My Facebook readers know I am not one of those propagating the false impression that Accra, or Ghana as a whole, is Africa’s new Eldorado – a place to which you could relocate and live a life devoid of confusion, crime and noise you find in Nigeria. I waste no time in debunking the fallacious notion that electricity here is better than in Nigeria; that roads here are better or that even the people are less corrupt. This is because I know that stable electricity is a mirage for most Ghanaians. Just recently, Ghanaians held large demonstrations in Accra and Kumasi largely because of poor electricity supply and generally because of discouraging economic indices and reality. I have also been caught in terrible traffic hold-ups and heard of muggings and other petty crimes even in high-brow neighborhoods such as the Cantonment. And, of course, I have witnessed Ghanaian police extorting bribes from motorists, as well as Customs and Immigration officers behaving like their Nigerian counterparts.
But for a brief spell on February 28, 2015, while driving from Ibadan to Accra, I couldn’t help but marvel at the relative comfort and safety the road from the town of Afflao, Ghana’s border with Togo, provided me. The 194 kilometers drive was the best out of the total of 581 kilometers from Ibadan to Accra. For most of that drive, I caught myself doing an average of 140 km/hr! That, on a face-me-I-face-you road! Until I entered Accra, there was no section of the road that had four lanes or more. The Ghanaian government did not make any pretensions about building an “Expressway” between Ghana’s border and Togo. But it maintained this N1 Highway such that, except for the speed bumps that slowed me down as I approached a village, the road was devoid of any pothole or gaping craters like I found on the Badagry – Seme section of the trip. Every potential danger on the road, like bends or bumps or animal crossings or bridges, was clearly marked.
The drive from Mile 2 in Lagos to the Seme border with Benin Republic was the second worst section of the trip. Agreed, there were on-going repairs between Mile 2 and Badagry and one can blame the poor and unsafe conditions of the road on that, there is absolutely no excuse for the condition of the road from Badagry to Seme. This road is the ONLY reasonable road through which every country located west of Nigeria (Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin) would enter Nigeria’s economic hub city. And it was in such a deplorable state. You would expect our country to make a good first impression on visitors. This was a sad road to see if you were a West African who had heard about Nigeria being the “Giant of Africa.” If you visited and never went past Mile 2, you would laugh at that appellation.
But the worst section of my trip was…you guessed it (!), the Ibadan – Lagos Expressway. It was the section of the trip during which my life was ever in danger. True, sections of it are under repairs. But the combination of bad drivers, lack of danger warning signs, absence of key road signs, complete darkness (I drove through between 5:00 am and 6:30 am on a Saturday and everybody drove with their high beams) with a host of swaying, rickety, large vehicles that didn’t have tail lights or reflective markers, made my 90 minutes on the road the most stressful. By the way, five months into my Accra sojourn, I am yet to see a vehicle without tail lights in Ghana. In fact, reflective stickers for the front and rear are mandatory for your vehicle and I am yet to see a vehicle without them in all of Ghana.
Yes, you can call me crazy for daring to drive from Ibadan to Accra (alone) when I could easily have flown for just 45 minutes. But I am not crazy. It is the sort of thing my wife and I love to do. It is the sort of thing that, for me, fulfills the essence of travel – when you can control your speed and your stops; when you can do the sight-seeing at your own pace, get to know the land, appreciate nature and the environment and see different people up-close and personal. We routinely did the roundtrip weekend 1,942 kilometers drive from Los Angeles, California to Sierra Vista, Arizona, taking in the beautiful view as the road hugged the Pacific Ocean from just south of Los Alamitos to San Pedro (in southern California) before turning eastward to drive through the desert into Arizona. The sharp contrast in vegetation and geography always held our breadth, negotiating hills and valleys; going through mind-boggling rock formations and stupefying sand dunes. The 690 kilometers drive from Kuwait City, Kuwait to Baghdad, Iraq was only similar in respect of the arid desert and the burning heat. Of course, the highways leading in and out of Kuwait were much better than those of Iraq. But both were still better than the Badagry – Seme road.
It was piece of cake for me to do the 756 kilometers drive from Wiesbaden, Germany to London, UK. I enjoyed the adventure of driving from Germany through Belgium, The Netherlands and France, putting my vehicle on either the ferry or train at Calais in France and riding across the spectacular view and air of the British Channel to Dover in the UK, from where I continued my drive into London. I loved it so much that I must have done those Friday – Sunday trips about twelve times in five years. And what about the roundtrip 3,608 kilometers drive from Wiesbaden to Naples, Italy! It was a blast driving from Germany through Austria into Florence in Italy, down to Rome and then on to Naples and back.
These European and American roads (and the few over which I drove in the Middle East while crossing international borders), offered me a more positive spin of the respective countries than what I found once I entered the hearts of the countries. For example, I was shocked to find slum areas in Rome; Rome – of all places; slums inhabited by the dregs of their society who were, unfortunately, mostly of African origin; slums in communities of walking distances from the Coliseum and the Vatican! There are neighborhoods in Seoul, Daegu, Manila, Bangkok, Pucket, Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta in which I would never have been comfortable living even on my first day out of Nigeria. But the sights and driving experiences from the JFK International airport in New York, or the Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) or the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), or Gimpo International Airport in South Korea welcome the visitor to “heaven on earth.” It is clear countries around the world try to welcome visitors with their best foot forward. The drive from the Benin side of the Seme border, all the way to Cotonou, was a good attempt at putting up a positive image for Togo if you were coming from east of Benin (Nigeria or Cameroon) and going just to Cotonou and back. Togo is struggling a bit with the highway leading from Lome to Afflao as a huge chunk of it is under repairs and traffic was, in fact, diverted through local, dusty roads for about two hours. But the road in and out of Nigeria on the Benin Republic side is just unacceptable.
Most of the drive from Grand Popo, near the Benin western border with Togo, deep into Togo all the way to Lome, which is not too far from Togo’s western border with Ghana at Afflao, provided me the resplendent Atlantic Ocean view reminiscent of the California Pacific Ocean view mentioned above. In fact, for a long stretch of the road, the beach sands came up to the very edge of the road. You could easily see and smell the vast ocean as it disappeared into the horizon. You could hear the roar of the waves. I just imagined what Benin and Togo could do with that vast ocean view if their economies could sustain five-star hotels and other tourist attraction. And if they spoke English instead of French!
I was not surprised to find that some Beninese people, far from the border with Nigeria, spoke fluent Yoruba. But I was shocked to find that at each of the three stops I made in that country and led the conversation in Yoruba or Hausa, the Beninese people responded in Yoruba! And in Togo, I got two Hausa speakers! We are blessed in Africa with vast natural resources but we lack the human and technological know-how to harness them. And for this, our people continue to languish in unimaginable penury and ignorance.
You don’t need to junket all over Europe, Asia, the Middle East or America to experience nature in its serenity and virginity. West Africa can provide everything you need if only we recognize what lies beneath or around us. It makes me wonder, at times, what our ambassadors – our delegates; discuss when they attend those ECOWAS conferences.
We can turn our world into our own paradise.
IMAGE: Mario Micklisch