My elder brother was worried stiff about another exposure to air travel in Nigeria. “The nation has just lost a Governor and a General, why do you have such confidence in air travels?” he queried. He was relieved learning that the destination was a neighbouring country’s capital, we needn’t take a flight. Whatever the fears of my Yankee sibling, I deserved rest from a quite busy and eventful 2012. Yes, there truly are security challenges, but I have always had to caution some of my been - to friends that all cannot be said to be gloomy about Nigeria. After all, there are quite chilling issues in those seemingly safe foreign lands too.
It is evident that in two years of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, Nigeria has had copious erosion of whatever we have built as a nation in terms of security - thanks to our insane zealots in the north and the festering sore being inflicted in some parts of the South principally by the get rich anyhow kidnappers of the South East and South South. However, insanity doesn’t know borders, do they? How do we explain the December 15, 2012 mindless extermination of 20 innocent children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, USA? Or the July, 2011, Utoeya Island, Norway killings, where just one deranged mind forced over 80 people to an early grave?
Christmas 2012, we took a quite comfortable bus ride to Lome’, Togo. I salute the entrepreneurial spirit in some Nigerian transporters who are increasing creative in developing their trade. We were twelve passengers aboard a mini-coach, air conditioned and made in most ways to be comparable in terms of comfort and hospitality with air flight. After customary prayers, we embarked on the six – eight hour mission. We ferried through the well familiar rough rides navigating the potholes from Mile 2 – Festac, Lagos through Ojoo – Alaba to Ijanikin, Badagry on to the Nigeria - Republique du Benin border at Seme’.
The journey within Lagos to the border town was good insight to how far we could allow infrastructural decay. How did we as a nation allow an obviously well-constructed road, built by the Gowon administration about forty years earlier to deteriorate that much? What a discouraging first impression for anyone wanting to do business with Nigeria!
Also, with the hype generated by the Lagos state government about plans to transform the Mile 2 – Badagry Express, to ten lanes on both sides with an alley for a light rail, one had expected much more progress. The pace of development is abysmally slow. If in six years of the Fashola administration, physical construction is hardly beyond ten kilometres on the 40 – 50 kilometre long project, what hopes exist for an early completion of the project? With the familiar nature of our political clime, in my view, it will take miracles to have the project delivered in four - six years.
After the festering “settlements” of a seemingly unending parade of law enforcement agents at both the Nigerian and Benin Republic end, we were relieved by the more pleasant and of course, less crowded road at the Benin Republic end. The first introduction to the French territory is the prevalence of Renault vehicles, cars, trucks whatever the age. Then, there were hundreds of Peugeot automobiles - mostly rickety. Also, it seemed that if they have to be fuelled, it has to be largely from Total. The impression passed across was that French colonialism and neocolonialism is total and enduring. Thankfully there were also some of our own MRS (a metamorphosis from Texaco) and Shell Petrol stations. There was noticeable incursion of Toyota cars and vehicles - more for the economics of fuel use and vehicle maintenance.
I must recall an enduring trade of petrol through some ubiquitous round transparent vases. They existed in several huts and shops from the border to Port Novo – Cotonou and beyond. I learnt that they are largely smuggled petrol products from Nigeria having found their ways out through the foxholes that litter the border of big brother Nigeria with Benin.
Just outskirts of Seme’, we started noticing a growing number of people in supposedly white sutannas turned dirty to brown. I needn’t be convinced that they were members of the Eglise’ Celeste du Christe’ (The Celestial Church of Christ), followers of the Late Prophet S. B.J. Oshoffa. As one who grew up in Lagos, I have always known their worship dress culture – their sutanas are often as white as achievable. However, the unfolding drama of dirty holy garments beat me hollow. A fellow passenger afforded an unverified explanation - Christmas days are special. The adherents get near the beach and water front, roll on the ground, pray and commit the future to God.
Be it cogent or not, what was incontrovertible was that we saw droves of men, women and children, adorned in the dirtied frocks emerging from somewhere around the beach, evidently glad at some encounter or at performing a feat.
For most parts of the journey till Lome’ and possibly beyond, we kept seeing trailer and truck loads and hundreds of Peugeot pick-ups of human cargo packed uncomfortably. They appeared unperturbed by the temporal discomfort. What seemed to matter to them was that they have had some divine encounter and possibly received promises of provision and protection for the next year and ones to come. How interesting! The experience revealed to me that Pa S. B. J. Oshoffa would keep stirring in the grave comforted by a lifetime achievement - his influence looms and would certainly keep traversing generations
I had been in Benin Republic, thirteen years earlier. I was glad seeing the completion of the construction of parts of the West African highway embarked upon by the then President Mathew Kerekou with some fly-overs now adorning parts of Cotonou, how nice. Benninois President Bonnie Haruna has always given me the impression of a civilised and humble man. I should expect meaningful development as he serves his tenure.
