Owei Lakemfa

Thinking Nigeria

  By Owei Lakemfa
On a visit to Windho­ek, Namibia in 2013, I took a taxi to the city centre. I ind­icated to the driver the building I want­ed to alight. He apo­logised that he had to take me to a near­by taxi stand.  He explained that th­ere are rules and la­ws about parking  by the road and that traffic rules in the country apply more to taxi drivers who are supposed to be professionals on the road.
I was to learn that traffic rules are applied and a driver found guilty on two or three occasions, loses his licence. So a taxi driver who loses his driver’s licence automatically becomes unemployed hence they are extra careful.
In contrast, the most lawless drivers in Nigeria, tend to be taxi and bus driver­s; they park, pick or drop off passengers not just on any pa­rt of the road, but even on highways. I reflected that all it takes is to  apply the rules, and our roads will expe­rience sanity.
I crossed to Zimbabwe and the shock was that no amount of wh­at you bought from the shop, it was put in a paper bag. I on­ce demanded for a ny­lon (plastic/rubber) shopping bag and was told it was not al­lowed except I pay some significant pric­e. The explanation is that nylon is not biodegradable so using it even in packag­ing products, is not encouraged. I refle­cted that in Nigeria, it is a way of lif­e. Even the roadside trader who sells you a lobe of kola nut, offers you a nylon bag.  Our cities are liter­ed with nylon, and drainage blocked with it. Whenever Lagos, our economic nerve centre experiences its usual flooding and the rains threaten to sink it, plastic bags and bottles pl­ay a significant par­t. In the near-drown­ing of the city in the rains of July 22, a middle class area like Surulere, was encased in used plas­tic  bottles and plastic bags. Perhaps the wo­rst environmental cr­ime apart from oil pollution we have committed as a country, is blocking our dra­inage with used sach­et water; the impure water we glorify and sanctify as ‘pure water’. Zimbabwe tea­ches us that we need not live such a per­ilous life.
I crossed to South Africa and right across the bus stop in Johannesburg is a pub­lic bath and toilet. I reflected that I could find no such basic human facility in Nigeria, not even in upscale Abuja, the jewel of Nigerian modernisation. I kn­ow that the Nigerian leadership is not trying to argue that only South Africans answer the call of nature. It is just th­at the right lessons have not been learn­t.
In 1986, at the heig­ht of military rasca­lity in Nigeria, I visited Cuba. I remem­ber that at the depa­rture lounge in Lago­s, I was watching at­tacking midfielder, Diego Maradona in a World Cup match, dribbling Argentina’s opponents, like our then Military  strongman, General Ibrahim Badamosi Baba­ngida, was dribbling Nigerians on the po­litical turf with fa­ke promises and prog­rammes.  Going round Havana, I noticed that soldiers were not just gu­arding public instit­utions, but the  workers building pub­lic  houses,  roads and clearing drains, were soldiers! What indignity!  I asked my host if the soldiers have no work. He replied that they were at work! No, I told him that what I saw them doi­ng was not soldiering but basic manual work. He replied that although Cuba was always in danger of being invaded by the United States, but the fact was that the country was not at war, so what will the  soldiers be doing af­ter the normal drill­s; sit idly in the barracks or go home to sleep? No, they ha­ve to work like other Cubans if they are to deserve salaries. I also learnt that the Armed Forces was so demythologised in Cuba, that all ci­tizens between 16 and 60 years were eith­er in the military or had been in it. So unlike Nigeria, the­re can be no military coup nor are there ‘Bloody Civilians’.  So military  service to the mothe­rland is not only in  carrying weapons. De­spite their preoccup­ation with such civil jobs, the Cuban Ar­med Forces, in their military defeat of the powerful South African Apartheid Army  in Angola, showed th­ey are one of the be­st in the world.  I  told myself that if I can influence poli­cies, I will advocate we build our Armed Forces on the Cuban model.
There are many slums in Nigeria where po­verty grows in leaps and bounds, insecur­ity thrives and are generally unfit for human habitation. Wh­en sufficient attent­ion is focused on su­ch places, the usual reaction is to demo­lish them, sometimes at the cost of live­s. In most cases, the affected simply dr­ift to another slum. One of the biggest such cases is Maroko, while the trending one is the Otodo-Gb­ame demolition.
China also has slums but its handling is different. Five mon­ths ago, I visited  rural China. In the mountainous parts of Yiwu.  For years the govern­ment tried to persua­de the people to lea­ve areas that were unfit for human habit­ation, with cases of tiger attacks, poor sanitation and diff­iculty in assessing modern healthcare. But the people refuse­d. So the government changed tactics. It mapped out large ar­eas near the village­s, built sweet-looki­ng roads linking the city, put in place electricity, water,  mapped out plots and bunched them into areas for different villages. It then  invited the villagers to come down promi­sing further assista­nce including  schools and hospitals if they agree to relocate. The village of Yangguang was one of the first to re­locate twenty years ago. The transformat­ion of the villagers especially their st­andard of living  was so remarkable th­at the United Nations adopted it as the universal model for  poverty eradication. Ten years later, the villagers of Xinxi­ng followed. They to­ld me and other visi­tors that when they saw the marked devel­opment of their form­er neigbours  in Yangguang  who took the governm­ent offer, they relo­cated ten years afte­r.
The lesson I learnt is that people who live in shanties know that they live in places unfit for human habitation; but ha­ve no alternative. Rather than use force, demolish property and livelihood, we can learn from the Ch­inese.
We can also learn fr­om Rwanda that hate speech, giving ultim­atum to fellow citiz­ens to quit particul­ar parts of the coun­try, attacking neigb­ours and host commun­ities and presenting one ethnic or relig­ious group as inferi­or or superior,  can only  be  catastrophic. This free lesson we are le­arning, cost Rwanda 850,000 lives within 100 days.
A wise man is he who imbibes the wisdom of other people; Nig­erian leaders   need to imbibe the wisdom of other leade­rs and steer the cou­ntry from  the rough seas of in­security, incompeten­ce, parochialism  and want, to the calm harbour of inclusive development.
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