Those Deathtraps Called Roads: My Travel Journal . . .
"For me, I must say that it has been an interesting period going around the nation maybe because the roads are bad. I must say I had a very interesting and challenging time but above all, the president gave us the good support."
Welcoming President Buhari back from sick leave
The above quote is with two caveats: First, emphasis is mine; and second, I doubt if VP Osinbajo actually uttered that emphasized clause. Someone added it on one of the discussion group conversations that I read and I found it humorously relevant since it snuggly fits the theme of my present write-up. Let's put that aside.
The deathtraps called "roads" in Nigeria are a good measure of how much our governments care for the welfare of the people. Anyone who dares to bear the risk of heading in any direction for about half an hour from home has a 50/50 chance of never returning. The roads are that bad. Seriously, they are that bad!
"May we not travel on the day the road is craving for blood!" So goes the solemn but serious invocation of the Yoruba. It seems, however, that our leaders have set our roads up, left it uncared for and starved to the extent that the only meal those roads now understandably crave for is blood. Amen, may we not travel on their most hungry days because conventional wisdom has taught us that, "A hungry man is an angry man." This is proven beyond the indubitable! As it stands, our road situation baffles human understanding. Indeed, it does!
It is not that our governments are not capable of providing useable road networks; it's just that they are too carefree about the lives of the people and apparently oblivious of the intricate network among commerce, communication, nation building, and citizens. In Oyo North, for example, the single carriage road that links the townships of Irawo and Saki is impeccably good, the only one of its type I traveled on throughout my short visit home. This was a distance that used to be close to an hour's commute, when commuters used to meander around in order to connect via other towns so as to get to the relatively short distance. That same connection now takes about seven minutes to ply! What that tells me is that the quandary of bad roads in Nigeria is not insurmountable.
I believe strongly that the most used commercial highway in Nigeria is the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. Ordinarily, between Ibadan and Lagos should not take more than one hour of travel time. To be fair, as I write this article, a part of it is under repair. However, the highway has always been under some kind of repair almost all the time ever since it was constructed, God knows how long ago. The fact remains that there are days when it would take more than three hours, sometimes more, to ply this simple dash. In fact, on the monthly Holy Ghost Service, it could even take an all-night travel between Ibadan and Lagos. Anyone who travels this particular expressway must hold his or her breath. This is because even where the highway seems smooth and averagely drivable, you do not know when you are going to find yourself suddenly face-to-face with a chasm (too deep to be called a pothole) and with the vehicle going sixty to seventy miles an hour, the driver would have no option but drive into the ditch headlong or bear the risk of swerving to avoid the death hole. The latter could be macabre as it could on occasions lead unfortunate drivers to be airborne, crashing into the woods. Let's not even talk about the maintenance costs to drivers.
This "new" highway, approximately 32 miles, is said to be completed a short while ago and should be officially commissioned anytime soon. But do not be fooled by its "newness" because whenever the highway goes over a creek, marsh, wetlands or any soft terrain, rather than to be specially reinforced with gravels, granites and/or concrete, the construction is as ordinary as when done over a regular dry and solid surface. Therefore these spots pose dangers as they are infested with irregular surfaces, deep, bulgy and bumpy spots that could spell doom for the unsuspecting drivers. There are occasional huge potholes and one could not but wonder which schools those civil engineers who constructed or supervised those roads attended and weather they learned basic principles of diverse surface conditions that determine various kinds of construction layers!
The deadliest road on which I ever traveled so far in my life is Oyo-Ogbomoso Road, a single carriage with the most damaged surface. Sometimes the driver is completely out of control of his or her own vehicle. The vehicle drifts in whatever the uneven tracks meanders. The uneven tracks are products of years of abuse of overweight vehicles traveling on a road engineered for light vehicles. This would not be too much problem if there were maintenance policies. On this road my vehicle was literally levitating at one point, going uncontrollably while trailers "ajagbe" were coming at the lightening speed as if the drivers were drunk, blind, no breaking devices or a combination of all of the above!
Does anyone care? Is anyone in any government – federal, state, municipal, city, township, village or hamlet traveling on this extremely dangerous road? It is hard to believe that some of those in government have traveled overseas; some lived their before they became a part of the stus quo, and they see real good roads. Goodness gracious, in societies where their governments find people's lives as things that matter, this road would not be permitted even inside the private farmland of a country farmer, and this is no exaggeration! As a driver how many times are you going to be reciting, "The Lord is my shepherd" on a thirty-mile road, just to be sure you get home in peace and not in pieces? Or should you be singing "Lord I'm coming home" if you are the pessimistic type? Either way, this is just not fair. I learned a new one is almost completed and it has been "almost" completed now for many years. Its contract has been awarded several times and it continues to be near-completion. Any leadership that cares for the life of the people would completely shut down this road with or without a new one being constructed or ever completed. On this deadly road, there are no shoulder lanes. Someone might say, "shoulder lanes ke, when even the road itself is nothing but an angelus mortis (angel of death)!" With no shoulder lanes, the dangerous roads become even more dangerous. Some parts of the roads edge into chasm, and if a tire misses the track, the vehicle is dropping into what seems like bottomless pits. The unsolicited advice I must give, just out of clear conscience, is that anyone who really cares for his or her life should PLEASE avoid the Oyo-Ogbomoso road like a plague. As I am writing this article, I am learning of a deadly accident that took many lives on that particular road, and I am not one bit surprised! This warning is more so if one has not used that road before. As the saying goes, "verbun sapientis satis," a word is enough for the wise.