In Benin Republic, I could also observe the familiar toll gates. Oh, our brothers who art in Lekki may have their points over preventing Fashola (did someone mention Tinubu?) from smiling to the banks per minute on the Lekki toll plaza (I have been a victim too). Here, in Benin Republic, there can’t be compromise over finding revenue via tools like toll plazas. There is no crude oil as can be fetched at the backyards of the Niger delta for Nigeria’s collective national development. Also, the population isn’t sizeable enough to compel commercial gains comparable with Nigeria. Finances have to be derived from whatever resources, toll gates, the Ports, Agriculture, ex-gratia, name it.
Some stretch of the journey from Cotonou en route Lome was a truly rough-ride. A reasonable stretch of the West African highway was bare earth without asphalt coating. The same occurred just beyond the Hilla - Condji border between Benin and Togo. The roads had been scraped evidently being constructed or reconstructed. Though okay, it left some sour taste; I could only hope that the poor introduction to the countries would not prolong. The villages in Benin Republic looked peaceful though, the people presenting themselves as simple and largely agrarian
The first impression I had of Lome was that it is an organized place. You couldn't miss the long stretch of natural brown sand neat beach adorned with coconut trees. The sand bars contain the Atlantic as its waves keep angrily slapping at them. The nation seems aware that there is need for a good first impression. The Togolese did ensure that its section of the West African highway is splendid. Good planning cannot be hidden. There are major roads -Boulevards crisscrossed by Avenues and streets - Rues. However wide or narrow, tarred or not, you are sure to see seemingly unending stretches of streets. Houses are thus well positioned. We looked out for open gutters -, there were none. Naturally then, we hardly saw mosquitoes even out there on the open streets till as late as 10pm! There didn't seem to be a special location for the rich or poor. Next to a sophisticated house could be a simple living home. There was obvious presence of Caucasians foreigners especially the French who seemed much at home, living among the people riding bikes or hiking.
The mission to Lome was indeed revealing. I was quite surprised that it is possible to derive much fun from a country so near. The peace of the city was palpable. The people seemed quite peaceful. Here, life goes on as if nothing is amiss - tell that to Lagos passengers catching Danfos in flight! There is security - manifest in the thriving night life, electricity hardly blinked. We tried hard looking out for generators - ready to dance to the familiar deafening roars of generators. Our search was a relatively long one. It had fruition after three days. We discovered a rusting one tucked away in a compound. Commercial life especially restaurants and drinking joints stretched deep into the wee hours of the next day. One of our Igbo brothers ( I have been told that their presence anywhere on earth indicates safety – so flee for your life if you don’t find them amidst even Eskimos!) testified as much that electricity run for months, get disrupted possibly once in about six months with apologies and then gets restored within minutes. On security, he claimed that life is so secure that wherever there are incidences, in barely minutes, you have four or five different police patrols simultaneously arrive the scene. In his view, there are no hiding places for criminals as the streets are well laid-out and planned. So comfortable is living in Lome that he confessed always being unable to cope with the hardships he faces anytime he is in Nigeria.
We couldn't help but be ashamed about our poor showing as a nation. How come we missed it so bad – especially over insecurity? How would the people of this relatively resource poor country perceive a big brother gone awry?
I kept pondering why despite the familiar ill-tales of African countries and leadership challenges, there is a nearby one that seemed above board. I can only pray that the tribe of a few of our leaders confronting the elephantine challenges of infrastructural decay and insecurity would flourish in our interest.
In Togo, I came to terms with the cost of illiteracy. I was unable to communicate in French and had to depend on my wife as the go between in our interactions with the people. I kept staring at mouths as they conversed in French. It was a helpless situation. My wife who was the inspiration for the visit Togo had successfully undergone tutorials in the French language at Alliance Francais passing the exams. Poor me, tried as I would, I had miserable showing in the classes and had to give up, comforted somewhat by the words of the late reggae maestro, Bob Nesta Marley that he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. What use is it trying to bend a fish when it's already dried anyway?
One sad note to the mission a’ Lome. We decided on a trip to the Universite de Lome. The discouraging first impression and rough ride through the outskirts of the campus discouraged further exploration of the campus which gave the impression of a glorified rural college of education in Nigeria. The environ was unkempt and far from appealing. The hood may not make the monk, but why dress the monk so miserably and undeservingly? Our guide revealed that Togo has only two universities and even then, most of the graduates are unemployed. Could it be indicative that education, the passport to liberty, dignity and development isn’t given sufficient attention? I really hope this isn’t the reality.
The journey back to Nigeria was uneventful, safe that we had a further view of rapid development of neighbouring Cotonou. We had an easy passage through the border between Togo and Benin at Hilla and Condji. However, it was hell getting into Nigeria through the Seme’ border. We were held hostage by the myriads of immigration officials of both countries but more by our dear fellow countrymen. Even after crossing the border, we had to pay customary homages at virtually ubiquitous check points. This memory left a sore impression – it made a mockery of whatever reforms our government has pretentiously been claiming to be making in our borders. You needn’t ask for a more shameful presentation of Nigeria to tourists and investors from neighbouring West African states – wither African integration!