All Nigeria is divided into 3 parts. The division is marked by two great rivers, the Niger and the Benue, which come together in a ‘Y’ shape, creating 3 natural regions. The North is dominated by the Hausa people, their society is characterised by a highly conservative strain of Islam, under the rigid hierarchies of Fulani emirs who conquered the region in the 19th century and have managed to maintain their social system ever since by coming to terms with the British colonial power and its successor, the Nigerian government. The Yoruba are by far the most numerous group in the South West, while across the Niger in the South East, the Igbo predominate, both of whom are mostly christian but their social orders are absolutely different. The Yoruba were ruled by powerful, although not absolute, kings, or ‘obas’, and had a class of nobles whose status was inherited. The Igbo, on the other hand, enjoyed a remarkably egalitarian social order, tied together in loose federations with power residing in the villages. These three great blocks, of course, mask an intricate myriad of distinct peoples, some small, some large, generally based around one particular town or area. The Niger delta region is particularly rich in ethnic groups: there are at least 50 peoples who see themselves as being ethnically distinct from the others. However the major groups, Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba are exceedingly numerous and tend to overshadow the others. The fact that these powerful groups are divided by religion and starkly opposed traditional social orders, has provided plenty of opportunities for power-hungry politicians to play off the groups against one another. The temptation to garner support by favouritism in official appointments has proved difficult to resist, as has the urge to profit from xenophobia by creating exaggerated fears of domination by the others.
The country is immense. The population is enormous, exactly how many, nobody knows. The last census, in 1963, was manipulated to show the North having a greater population than the rest of the country combined and was one of the catalysts which led to the civil war. Since then nobody has dared to undertake the extraordinarily delicate task of counting the population. Estimates range from 100 million to 125 million and it is generally agreed that the North is most populous. Whichever estimate one takes, it is clear that Nigeria is by far Africa’s most populous state, with as many people as the other 15 West African countries combined and almost one fifth of the entire continent’s population. Viewing this immense country from Lagos, a city somewhat set apart from the rest of the land, it appeared to be far from at peace. A multitude of fierce conflicts and struggles were raging, sometimes simmering, then suddenly bursting into torrents of violence and carnage. Although it appeared to us that the situation must be approaching breaking point, Nigerians are well used to living in a state of permanent crisis. Life goes on, the people have to ‘make manage’ as best as possible, despair is a luxury they cannot afford.
Although the general strike had just come to an end, there was by no means peace on the labour front. The civil servants of many states remained on strike in a dispute over implementation of the new minimum wage. Nigeria is a federation of 36 states, carved out by successive administrations in a bid to mollify local, regional and ethnic elites and incorporate them into the government lest they get any secessionist ideas or other ambitions. The state governments have their own staff, budget and limited form of autonomy, the exact extent of which is a matter of constant argument. Many of them are very artificial, uneconomic constructions which rely for all their funding on federal money. Several states claimed inability to pay the newly decreed $55 monthly minimum wage prompting strikes. Elsewhere, in richer and more expensive states, workers took action to achieve parity with the $75 federal minimum wage. These wage increases were rendered particularly expensive for the state governments since wages had to increase for all grades of the civil service, not just for those on the minimum. In fact the negotiated increases were largest for the upper echelons, whose wages rose by more than 100%, while the lowest grades got an extra 60%. Since the higher grades are often stuffed with traditional rulers and religious chiefs, given salaries as patronage by the governors, several states were going to have trouble paying the bills.
The government itself, created in 1999 on a wave of democratic enthusiasm after 16 years of military rule, was already bogged down in the problems which characterised previous ‘democratic’ governments. The new democratic political system appears to be modelled on the United States; a president, senate and house of representatives make up the federal government. The political parties are artificial concoctions, created to meet difficult eligibility conditions which were imposed on political parties in a vain attempt to avoid regional or tribalist parties. They are alliances of diverse interests united merely by legal requirement. Although the president and the majority of representatives belong to the same party, disputes have constantly raged between the two branches of government, often over patently venal matters. President Obasanjo’s purchase of a jet from one of the gulf royals for some $75 million provoked a prolonged crisis when the National assembly blocked the funds. More recently the representatives have spent much time fighting for increased benefits; housing allowances, travel allowances, furniture allowances…
On several occasions fistfights have broken out in parliament between the president’s faction and that of other powerful figures such as senate president Okadigbo. By the time we were in Nigeria, only a year after its introduction, democracy had descended to a thinly masked farce between squabbling, greedy barons. The president declared the anniversary of the election, May 29th, to be a national holiday, ‘democracy day’. The National Assembly claimed this was illegal, advised the public to ignore it and announced their own democracy day: June 15th, anniversary of the annulled election of chief Abiola in 1993. Then the senate voted themselves a three month holiday, seemingly in a strategic move to block funds from the president. The minority senate faction which supports the president declared this illegal and tried to hold a session of their own, however the senate mace was missing from its normal place and, without this important symbol, it was impossible for the senate to sit. Thus, in the early hours of the morning, some 50 heavily armed soldiers invaded the senate president’s house to search for the mace. Other representatives who saw the raid assumed it was a coup and sought refuge in the US embassy. American television apparently came very close to announcing another Nigerian coup to the world.
