Killing Nigeria softly

Killing Nigeria softly
By Reuben Abati

PRAY, not to ever be at the mercy of the Nigerian artisan. Often we place the blame for the unravelling of Nigeria on the shoulders of the leadership elite. But the manner in which the followership, the so-called masses, the under-privileged, the other half that we are wont to pity so readily, with great outbursts of emotion, contributes to the unmaking of Nigeria is most evident in the unconscionable conduct of the Nigerian artisan. It is often said that Nigeria is largely an artisanal society: a land of blue-collar workers, daily wage earners, who toil with their hands to provide service.

Long before the rise of the knowledge society and its white collar denizens, artisans were of great value. The growing emphasis on the emergence of a knowledge society has however not robbed the artisan of his or her place in the scheme of things. But the Nigerian artisan, with his/her habits, choices and omissions, is killing Nigeria softly. He is to be held responsible in part, for the loss of faith in the Nigerian character, the cynicism that the phrase Nigerian instantly evokes.

The ubiquitousness of the artisan in our lives is a feature of his indispensability and perhaps our dependence on his supposed skills. You want to repair a damaged piece in your car. You'd need a mechanic. A pipe is leaking in the bathroom and the house may be flooded. You need a plumber. The paint on the walls is fading and peeling. Painter? The generator is making some strange noise. It'd have to be taken to the workshop. Or some bulbs in the house are giving problems, while the deep freezer is croaking as if it is about to pack up. You know what to do: call an electrician. Or you are building a house - then of course, you find yourself requiring the services of bricklayers, welders, stone-pitchers, carpenters and so on.

Every waking day, something in the course of the business of living brings us in contact with these or other artisans. We are at their mercy because in Nigeria, the big-man syndrome stands in the way of a do-it-yourself option. But even then, the division of labour and the culture of specialisation have created a situation in which certain skilled persons are best suited for particular assignments. Unfortunately in this country, not too many people have good stories to tell about their encounters with artisans.

I dare say that this special class of Nigerians is responsible for many of the problems in our society: road accidents, collapsed buildings...Take the poor condition of the vehicles on our roads. Nigerian mechanics are notorious. Many of my friends have now acquired the habit of staying for hours at the mechanic's garage to supervise even minor repair works on their cars. You have to be there physically to be sure that the engine oil that you want changed is actually changed, and that the damaged plugs are replaced with the new ones you have paid for. If you make the mistake of going away for a few minutes, your extra tyre could be replaced with a bad one, the fuel in your tank could be siphoned off, leaving you with a near-empty tank.

Okay, you are the liberal type who does not want to be seen treating the mechanic as if he is a thief (there's not much difference), and you ask him to take the car away and return it to you later. You stand the risk of your car coming back to you in worse condition. Nigerian mechanics are helped in their trade of deceit by the decadent nature of the Nigerian environment.

Every vehicle spare part in the Nigerian market can be subdivided into three categories; the fake part which you would use for only a week, and the car would begin to fall apart: fake tyres, fake engine oil, fake windshield...; the genuine parts which are usually very expensive; and the fairly used or refurbished vehicle parts. Almost always, your mechanic would advise you to buy the fairly used part. This is something I cannot understand. How could a second-hand spare part be better than the original?

But there is no point arguing with the mechanic. He will collect money for the purchase of an original but he'd buy either a fake or fairly used one. I once adopted the strategy of following my mechanic to the spare parts market. It was no use. The mechanic and the spare parts dealers have worked out a secret code of communication made up of sign language and other non-verbal cues. Your presence would actually drive up cost. The mechanic I am told, would return later and collect his share of the rip-off. The fact that the particular mechanic has been your friend for 10 years, speaks your language, attends the same church, lives in the same neighbourhood or that he is a beneficiary of your many acts of generosity, means nothing.

