I have visited Nigeria no less than 20 times in the past 18 years, either from the US, Europe or Asia (depending on where my job has taken me) – an average of once a year. No time, in any of those visits, was I as excited as I was when I visited again (for 31 days) this past July. And my previous visits include those during the reigns of Babangida and Abacha, periods of arbitrary executions and incarcerations; periods of interminable queues for fuel when people literally slept at filling stations for days; during the high point of “June 12” when Abacha died and Abiola followed him a week later and Nigeria was going to slip off the precipice; and during the time of the Power-less NEPA when my uncompleted and uninhabited building with no electricity and no meter received NEPA bills.
Just last year September and October, I was in Nigeria and for some reasons, I did not expect too much and so was not disappointed in what I experienced. This time around though, I was home with my entire family. My expectations of excitement were high. I was not under any illusion that there would be uninterrupted power supply. So, I quickly purchased a 5KVA generator, hoping that we would be able to keep the refrigerator and freezer working for the few hours that power would be interrupted. Hardly did I know that what was indeed interrupted was lack of electricity! For a week straight, the Oluyole Estate in Ibadan, Oyo State, did not have any electricity. So, we ran the generator during the day in order to keep food refrigerated, and we slept in total darkness at night.
My wife and three daughters were all used to this – all being Nigerians just like me and all having been in Nigeria many times in the past too. But on the 7th day of lack of electricity, we ran out of water. We quickly turned on the generator and switched on the water pump, for we had our own source of water too. (You could not build a house in Nigeria of 2006 without drilling a Borehole or a well to meet your water needs.) But our generator was too small for the 2hp water pump. There was no water to drink, cook, bathe, wash clothes, dishes, and flush toilets. In desperation, I drove around the Estate in search of “Pure Water” suppliers in order to buy a tanker for my reservoirs. After the first two told me that they also could not pump water due to lack of electricity, I gave up. My children now had to fetch water from my neighbor’s well.
That weekend, we traveled to Ilofa near Omu Aran in Kwara State for my younger brother’s wedding. The ceremony was slated for a Saturday, and in order to forestall my lateness to Ilofa, I decided to pre-position my family in Ilorin on Friday, less than an hour’s drive away. The drive from Ibadan was to take us through Gbongan, Oshogbo, Ikirun, Erin-Ile, Ofa, Ajase-Ipo and Ilorin. But just outside Erin-Ile, we encountered a long line of vehicles, all with their engines switched off, indicating that they had no plans to move anytime soon. I asked the driver ahead of me what the problem was and he explained that there was a federally-imposed 6pm-6am curfew between Erin-Ile and Ofa. I walked all the way to the front of the line and found a massive barricade mounted by soldiers armed with rifles and riot-dispersal grenades. I introduced myself to the corporal that approached me and asked to speak with the person in charge. A lieutenant Lawal soon arrived and explained to me why no traffic was allowed to pass through: Erin-Ile and Ofa had engaged in violent fights over land and other petty problems (reminiscent of the Ife-Modakeke clashes of the 80s and 90s), and for the past couple of weeks, the Federal government had imposed the curfew.
I explained to Lawal that I had no problem looking for an alternate route, but there were many trucks and semi-trailers that were never going to be able to make a U-turn on that 2-lane road. They would have to spend the night there with no toilet facilities. Forget about whatever their appointments were and if they carried perishable goods. Forget about the women in those vehicles and their unique need for privacy each time they had to ease themselves.
Lawal told me that he did not give the orders. He enforced them. He was right. My entourage made a U-turn around 8pm and sought alternate routes. After cheating death several times on roads that really should have been closed, we arrived in Ilorin around 5am on Saturday.