Although Nigerian politics is often farcical, the politicians certainly can’t be accused of not taking themselves seriously. The prestige and dignity of the rulers is seen as being of utmost importance. The accumulation of wealth and privileges from one’s position is easily justified by this: “Nigeria is a great nation. Our elite must be worthy of this great nation, comparable with that of the Western countries, none of these shoddy, cut-price African regimes. Therefore I deserve all the wealth which I am looting, the dignity of the state is in question”. When Obasanjo was prevented from purchasing a luxury presidential jet, he flew to the G77 meeting in Jamaica on an ordinary commercial flight. His supporters in the media went to great lengths to emphasise what a humiliation this was for such a great nation. Just imagine the president travelling as if he was just anyone, the shame! The senate speaker was recently questioned by an inquiry on corruption and graft. He admitted receiving $330,000 as a furniture allowance. Vehemently denying that this was corrupt, he said: “I got the best stuff. I needed it to furnish my home in a manner worthy of such an important person in such a great nation. Anyone can come and check the stuff. You’ll see I got good value for money.”
While the politicians squabbled among themselves and feathered their nests, the crises were multiplying in society. Several ethnic militias have recently emerged. OPC, IPC, APC, the ‘dreaded’ Bakassi boys and a host of other groups, profited from the poor security situation to gain support by mounting vigilante actions in addition to their attacks on ‘ethnic-immigrant’ traders. During the year of democracy these and other groups were involved in many ethnic conflicts, often causing large numbers of deaths. Several land disputes caused large scale communal fighting, about village, town and state boundaries. The twin towns of Ife and Modakeke are in a virtual state of war, several recent battles have caused dozens of deaths. The police, corrupt, inefficient and ill-equipped, demoralised by a long military rule when they were seen as potential rivals and starved of resources, face great problems against some of the well-armed militias. The oil producing delta region is racked with conflicts and disasters. About 3,000 people died in late 1999 in ethnic clashes involving Urhobo and Itsekiri youths and the security services. Kidnappings of oil-workers were common and a thousand disputes raged, many threatening to break into violence at any time, all across the region. In March, youths in Odi town killed 12 policemen who had come to free kidnapped oil workers. The government responded by sending in the army which shot their way into town, razed every building to the ground and raped or killed all those who had not escaped. This was plainly intended to send a message to anybody else who might think of coming between the politicians in Abuja and the black gold of the Niger delta.
But surely the worst of the problems facing Nigeria was the matter of sharia and the prospects for generalised violence or civil war. Kaduna state, home to a significant number of non-Muslims, declared Islamic law on February 22nd, 2000. The ensuing fighting caused at least 1000 deaths and renewed fighting in May saw another 300 dead. Sharia was spreading all over the North. Many governors saw it as a populist measure, allowing them to identify the loss of religious purity as the root of the social problems, rather than the corruption and greed of the rulers. While we were in the country Kano, capital city of the North, announced the introduction of sharia. The sharia laws are generally enforced by bands of Hausa youth and this easily turns into harassment and terrorisation of outsiders and dissidents. Thus the introduction of sharia was inevitably followed by a flood of refugees returning to the South. However sharia was widely interpreted in Nigeria as being a political rather than a religious matter. Many analysts believed that the whole issue was the work of a group of Muslim army officers from the administration of the late dictator Sani Abacha, based in Kaduna and known as the ‘Kaduna clique’. These officers were apparently bent on creating instability so they could step in and save the people from the unrest of civilian rule. Already their work was beginning to bear fruit. In June the respected weekly Nigerian current affairs magazine, Newswatch, asked: “does democracy engender social conflict?”, and, in their opinion: “for many Nigerians the answer is: ‘to a large extent'”.