Roads in Osogbo, the State Capital of Osun
In relative terms, my home state, Osun, is one of the best in the country because, relatively speaking, the governor has done some remarkable things that many other governors have failed to do. One example is the building of newer schools of sort. Among some other things he has been able to effect that may matter to someone who cares for sanitation or been to places where sanitation matters, is making people on Osogbo pay 500 Naira a month in exchange for picking up garbage in their neighborhood. I hope this applies to everywhere in Osun State. Although I never saw this scheme implemented personally, I learned it actually exists. This is a great credit for such needed culture of hygiene and I doff my hat to the governor for such unique visionary stance.
However, the Action Governor of Osun State came up with an interesting concept, "Ona Baba Ona" in Osogbo. Probably borrowed from the Arabic phrase, ab lijamie atturuq (Father of All Roads), the catchy phrase must be intended to dazzle the populace and pave the way for a second term. It worked! The governor won the second term hands down and comfortably runs the affairs of the state the way a successful lame-duck politician would, by taking his time implementing his campaign promises on a select basis. One of the victims of such lame duck-ness is the Father of All Roads. I traveled to Osogbo when the road project was initiated. It was a project that bulldozed houses and monuments, paving a mega lane akin to a ring road around the state capital. Personally, I was not impressed. I told my folks then that when politicians do things like that, especially in a state of no accountability, it's always mere political gimmicks, a white elephant publicity stunt to dazzle the uninformed and bamboozle the critics. As if to silence my skepticism, to his credit, the governor actually implemented a part of the project, especially the stretch that is visible to the public eye, but what about the area not much seen by the public, the area where the majority of the people happen to be less affluent? It is left in a dusty state, dangerous and unhealthy. The tons of dust that the road emits every blessed day should be enough to bring about lung diseases and many upper respiratory illnesses in the next few years and the symptoms are there already in many residents on a daily basis. There is dust in the air, dust in the bedroom, living room, bathroom, in the kitchen, inside plates, cooking pots, soup pots, everywhere and every time! People are literally choking along the Ona Baba Ona paths. If the gods cannot favor one, at least they should not exasperate one's desperate situation, as the Yoruba often say. People did not ask for the ring road and they were okay without it. May the gods appeal to the conscience of the Action Governor before he starts to hear the voice of the people, which, as we all know, could turn out to be the voice of God!
If one of the best governors has done this, what does anyone expects of leaders who never care their people let alone about the roads on which citizens of the nation travel every hour? Let's see the aftermath of our road condition.
Road Conditions in Nigeria and the Culture of Armed Robbery
It is easy for armed robbers to take advantage of our road situations and strike at will. And there are different classes of armed robbers on Nigerian expressways. There are the flagrant ragamuffins, who would pounce at will wherever the road is bad and they know the driver can only go at two to five miles per hour right in the middle of nowhere. Some of them know the roads are so bad that there are chances that even the best of tires would have to puncture at some point once they dive into those deadly spots, and they lie in wait. I refrain from sharing my own personal eencounters with robbers or other life-threatening situations spurred by our roads, but I recall one time as my friend and his wife in the company of one or two more relatives had one of their vehicle tires punctured on the well-traveled Lagos Long Bridge. They were robbed as a lone bandit brandishing a butcher knife suddenly emerged from under the bridge and attacked them. The poor wife was stabbed; her handbags snatched away; their money was taken under duress; and their cell phones were forcibly hauled away. Here is the killer: it all happened on a broad daylight, 11 am – for goodness sake! Worse still, there were fellow road users passing by and all they did was speed away. Apparently, in a state of near anarchy, the slogan is, "Everyone for himself; God for us, all."
On our roads, there are "Area boys," who would stop you and demand for money because they've decided to fill some of those potholes that those governments have ignored and consequently need you to give them some "tips" for being "responsible" citizens where your governments have become lackadaisical about your well-being. Do you blame them? And how dare you dare them to drive off without dropping a few Naira when the mouths are smelling hemp and the nostrils are dripping with drugs? You want to quickly usher a few Naira notes and run quickly out of the area because when the sun goes down, those "Area Boys" are not your neighborhood kids; they could be deadly. What about those beggars? It's only in our country that you would drive on the expressway only to spot just a few yards ahead of you objects, smaller than a goat in height, dragging themselves right in the middle of the expressway, starring at you and raising the hands, begging only to discover these are disabled fellows, mostly men and mostly paralyzed and deformed. But whether you like it or not, you must step on your brakes so hard or run the risk of running them over. All you could say is "Holy Cow!"
