Benin-Okene Road: The pain, agony and every other story
Recently, the Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, was put to task on the real situation of Nigerian roads. This reporter’s diary by GEOFF IYATSE fact checks the excruciating experience that has become the fate of an average Nigerian, while travelling on these horrible roads.
On October 11, I woke up at 4:05 am and counted the seconds like a child waiting for Christmas morning. I could barely wait until dawn to hit the road. I even went on a mental trip down the Lagos-Benin road a dozen times, while the hands of the clock edged along. I had visited my car twice to confirm that my personal effects neatly packed into my laptop bag were as ready as I was for my first home visit in 18 months. Little did I know that this memory would torment me for many days to come!
The decision to go on the trip was a tough one to make. The previous day, I had spent a painful six hours galloping through potholes from my office at Lekki in Lagos to my home at Isolo. A 37-kilometre trip took about the same time a 500-kilometre journey would or a flight from Lagos to Europe. It didn’t appear that I had the mental and physical strength to go on.
I set out at 5.30 am and by 7 am, I had comfortably escaped the menacing Ojodu Berger-Kara Bridge gridlock. “I should be in Benin before 11 am,” I thought to myself, as things were looking good. There was yet no sign in the cloudy morning that I was at the start of what would be a weird day, until my car clattered to a stop at Mowe at 7:43 am. Thankfully, I fixed the car with the assistance of some roadside mechanics and continued on my way, after losing at least three nervous hours.
Putting that experience behind me, not even the rainstorm and sea of flood that ushered me to a bumpy Shagamu-Ijebu Road could dispirit my resolve to proceed. I immediately killed every urge to pull over and wait for the rain to subside. My trouble continued some miles before Ore in Ondo State. At every 500 metres, there was a police checkpoint to confirm that I was not driving a stolen car; that I had tinted permit; that I was not hiding drugs in my laptop bag; that the laptop itself was not being used for Internet fraud or whatever nefarious reason they could come up with.
I watched as police officers fulfilled their threat to fire tear gas at a motorist for driving a tinted car without a police permit. From Ondo to Benin, I was searched by 17 different police and Federal Roads Safety Corps (FRSC) teams, with a minimum of seven minutes spent at each of the makeshift police posts.
The most ridiculous of all was my encounter with the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) officials at the outskirt of Benin City. For the first time, I experienced the uncouth display of the incompetence, ineptitude, impunity and unprofessionalism that the once-revered NCS has degenerated into. Before I was stopped, I had thought of passing the night in Benin and had even made few calls to some friends. It was already past 6 pm, and if the story I’d heard about Benin-Auchi Road were true, it would be nothing short of a suicidal adventure to continue the journey at that odd time.
“Give me your custom papers,” roared a lanky middle-aged operative, as his colleague flagged down my car. I pulled over, retrieved copies of my car documents from the pigeonhole and handed them to him. “Your agent no pay duty o (sic),” the stern-looking fellow muttered. Before I could respond, he followed up with a torrent of questions; “did you import the car yourself? Is this the first time to pass this road with it? When was it registered?” At that point, I felt a rush of anger. I demanded to know what the value displayed on my documents meant since “my agent no pay duty.”
He explained that no car of its age could have been cleared with only N159, 000, as contained in the documents. We got into a heated argument, which degenerated into an exchange of harsh words before he handed back the documents and demanded a tip in a parlance that is still strange to me as I write – a request I turned down and drove off.
I must have advanced three miles on the Benin Bypass before recalling amidst a blend of frustration, fatigue and anger that I had planned to spend the night in the city. Of course, I simply drove on hoping the worst would not happen. Suddenly, I remembered vividly a certain portion of the Benin Bypass that had been taken over by trucks the last time I travelled. What I didn’t bargain for was that the entire dual-carriage road at the bad spot measuring about 100 metres had been literally converted into a trailer park, leaving the cars and buses to snake around on the median or bulldoze through the bush to find their way. This was the first acid test of my car’s readiness for the bumpy road to Auchi, the commercial hub of Afemai.
After queuing behind other motorists for 45 minutes, I was able to pull through, but not without a few damages to the belly of my car. It was obvious I needed to call a few individuals to strengthen my faith in the ability to navigate through.
A childhood friend suggested I tried an alternative route, whose topography and state of health I could only imagine, to connect to my hometown, Okpella, via Akoko Edo. Perhaps, over 90 per cent of the road he suggested I passed was entirely strange to me. As if I wanted a third party to witness the imminent battle between my stupidity and the highway monsters, I stopped at Auchi Park, located few kilometres after Aduwawa-Benin and pleaded with the road transport workers to give me two persons as I could not continue the trip solo. At 8.05 pm, I was joined by certain Yahaya and Dawo, who were heading to Plateau and needed a vehicle to lift them to Aviele in Etsako West. If I was stubborn about my resolve to reach my destination that night, the two fellows were uncompromising over their own decision to carry on, despite contrary advice.
They had left Warri at 11am; about the same time I left Mowe, Ogun State, where I fixed my car. They had also squandered over half of their day on a supposed 45-minute Warri-Benin trip, owing to unsympathetic police handling and dilapidated roads. But for the park operators who casually and perhaps, sarcastically, urged me to “follow this bus, it is going to Auchi too,” nobody we spoke with encouraged us to continue the journey that night. Somehow, I developed an unusual faith in the collective power of the three to weather any storm and get to our destination in record time. The soldiers manning one of the army checkpoints located about two miles away from the park warned us to “go back to where you are coming from if you love yourselves,” but we defied their counsel.
Barely 20 kilometres on the reactivated trip, I encountered my first baptism of fire. I had to park in the middle of the forest, disembarked from the car and walked over the mould-filled gullied-roads marked out by deep ditches on both sides to ascertain if it would not sink my car permanently. I scaled that hurdle. But I repeated the ritual 18 times thereafter.
The condition of the stretch of the road leading to Iruekpe, late Stella Obasanjo’s home, is akin to Mile 2-Apapa Road, stretched to infinity. I had driven in-between two endless files of tankers and other trucks for over five miles before I realised that the road led to nowhere. Every space of the road in the middle of a thick forest was occupied by articulated vehicles, with many of the drivers lying around, sleeping and snoring under their vehicles. I had resigned to fate before wisdom prevailed and the stranded travellers joined forces to create a tiny space between the tankers for cars and buses to squeeze through.
I could not but imagine how the political leaders in Esan, Edo Central, access their villages in their siren-blaring long convoys. What about the traditional rulers, who have increasingly made Benin their second home? Where was everybody before the road got so bad, that even trucks could barely pass the dangerously ripped roads? Are all the federal lawmakers, who must have clinched their offices, based on promises to provide quality representation and attract government presence on holidays abroad all this while? Is the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA) still functional?
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