And as it is with the mechanic, so it is with the auto electrician (the one they call 'oga rewire'), or the vulcaniser (better known as vulka) or the panel beater (we call him panel). They are all the same. It is not just their greed that is the problem, their lack of education as well. In the past, there were Government Technical Colleges and Trade Centres where artisans were groomed in various disciplines, but today, the national education policy has gone awry, there is no training programme for technicians. When government talks about basic education, it is no more than an opportunity to award contracts! The result is that there are now so many speculators, part-time armed robbers and trial and error experts pretending to be artisans. If you have ever been a victim of these trial and error experts you are in a better position to tell your own story.

I have spent perhaps too much time on the mechanic. So, how about the electrician? I once called in an electrician to change a fluorescent bulb. The thing packed up within a week. Another electrician was called in, and he it was who announced that I had been swindled. He replaced the fluorescent bulb with something that lasted longer, but I discovered that he added N2,000 to the original cost. And to think that I gave the idiot a generous tip in addition to what he charged for his services! Or do you want to try the plumber? Risk a flood in the house if you are not vigilant enough! A friend once followed a plumber to Orile to buy a new set of bathroom fittings. He nearly ran mad when he discovered that he had brought home used fittings instead of new ones. He called in the police, but it was even the police advising him to "go and settle" with the plumber.

Bricklayers or masons are worse. The art of masonry is perhaps one of the noblest professions known to man. The Pyramids, the Temple of King Solomon, the Great Walls of China, to cite only three examples, advertise the place of masonry in the progress of human civilisation. But in Nigeria, it is a much-abused profession. Where are the masons of old who wielded the plumb, the square, the level and compasses with a free heart, and with faith in the Brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of a Supreme Being? Those who aspire to own houses these days in Nigeria must first take a crash course in the art of endurance. The other weekend, I ran into a friend, somewhere around Lagos. He was standing in front of a bungalow, almost completed, but according to him, ready for occupation. He and his children were busy cleaning up the place ahead of their planned movement this weekend.

"Is this place yours?", I had asked

"Yes, Oga mi. It is a small place for the boys."

"Congratulations. Looks good to me. How many rooms?"

"Four, Oga mi"

"Very nice. Very good. Well done."

"But, ah, Oga..."

He didn't complete the statement. Instead he started gesticulating with his right hand. He had turned his hand into a knife-like piece and was gesturing towards his throat, slashing his throat with the hand: "Oga mi, they nearly killed me. It's not easy, what my eyes saw. I saw pepper."

He then told a bitter story about the artisans who had worked so far on the building and how they had cheated him all the way. "One day", he added, "I came here and I met the bricklayers who were plastering the house and they said they needed more bags of cement. By then I had bought about 300 bags of cement. They said they needed more. I was uncomfortable. 300 bags to plaster a four-bedroom bungalow? But they insisted I should buy 50 more bags. There was nothing I could do. I was at their mercy. I agreed. But as I was leaving, I hit my foot against something as I passed by the pile of sharp sand in front of the house. Do you know when I insisted on the sharp sand being checked, we found 15 bags of cement hidden underneath it?"

I expressed both surprise and sympathy. But he was not done yet. "But Oga mi, I thank God. Look at my neighbour, the owner of that house over there. The boy is fed up. He can't complete the house. They took N1.5 million from him to do the wood frame for his roof. N1.5 million! Then he paid N2 million for the roof covering itself - aluminium long span. But what is he building? Five rooms. He went and got an Engineer to supervise the house for him. Two weeks ago, his Engineer bought a Toyota Jeep while he, the aspiring landlord, is almost having hypertension."

These stories are in different shapes and contexts. But the way most Nigerians deal with the problem is to accept their fate and try through direct supervision to reduce the extent to which they are swindled. Too many Nigerians these days go to the market to buy whatever they need for the artisan whose services they require. Those who cannot do so prefer to travel across the border to engage the services of Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian artisans and it is with regret that they tell you that those ones are better. "They are at least honest, more competent, and reliable", someone said.

It is not enough to say that the Nigerian artisan is dishonest because he is poor and angry. What has happened is that our country has simply lost its moral compass. It is a tragedy that our artisans cannot repair vehicles successfully, build houses that won't collapse, sew clothes without stealing a few yards, and cannot render service without cheating.