I have not even mentioned those I call Robbers In Uniforms or "RIU." The RIUs are official police officers in uniform, who could stop you at will. With their eyes blood-shot, and AK-47 Assault rifles in hand, who the heck would hesitate to give a lousy one or two hundred Naira if only to let the maniac give a sadistic smile and irritating salute so as to let you go. My late mother used to warn us that there are certain things you do because you have to and not because you want to. If the baba onirungbin yeuke toun togo (the bearded fat man with the sledgehammer) tells you to open the swinging gate to your hen house, you have no option; open it and let the nuisance take all the chickens he cares to take. My friend, Bode, would even if you have to call an idiot "the Boss" just to let you pass to safety, why not do it? I must add to this group some that you have to love and occasionally should give tips, genuine tips, just to say a hearty thank you for doing what they do. That group is small, but it is there – one just has to look.
Okada riders make our roads extremely dangerous, especially in and around our towns. There are no rules as to where, when or how they could pass. You are dodging them left, right, center, back and front. While their services could be useful in a crowded, go-slow scenario, they are more of a liability than an asset. How much I wished we had a road system in which there is a dedicated lane to them. It could actually facilitate communication and commerce but alas in a chaotic, almost anarchical transit system, they are a part of the problem, certainly not a solution.
Many distractions make the roads even more dangerous. Force-stop on Ife-Ibadan road by traffic bumps and potholes you are sure hawkers, mostly selling the same things, would surround you in Ikire, Gbongan, Ife, and everywhere else for that matter and you are trying to dodge their feet so you don't run them over inadvertently. These could be great services if well organized. There is nothing wrong if there comes a government that conceives of the notion of Rest Areas, which many nations around the world have perfected. Then, there could be sections for hawkers, where even beggars could have their own sections, as funny as that may sound. With the Rest Area model, there would cease to be the "open concept" of urination and excretion (as odd and grotesque as these may even sound). People would stop and ease themselves in civilized ways! I won't bother to talk about vehicles driving heads-on in your direction, on the highway when they are supposed to drive on the other lane that goes in the opposite direction, and they put their high beams right at your face as if you were the one doing the wrong thing! What about the herds of cattle that could suddenly blanket the country roads and highways and you are at their mercy?
No doubt, the expressways around the country are treacherous; the local roads are endemically unkempt and unsavorily abandoned. Imagine the things you see by our roadsides. They range from common litters to extremely uncommon ones that you would see and almost close your eyes (animal remains, bird remains, and even other unbelievable remains that could not be mentioned on public for a)! You could barely observe normalcy except you are in areas of exclusivity, like, for example, Victoria Garden City (VGC), which was not originally constructed for Nigerians but since the ones who designed it for themselves (the Oyinbos) had to leave and they couldn't haul it away for themselves, they left it for the elite members of Nigeria to purchase and occupy. But the question is this: how could someone possibly live and sleep easy in such affluent-looking community of VGC only to step out of the gated community and drive headlong into a slum or enter into a heavy traffic hold-up for four hours on a journey that should have taken fifteen minutes in a civilized society? It baffles my personal curiosity!
Roads within our cities are nothing to write home about. They are terrible. There are potholes that could completely swallow tires and bumps as big as molehills. I stayed a week in the home of a dear friend in Abuja, the national capital. To my chagrin, I saw the unimaginable state of disrepair some of the roads were. This was a beautiful neighborhood where many affluent individuals, especially politicians, lived. Asked if those politicians were not concerned about the road conditions, my friend said they did. "And what are they doing about it?" I asked. With a grin on his face, my dear friend told me all they often did as solution to the problem was to buy themselves and their wives new SUVs so as to be able to cope with the road conditions! So, they would rather purchase new SUVs than repair the roads. What a selfish bunch of irresponsible thieves, a conglomeration of illiterate graduates!