II OSHOGBO – HOLY SMOKE
We intended to travel directly across the South of the country, West to East, and not to visit the North. This was more to avoid the need to buy new sharia-compliant wardrobes than for any real security concern. Our first destination was Oshogbo, one of the important Yoruba religious towns, 200 km North East of Lagos. Most of this route was along a multi-lane hard-surfaced motorway, the first we’d seen in Africa. We covered the journey in impressive time. Too impressive. Although the driver of our taxi didn’t go excessively fast, he did manage to maintain a near constant pace, despite the many hazards the road had to offer. If the road in front of him was blocked, he’d simply switch to the wrong side and continue at the same pace – with his hand on the horn. He seemed to think that the fact of having his hand on the horn was like a charm against all danger. A still more powerful charm was the hazard lights. On the couple of occasions when it appeared that we were surely hurtling towards a crash unless we slowed down, he flicked on his hazard lights and kept his foot firmly on the accelerator. There are many similar drivers in Nigeria, so people must be very conscious of other cars, or else we would surely have come to grief on this road which was frequently cratered or partially closed due to accidents or repairs. The only hazards which did manage to slow us down were the police roadblocks, although it would really be more accurate to refer to these as ‘armed cash collection points’. A dozen policemen with machine guns stand in the middle of the road. Each driver slows down, rolls down their windows, hands a 20 Naira note to the policeman and continues on their way. We careered through the outskirts of Ibadan, the capital of Yorubaland, acres of low, rust-roofed concrete sprawling over low, jungled hills, itself home to upwards of 5 million people, and kept going North.
Oshogbo is one of the old Yoruba towns, along with nearby Ife and Oyo, a spiritual centre for the Yoruba religion. It is where the invading Fulani armies from the North were finally repulsed in 1840. Today the town is a pleasant, friendly backwater of some 300,000 souls, quite small by Nigerian standards. The dominant 2 storey concrete houses with rusted roofs are surprisingly pretty with their balconies of patterned concrete blocks. We stayed in a cheap hotel with fans, air conditioning, satellite television, although their generator was broken so all these appliances just sat there. We visited the shrine of the river god, Osun, just outside the town. This shrine is at the centre of the sacred groves, a small forest full of elaborate carvings and statues. The groves have been renovated since the 1950’s by a group of artists based around an Austrian artist, Suzanne Wenger, in an attempt to rejuvenate the traditional religion. I don’t know if this was successful in its effects on the locals, but it did at least create an ideal tourist attraction. The combination of forest, river, loads of surreal sculptures, and some real traditional meaning, is irresistible for tourists, in this country where much traditional culture is poorly packaged for tourist consumption.
After visiting the groves, we strolled the 3 kilometres back into town. As we arrived into the town centre, alongside the royal palace, at one end of the main thoroughfare, we heard a commotion behind us. We turned around and saw a procession of vehicles; cars, buses and trucks, carrying an enormous number of young men, crammed into every space, sitting on bonnets, balancing on roofs, hanging precariously onto windows. These men were chanting and singing, some were waving sticks in the air and many wore headbands. As soon as this procession appeared, all the casual traders who were lining this busy shopping street began to frantically gather their affairs and flee, spilling their wares behind them in their haste to escape. Very quickly the road emptied but on this occasion our normal rule of thumb, to join in any mass flights, was impossible to carry out. There were no side-streets to turn into, all the nearby buildings were shut up and we had only recently arrived so were totally unfamiliar with the terrain. Thus we had no choice but to wait for the procession to pass. This was one of those occasions when you really start to wish you weren’t so conspicuous. As it was, almost every single member of the mob shouted ‘oyibo’ (Yoruba for whitey) at us as they drove by, although happily it was meant in a friendly rather than threatening way. Many of the mob waved at us, gave us thumbs up signs, or clenched fists, all of which we returned enthusiastically, hoping that we weren’t thereby signalling our support for some religious sect on their way to stone adulterers or some such nutters.
The mob drove by and the street slowly returned to normal, traders crept from their hideouts and set their stands up again. We continued on our way, strolling along the main street, casually browsing for replacements for some of our worn-out clothes. An hour later we had bought nothing useful, only a traditional Yoruba cap, embroidered with gold thread, and had almost completed our journey through town. I noticed a small group gathered about 20 metres ahead, all staring down a street that descended into a market on the left. Something about the posture of this group caused me to suspect trouble and I called out to Deirdre: “let’s get out of here”. However disaster had struck. At the same instant as I had spotted the people, Deirdre had spotted the perfect pair of sandals hanging from a stall just behind them and was now headed determinedly in that direction. I called after her: “but I think there’s a riot”, to no avail, she is quite accustomed to ignoring my objections to shopping and now brushed me off and kept going. The stall owner detached himself from the growing crowd and hurried back to deal with us. Deirdre indicated the pair, tried them on and started the price negotiations. Before the haggling had really got going, the crowd behind us suddenly turned and fled, panicked, tearing down the street in a desperate attempt to escape from something. The stall owner bundled us quickly into his stall and drew the shutters. Outside we heard several loud explosions, unmistakably caused by some type of firearm. I peered through a slit in the shutters and saw a bunch of policemen outside, armed with various large guns. They were standing in the middle of the intersection and one of them was continually launching tear-gas canisters indiscriminately into the surrounding area. I saw many canisters land on people’s roofs, one land inside a shop and others land on the streets, far away from the area where the police were standing.
