded.
I patiently queued up to navigate the three military and police checkpoints at Imo River Bridge, the boundary with Abia State. As I waited, I reminisced on what the once beautiful Garden City has become. Militarised, polluted, and yet striving and agog, but with clear evidence of the national phenomenon of a disappearing middle class. You are either very rich, with your convoy, and you broke all the rules; or you are very poor and all the laws are broken on you. I thought a croc at my right window looked at me. In my alarm, I noticed a hint of a smile. And now, he lounged at me. Move! came the order. I sat upright with a start as I snapped out of my reverie. Unknown to me, the queue had moved and it was a smartly dressed security man urging me on.
I was relieved as headed to Aba, bustling and innovative as usual. “Operation Python Dance” has been declared on these shores and I was alert. I slowly made my way. Garbage, filth, trucks and truck pushers, boisterous crowd and can-do spirit. Once a home to professional boxers who can dispense (and receive) dastardly disorientating punches on opponents, these days, it appears the boxers have been trumped by truck pushers. On sections of the road from Umuahia to Enugu, the Federal Government Road contractors did a good job, making road travel a pleasure. I began to sing the classic song “Highways are happy ways.” It was a smooth ride to Enugu, and I hit the Nike-Nsukka Bye-pass for light vehicles only. Once this greenfield road project was completed by the state government some years ago, it became the darling of motorists.
Rolling hills, breath-taking greenery, rural picturesque scenes, clean air and serenity. Like everything in life, all good things have their down sides. This road, according to several news reports, became a haven for rampaging Fulani herdsmen who emerge and disappear from the greens, and inflict robbery, rape, and kidnapping on hapless motorists. So the police and military checkpoints on this road, became a welcome presence indeed. At this point, I was listening to news on the vehicle radio: “the Sultan of Sokoto during his visit to Enugu yesterday, told Igbo leaders that the Igbo are not targeted for killings in the North. It is just that they are prominent and well-to-do, and so attract raids.” I quickly increased speed not wanting to be mistaken for a big man and plundered on this lonely road. My confidence returned as I entered the bumpy and busy Nsukka-Obollo Afor-Otukpa stretch. The steady stream of vehicles from the opposite direction indicated the start of the annual exodus at year end , of folks from parts of the country, to the south.
At the Obollo Afor holdup, I picked a healthy bunch of bananas. N1,000, the lady hawker commenced negotiation. Ah! For one bunch? Pay N700. Mum. Ok, pay N400? Mum still. I was miffed. Nearly went bananas. If it’s N400, why start with N1,000? I selected from another tray and moved on. I wondered what could have been if my journey took me through Anambra State, the redoubt of Idemmili the Python goddess. What will she be thinking of the rhythmic python dance? Or was she consulted?
Having exited the East, at Otukpa junction, I veered left to join the Ejule Bypass through Igalaland. A good road built by Kogi State but riddled with speed breakers. As you slow down at the road bumps, village folks try to hawk one ware or the other. Screech..! Local government roughnecks just threw a barrier of nails to stop a Sienna vehicle coming from the opposite direction, and the vehicle managed to stop only a few inches from puncture. The frustrated, if bewildered husband, wife, and two kids at the back were flagged down to park by the pitiless redneck, for negotiations to commence. I learnt that local governments collect all manner of taxes from private Hilux, Trucks, Pickups, and now Siennas.
At Itobe, by the bank of River Niger, I crossed the Niger Bridge and commenced the most arduous journey on the badly dilapidated Itobe– Ajaokuta-Okene dual road. Craters, rock, dust, debris, and yes, checkpoints, as you crawled through in frustration. I slotted in a mood-lifting music CD as I crawled past a line of vehicles that had come to a stop. The music was playing “Nigeria jaga jaga” by Idris Abdulkareem. As I made to pass the Dangote trailer, he quickly revved up to block my overtaking, missing by the whiskers. A close call. My anger vanished when I saw the military checkpoint blocking the way. I wound down, and quickly reduced the music volume to lessen suspicion as I recalled Obasanjo had warned that artist of possible subversive innuendo back then in 2001. “Oga, why you no…” “Officer, I didn’t know it’s a checkpoint” I whimpered before the soldier could finish. He considered me with dead-pan mien, like a scientist would an inscrutable mass of protoplasm. “Ok. Proceed!” he hollered finally.
And I proceeded, from two-in-one close calls; while lamenting the dire condition of this road stretch. We definitely can do better. Why can’t Africans manage their affairs and environment better? Road making is no rocket science. I remembered the assertions of Prof. Patrick Lumumba the Kenyan social crusader, that Africans have engineers who cannot construct a kilometre of road. Being an engineer, shame cascaded down my shoulders. We know how to. Organising our society better is the only shackle. It is an unwinnable argument. Compatriots will invariably ask you, with all your theoretical knowledge, “who you epp?” In these moments, my salvaging tonic is to remember Fela and Achebe. These two iconic titans where also Africans and second to none. The track by Phino Phyno “Ndi ala, Ndi ala” (Madmen, Madmen everywhere) was playing.
I passed through Ajaokuta “Steel” Town and detoured to the windy Ajaokuta-Ganaja-Lokoja State Road. This road, a pleasure to drive on, used to be a deplorable road that gulped huge Kogi State funds in perennial failed reconstructions; until a governor exorcised the demons of failure with a beautifully executed pavement. His people called him “The Carpenter” for his efforts. The mountainous rock outcrops, streamlets, rolling shrub land, and stunted grasses are pleasing to behold and reminds you that, you are now on the fringes of the Sahel. I came to a sudden stop after emerging from a sharp bend. Holy cow! Herds of cattle, in batches were crossing bringing all traffic to a halt, as three herdsmen chaperoned them. A heifer paused just in front of my bonnet and leisurely eased itself, before sauntering away into the shrubs, with a moo of sated satisfaction. “Mumu cow”, I muttered, but then remembered that cows have right-of-way, even at airport runways, as the managers of Port Harcourt and Owerri Airports will attest. Why not launch “operation cow things”, or better “operation we are all cows” on these parts? That way, we can also claim our equal rights with the herd.
At Lokoja, confluence town, and Lord Lugard’s early capital, I refuelled and hit the final lap on the Lokoja-Abaji-Abuja Federal Dual Carriageway. Highways are happy ways. Smooth cruising most of the way as the Federal Government has mostly completed work on this highway. The only chink was a spot where a trailer carrying NBL beverage products fell across the road, with crates and smashed Gulder bottles everywhere. Beer gourmets will rue that sight. Gulder! Of all things to fall to waste in this recession, I salivated as the Road Safety lady on location shooed me on.
Ekene dili Chineke! I crooned as I pulled up the well laid out airport road and into Abuja. All 11 hours of counter-flow travel, against a steady stream of home-coming holiday makers. Many of them looking happy and expectant. Some with unsure, over-burdened recession looks. Some vehicles, laden with people and luggage, can’t take it anymore and broke down by the wayside. In all these, men of the Federal Road Safety Corps maintained commendable presence at traffic bottlenecks from Port Harcourt, to Aba, Enugu, Obollo-Afor, Ajaokuta, Lokoja, to Abuja, ensuring free flow of vehicles. Recession aside, the Federal Government has also shown that it’s on top of the game in terms of security. But more praise goes to the people, great people of the country who provide the endurance, vibrancy, and feisty convivial atmosphere that smoothens the challenges. Happy celebrations people.
• Mr. Anako, a civil engineer, wrote from Abuja.