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My command at midnight

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In December 1992 I traveled from Lagos to Katsina State for the first time. It turned out to be the longest journey I have undertaken within Nigeria. At this time Katsina didn’t have a functional commercial airport; so we landed at Kano International Airport, and I made the rest of the journey by road – a two-odd hour trip. It was a business trip. The Alhaji Saidu Barda government was planning an elaborate water scheme for the state, so my contacts in government invited tender from my company. I finally settled down in my Katsina Motel room at well past 10:00 p.m.

By 8 a.m. the next morning, the Special Adviser to the Governor on Water Resources already had a driver waiting at the Motel’s reception. The lingua franca was strictly Hausa language for the common folk; any attempt to breach the existing order was robustly checked with “ba turenchi!” With improvised sign language and a limited number of Hausa words I managed to stumble through with that stratum of Katsina society. My visit was partly coordinated by an assistant director in the state ministry of health, one Dr. Aminu Safana – rings a bell? Yes; he later joined national politics after a stint with the Afri Projects Consortium. Cerebral and thorough-going, Safana could have risen to any heights in Nigerian politics, but most tragically, he mysteriously slumped and died while holding forth on a controversial matter on the floor of the green chamber – it was a big loss to the nation. (May his gentle soul find bliss in Abraham’s bosom).

Katsina’s weather swings like a pendulum during the harmattan season. The temperature gradients at this time were such that heaters are employed at night, while air-conditioning is used during day time. Not the best of places to be in December; I thus looked to deploying my return ticket. I had earlier impressed on my hosts that my maiden visit couldn’t last longer than three days since I had a crucial appointment to catch in Lagos. So after three frenzied days I was set to return whence I had come. Ever the generous host, Safana promptly assigned a driver to take me to the Kano airport. We arrived the precincts of the airport at a little past 4 p.m.; only to be informed that the last flight of the day departed less than an hour previously. “When does the last flight depart Kaduna?” I impulsively enquired from our informer. “About 7 p.m,” he responded. “Kaduna airport straight,” I called out to the dutiful driver, snatching a glance at my watch; if we are lucky we could be in Kaduna at a little past 6 p.m., I quietly comforted myself.

As the driver manoeuvred the sedan through the outskirts of the ancient city of Kano, the reality of missing my 10 a.m. appointment in Lagos started taunting me; an appointment with the Chief of Naval Staff is not one to be treated capriciously, I kept reminding myself. I simply must make the appointment, “Insha’ Allah”, repeating a refrain I had quickly learned during my three-day visit. The Kano/Kaduna segment wasn’t as hitch-free as the Katsina/Kano had been, what with the many failed portions of the road and the heavy traffic between the two principal northern cities. Much to my anguish we arrived Kaduna airport at about 15 minutes past 7 p.m. – of course you guessed the report thereof: the last flight was already airborne. With the barest communications between us we left the airport; pulled up at the next petroleum-products station; recharged our tank; quickly refreshed and headed for Lagos through the Jebba corridor. It was well past dusk and the single-lane road was pitch-dark. I instinctively spent considerable time trying to figure out the visual acuity of my indulgent driver, and somehow re-assured myself he could handle his present challenge. I finally settled down to the marathon journey south, consigning our fate to God.

The journey proceeded reasonably well until some three-odd hours later when we suddenly came to a halt. It was some 20 minutes until midnight. Ideas naturally quickly ran riots in my head: Robbery activity? Police check point? Road mishap? etc. Time inexorably raced. After 30-odd minutes that felt like eternity, we still hadn’t moved an inch! And no vehicles were coming in the opposite direction – the indicators are all too familiar. We have a completely blocked road to contend with, I concluded; looking with intensity into the pitch-darkness to master our immediate surroundings. Frustrated drivers and passengers milled about the endless line of stationary vehicles, letting out their worst fear – passing the night on the highway. The thought jolted me; that is not an option for me, I thought, at once opening the door and stepping into the dark night. “Let me check the front,” I said to the driver.

As I made my way through the utter disorderly maze, my white caftan sharply stood out like a sore thumb. In a like manner, the present hot and humid weather sharply contrasted the expected chilling temperatures in far away Katsina. A “petro tanker” had fallen across the road, I heard someone informing a small group. I persisted in the meandering, twisting this way and turning that way movement, oozing with profuse perspiration. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I experienced firsthand the meaning of the retort, “devil in the detail!”

It literally took forever to finally get a glimpse of the head of the endless line. My adrenaline hit an all time high on sighting “the devil,” as it were. A huge petroleum-products articulated vehicle lay awkwardly on its side, filling up virtually the entire width of the road. Another articulated vehicle, apparently south-bound, filled up the remaining space. A sea of heads came into view. This must replicate the very picture of hell, I thought with my eye fixed on the big challenge. “Who is the driver of this bloody trailer!” I bellowed, lashing out at the south-bound vehicle with my clenched fist in sheer helplessness. It was a magical touch. The multitude suddenly woke up; “Where is the foolish driver!!!” “Where is the foolish driver!!!” the crowd shouted with hundreds of blows landing on the offending vehicle. A man was soon sheepishly dragged towards the vehicle; “Sorry sir; sorry sir…”, he kept muttering, timidly gesturing to me. “I give you one minute to move this bloody trailer out of here; or…” Multiple voices drowned the rest of my threat. Engine revved; gears clanked into position and the behemoth heaved forward, then backwards; repeated the manoeuvre a couple of times more, with the drivers among the crowd closely directing the troubled man behind the wheel to adroitly manoeuvre the articulated vehicle through the dangerously sloppy strait.

One wrong move, I later realised, would have toppled the behemoth into the side ditch. That was the reason the driver fearfully abandoned his vehicle in the first place – the available space could just about accommodate cars and other light vehicles. I was quickly surrounded by eager assistants once the strait was cleared. “Okay! only cars; jeeps; and light buses, okay?!” “Yes sir!!!” “Ten from Kaduna; ten from Jebba!” “Yes sir!!!” As I gestured the men quickly took positions, and soon after the kilometres-long lines on both sides of the road slowly came back to live, after over six hours of utter gridlock. When my vehicle came up I waved the driver on. Few minutes after, I effusively thanked the men, and took my leave of them. We safely arrived in Lagos well past dawn; and I am pleased to inform that I made my appointment.

My Command at Midnight experience taught me three enduring lessons: 1) The multitude always looks to a leader for direction, lest its uncoordinated action results in chaos; 2) Any sane person can effortlessly lead a multitude, provided such persons are transparently selfless towards the collective interest; and 3) A mystical bond as soon forms between such leaders and their followers. Therefore, as Nigeria approaches the 2019 general elections, the electorate must constantly bear in mind that the key to unlocking the fortunes of our potentially great country lay in a leadership that is transparently anchored on the collective good of the citizenry, irrespective of tribe, region or religion.
Nkemdiche is an engineering consultant.


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