The following weekend, I attended my sister-in-law’s wedding in Lagos. The drive back to Ibadan via the Lagos-Ibadan “express-way” was relatively smooth until I arrived at Ogere, a section of the road that is located in Ogun State. Ordinarily, you could complete the entire 130 kilometers Lagos-Ibadan journey in about an hour and a half doing an average of 100 kilometers per hour. On this day, I spent 3 hours stuck in traffic at Ogere! Reason? A tractor-trailer had broken down right in the middle of the “express-way” on the north-bound side. We could not go around it because that section of the road had been converted into a truck stop, with trailers parked on both sides of the northbound lane, leaving just enough room for through traffic to pass in a single file. It was on this single file “lane” that the vehicle broke down. I was sandwiched and could not go anywhere. I tried not to remember how I traveled in Germany or the US, for such comparisons amounted to futile exercises. But when my car started to overheat, I could not but remember how I drove from Naples to Frankfurt uninterrupted for 17 hours. Or how I drove from Frankfurt to London in less than 7 hours, excluding the time my car spent on the ferry or the train crossing the British Channel.
But my biggest excitement was on July 11 when we arrived at the airport in Lagos for our Lufthansa return flight back to Germany. The three customs officers (one was in civilian attire) demanded a bribe of N1000 for each of the 6 bags (out of 10 that were allowed by Lufthansa for a family of five) that contained one item of food or the other. I explained to them that it was not the first time that I would travel out of Nigeria, and although I did not have on hand the regulations that governed what kinds of food items I could take with me, it was reasonable to assume that if the food was processed (meaning you can’t plant it anymore), packaged neatly, not flammable like oil, and not of a commercial quantity, every country to which I had traveled (including Nigeria) allowed its duty-free importation. These customs officers would not hear of it. We argued for over an hour. I asked them to follow me to their office on the 6th floor to fill out the proper paperwork (if there were any) so that I could spend the rest of the evening resting before boarding my flight. They told me that if I went upstairs, I would be charged N3000 per bag. I told them that I would rather pay the N3000 to government coffers than pay N1000 per bag to them. To my utter consternation, these two men and a woman would not budge. One of them called a “senior” customs officer from an adjoining check-in counter (different airline) and asked him to talk to me. I explained the same stance to him: let me pay to the government, collect a receipt and move on. He left after failing to convince me to bribe them.
I then called my wife over to keep an eye on our luggage while I made my way up to the Customs “Quarantine” office on the 6th floor. Sensing that I was going to call their bluff by going upstairs, one of the officers ran after me and begged me to give them whatever I could afford. At that point, I was incensed (sorry, excited) beyond limits. But I kept my cool. I stopped walking and said calmly to him: “clear my luggage first and I will see what I can do.”
After he cleared my luggage, I explained to him that last year when I was in Nigeria, I visited their 6th floor office to obtain clearance for the food items that I was bringing back to Germany. The clerk demanded a N3000 bribe just to type the list of food items on her typewriter. She whispered
her request so that her boss in his office would not hear us. I then told her that I could type proficiently, probably faster than she could, and that since it was government typewriter, I did not have to pay her for typing. After threatening to speak with her boss, the woman typed my document for me free of charge. The officer then apologized for keeping me and my family waiting for more than one hour.
My biggest angst is that in spite of the very public war being waged by Nuhu Ribadu and the EFCC, elements of the Nigerian government still don’t get the message. Out there in the Departure Hall of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, custom agents demand and receive bribes from hapless travelers, many that have traveled from as far away as Maiduguri, Sokoto, Calabar or Owerri, and are just trying to check their luggage and relax before boarding. Out there in the open! Even if you wanted to bribe them, there was no way you could do so discreetly. And if you have an incorruptible mind, you could miss your flight while arguing with these dregs of the public sector.
But no sooner had I settled back down in Germany than I called my travel agent to book my next flight to Nigeria, for, in spite of all the above, I enjoyed the company of my friends and relatives. In case you did not know, your real friends are in Nigeria, not those fair-weather ones you make abroad. I enjoyed the communal festivities. I was in Ibadan during the Egungun festival and thoroughly enjoyed the lagbo-lagbo parties that, try as we can, we will never replicate in Europe or America.
I love Nigeria.