Here is the stinker of it all: In the face of this total neglect, if you were fed up with those in power (so-called "constituted authorities") and you decided on your own at a cost to your own self, to do something about it by opting to grade the road in front or at the back of your own residence, hold on – not too fast. You are not at liberty to do it! Someone may want to ask the big question, "Why, for goodness sake?" Well, before you could do this, you need a permit. Er . . ., what the heck are we talking about here? Anyone who has had the need to obtain a "permit" in our God's own country would cringe at the sound of the word p-e-r-m-i-t because even if you were trying to establish an orphanage (as the case was for my wife and I) you would have to bribe someone and everyone from the highest executive authority to the janitor at the basement office. I learned of a church that recently was confronted with this dilemma when the bad roads leading to its premises were becoming unbecoming, to put it humorously. It needed to do the self-help way. It was stopped by the "constituted authority" that no one knew existed when the roads were deathtraps. The "offense" of the church was trying to clean up the constituted authorities' mess without a permit (or was it a license). The long story short, it was a mission impossible because the corrupt process. That you need to bribe your way into helping yourself to do what the "constituted authorities" would not do is a paradox and an enigma of the highest order. Ahhhhhh . . . it is just exasperating! Honestly, it is!
Has anyone driven on the "highway" that runs from Ibadan to Ile-Ife or the single carriage road entering Ikirun from Osogbo? Please roll up your windows and speed as fast as possible (meaning about 30 to 40 miles per hour on these pothole filled stretches)? This is because in the last five or so years, located right by the roads to these historical and well populated cities are the most dangerous factories on earth! I believe I learned they are iron melting factories owned by some foreign investors (Indians or Chinese). If anyone drives in the twilight past these areas, the heaviest level of carbon monoxide is seen engulfing the huge factories and spewing into the roads and the communities around those places. I have predicted that in the next few more years there may not be anyone living in those areas who would be spared of the attacks of lung cancer, and I can bet that any child born in those communities would be so lead-poisoned that they are sure to be learning disabled, emotionally disabled, cognitively disabled and since the "constituted authorities" don't give a damn about the "able" let alone the disabled, we have a basket case of a long line of imbeciles, beggars, robbers and all kinds of nuisances waiting to be unveiled, that is if they survived lung and brain cancers at all. The danger to the road users passing through these "death valleys" pales in comparison to the danger residents of these communities are being exposed to day-in, day-out! I cry for my people. If I don't, then, something is wrong with me.
And even more puzzling is the fact that a group of people goes around to proclaim leadership over the people it doesn't give a damn whether they live or die? What a flagrant disregard for humanity! Excuse my "French," but when something remotely resembling extreme abnormalities of this magnitude is seen in a state of civility and normalcy, it is "politely" called BULLSHIT! This is malpractice of the highest order. It is even worse when those being messed with give up and hand it over to a god, or some gods, saying "Oloun n be sha" (Anyway, there is God) or any of those sentimental nonsense that camouflages irresponsibility in the cloak of inordinate religiosity. "Lord, have mercy" is all one could say!
The 19th century philosopher, Rudolph Otto, described a unique spiritual state and experience as "mysterium, tremendum et fascinans" (literally meaning, "mysterious, tremendous and fascinating"). Ours is a physical, human induced state. It is post-spiritual, a living hell ruined over by a group of hell angels. To me, it is mysterious, it is tremendous and, sadly, it is fascinating. Something has to be done.
Honestly, Nigeria is one of the best places anyone could live, under normal circumstances and all things being equal. Opportunities abound for those with vision and creative minds. It is a society that prides itself of some of the brightest and finest in the world of knowledge, a nation with the most untapped pool of geniuses. Its tentacles have grown far and wide around the globe and in all spheres of life. Unfortunately, our circumstances at the home front are far from being normal and all things are definitely not equal. We are being watched over by giants that are sleeping and snoring, some dead. We are therefore too vulnerable to be relevant. We are orphans in a social orphanage. Our "parents" are not really dead, but they are too busy drinking the milk meant for their babies that we are abandoned and abused. Those "parents" are too fat because all they do is drink the milk meant for our growth as their children. Foreign nations are trying to raise us. China, India, Thailand, some of the Western nations, South Africa (yep, South Africa – the nation we fought for in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s) are giving us crump, indomie, selling us palm-oil they originally took from us, and locking us up in the dungeon of total dependency. Our marketplace is being presided over by looters and so our treasures belong to thieves and robbers who have made our swaggering economy stressed and distressed. Our roads reveal our social state of disrepair and the ultimate solution is for the voice of the people to be heard. This is a national emergency. This is not the time to read this and start analyzing the author's grammar, and poor spellings, or saying "this one is too elitist; he forgets he is not in America," "our leaders are kuku trying; let's give them a chance jare" and any of those trash talks that have taken us nowhere. My people and your people are suffering, failing in health and dying. Period! It is time to speak out loud and clear. A whisper will get us nowhere. It is a Macedonian Call. Our future, if any, is already mortgaged. Except the people speak, the idiots - inconsequential nincompoops, will keep parading our streets, poor as those roads are, driving their SUVs, sending their children to the Americas and the European shores. They enjoy our silence. They've enjoyed it for too long. It's time someone speaks.
"Verbum sapienti satis," as the old saying goes, a word (just a word) is enough for the wise.
Michael Oladejo Afolayan
From Outside Looking In