Last week I made an early morning trip from Calabar to Uyo. That journey should be made compulsory for anyone planning to spend his or her eternity in hellfire. It'll be very good preparation for an eternity of teeth-gnashing and assorted torment, I tell you.
The road – ‘owned’ by the Federal Government – is a nightmare. Potholes and gullies of all shapes and sizes jostle with one another for supremacy, tripping up some, slowing down all. The most striking image was of the truck I saw lying on its side, its cargo of yams spilled onto the roadside, evoking images of sickly vomit.
I've been told that a few weeks ago, Calabar suffered fuel scarcity because petrol tankers from Uyo decided to boycott the road â€“ it was felling too many of them.
Yet this is a country with a Ministry of Works, a separate Ministry of Transportation, an infrastructure fund that makes a lot of noise about fixing roads and bridges (SURE-P), and a Federal Roads Maintenance Agency. And of course enough oil money to endlessly award inflated contracts for armoured vehicles for government officials, and build useless airports in states that do not need them while the actually viable airports struggle to deal with leaking roofs and paralysed carousels.
I tweeted about my Calabar-Uyo trip, and I got a lot of interesting responses. Someone mentioned that they lost a tyre on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway the day before. "The potholes leap out at you from nowhere," the person tweeted, making me remember how I lost a tyre (and damaged a tyre rim) along the Ibadan-Ife Expressway in April 2012. Someone mentioned the Yola â€“ Mubi road as another really bad one. And then someone else described the Otukpo/Otukpa â€“ Enugu Road as being worse than all others.
I quickly realised that no Nigerian has to go very far to see a death-trap-of-a-highway, and tweeted: "Those are the things that unite Nigeria. No matter how far you travel from anywhere, the roads will be awful, and the generators busy."
I remembered my Port Harcourt to Yenagoa trip earlier this year. That road is another terrible one.
It certainly gets one thinking â€“ if the President cannot fix the very busy road that leads to the capital of his state, are we not doomed as a country? What hope is there of seeing the other busy highways fixed?
But of course there is an explanation for this. Every dysfunction in Nigeria has a simple and logical explanation, I've come to realise. The President probably never travels on that road. He flies a jet to Port Harcourt from Abuja and then a helicopter to Yenagoa or his village. He has no idea what that road looks like, I can bet. The last time he probably drove on it was when he was â€˜spare tyre' in Bayelsa, six years ago.
Now that explains it. It also explains why former President Obasanjo failed to complete the road connecting Sango-Ota in Ogun State (where his farm is located) to Lagos before he left office in 2007. As President, he routinely flew helicopters between Lagos and Ota. Which is why barely a month after he left office, he must have been surprised to find himself caught up in a nasty traffic jam that delayed his presence at an event in Lagos. Until then, he had no idea what the rest of the people were forced to go through.
By the time the new Bayelsa Airport is completed (oh yes, the powers-that-be have awarded the contract to build one), Mr. President will no longer even need to fly into Port Harcourt first. God be praised. Had Obasanjo known, he would have built an airport in Sango-Ota.
Road construction is honestly not rocket science. It's not the same as trying to put a man on the moon, or building a made-in-Nigeria car.
It's an uncomplicated venture that actually boils down to a simple decision by a government to see it happen. And we can see evidence of that in Lagos, where the state government is building a six-lane highway between Lekki and Epe, and has completed a beautiful bridge that connects Ikoyi and Lekki Peninsula, across the lagoon. Now the same government is seriously planning to build a 4th mainland bridge. (Let's put aside for a moment the economics of these projects; that is an argument for another day. The facts confronting us show that these projects are being done, and completed, and to appreciable levels of quality).
One question the PDP-led Federal Government will have to answer in 2014, as it seeks to continue to rule Nigeria, is this: How has it managed to leave Nigeria's federal highways in such dismal states, for almost 15 years.
The state of our infrastructure is one face of Nigeria that shamelessly advertises itself. From arriving at the Murtala Mohammed International Cattle Market â€“ which has, in spite of all of Madam Minister's noise about "transformation", stubbornly refused to stay transformed â€“ Nigeria shows you what it's all about: a country that has openly given up on making itself work even at the most overt levels.
Now hold on to this, while I take this conversation a step further, onto slightly less pessimistic â€“ but still related, as I will explain down the line â€“ territory.
In spite of all the obstacles that the government leaves on the path of the people â€“ and the roads with their potholes and gullies are only one of several examples â€“ there's no doubting the fact that Nigeria appears to have turned a corner in recent years. Armed with enough information about the ways in which things are changing, it is a lot easier to be optimistic about this country than it was, say, a decade ago. (This is where I have to add that unfortunately very little of the credit for this belongs to the government).
These days I'm constantly meeting Nigerians (mostly young) returning to the country to have a go at living and hustling here. Many people use the opportunity of NYSC to move back and sample life for a year, before deciding what next. What a good number of them realise is how much opportunity and entrepreneurial excitement there is in this crazy country.
(I must admit I'm on largely anecdotal territory here â€“ and will be looking forward to getting access to verifiable data that can paint the most accurate picture).
Years ago when Nigerians started returning from the diaspora in appreciable numbers, many of them got well-paying jobs in banking and consulting and government; jobs that promised them nice accommodation and a car and driver and all sorts of perks. Without those buffers, no one wanted to come.
What I think is changing is this: people seem to now be coming home with much lower levels of pre-arrival risk mitigation. I'm meeting lots of young people who're coming not because they got a job with an oil company or a bank, but because they've got a start-up idea they think might be able to work. They are not averse to the idea of not living in a luxury apartment in Ikoyi or Victoria Island. They’ve been bitten by the crazy bug that is Nigerian potential.
The rate at which Nigerians abroad are flocking back home is a strong demonstration of optimism regarding the country and its people, and not necessarily in its government. (We can all agree that the Nigerian government does not often inspire a lot of confidence or optimism).
Earlier this year, I spoke to a young Nigerian who recently moved to Accra from the US. She explained to me that Ghana is a much easier place to relocate to than Nigeria, for various reasons. It's relatively safe, it's relatively cheap to live in, and an easier place to do business in (because the government offers sweeteners like tax rebates to start-up businesses).
And yet, for her, Accra, tempting as it might be, is not her intended final destination. Nigeria is. Accra is only serving as a sort of buffer zone to assist in the process of acclimatising to Nigeria.
(to be continued).