Throughout all of this Deirdre remained determinedly focused on the sandals. The owner, nervous at the prospect of looters, was clutching a large hammer behind his back. Clouds of tear gas were drifting into the stall, causing our eyes to water and out throats to burn. Still Deirdre refused to budge from $3, offering the poor distracted man many arguments to support her case. He realised he had met his match and gracefully gave in. Now all we had to do was get home. We edged our way to the stall’s front, ready to seize our chance and make a break away from this area with its clouds of noxious gas. This was not made easy by the fact that the police had now got control of the area and were now sauntering around in the middle of the road. From time to time members of the public would peek outside their houses to see how the situation had developed. Whenever the police caught sight of one of these curious bystanders they’d fire a tear gas canister at them, aimed into the ground to bounce up at them. Eventually we got tired of waiting and breathing gas and made a break for it. We sprinted out, intending to dash across the street and down a side alley. Unfortunately our escape proved less inconspicuous than we had hoped. One of the policemen instantly saw us and alerted his colleagues who all turned around, waved in a merry manner and called out ‘oyibo, oyibo’ to us, completely forgetting their tear-gassing duties. Our dash was further hampered by Deirdre’s new sandals which caused her to slip earning hearty laughter from the policemen and all the onlookers. She picked herself up with as much dignity as she could muster and we trotted away to safety with the laughter ringing in our ears. Within no time we found a share-taxi going towards home. Our fellow passenger, a local market woman, filled us in on all the details of what had happened.
The mob which we had earlier seen were students from the nearby university. A local businessmen with four wives had acquired a new, young girlfriend, but he learned that she had a thing on the side with a student. The businessman disposed of this rival by denouncing him to the police for some infraction. The police promptly took him in for questioning and, in the process, shot him in the knees. This mob of students had gone to the market where the businessman had his operation and demonstrated their disapproval through pillage. The tear-gassing was the aftermath of the pillage of the market. The local woman seemed to put all the blame on the businessman and was particularly incensed by the fact that he already had four wives when he started this trouble.
From Oshogbo we headed South East, through Yoruba land, to Benin city, the capital of a formidable ancient kingdom and home to the Edo people. We missed the direct bus and thus had to spend most of the day sitting in motionless minibuses, waiting for passengers to arrive. Then we had to take a considerable detour as the driver wished to avoid the warring town of Ife. Therefore, despite an early start, we didn’t arrive at Benin until darkness was falling. Our minibus ejected us in the outer suburbs. For the next hour we stood by the side of the large highway what we found ourselves on, trying vainly to find a taxi or bus to take us into town. This is one of the problems of travelling by public transport in Nigeria. All of the principal towns are enormous. Elsewhere in West Africa, it is generally only the capital city which is big enough to present problems for orientation. Here in Nigeria the population of a small town like Benin is numbered in the hundreds of thousands. All of the towns have different transport systems, some have shared taxis which can go anywhere, some have shared taxis which only run certain fixed routes, some have individually hired taxis, while others, like Benin, have no taxis, only motorbikes and buses. Thus we seemed to continually find ourselves stranded in far flung corners of huge cities, without a clue how to get out of there. On this occasion we were saved by one of the nearby stallholders, who came out to look after us and eventually found us a rentable car.
The city of Benin is today far from picturesque. It is, in every way, a modern Nigerian city, untidy, dusty, smoky, smelly, noisy, crowded with an unbelievable quantity of horn-tooting vehicles, yet resounding with the frenetic activity of countless small scale industries, to an extent unimaginable in other West African countries. Walking along the garbage strewn streets, one catches brief glimpses, in the ubiquitous low concrete houses, of rooms crowded with artisans concentrating intently on their labour. Particularly noticeable are the gate makers. Elaborately decorated iron gates are very popular in Nigeria. Strips of metal are beaten with hammers into delicate twists and curls to form great fans and floral motifs set into a heavy iron framework. Completed examples are laid out by the roadside as advertisements of the gatemaker’s skill. Needless to say, the gates are all 10 feet high and topped with elegant, razor-sharp spikes.
Although there is little evidence of it apparent today, Benin is a city with a long history. For centuries before 1400 a civilization flourished here which constructed an immense system of walls around the city, said to be the second largest man made structure ever built, after the great wall of China. The Benin wall was in no way a standard city wall, encircling the town, rather it consisted of many circles linked together with straight sections, radiating outwards from the city centre. The walls, some 6 metres high, built of earth, are backed by trenches and are thought to have primarily for demarcating the territory of different clan groups rather than providing defence against external invaders. The remains of the walls are scattered around the city, mounds of earth sprouting thick masses of vegetation and are even used as plots by guerrilla-farmers to grow corn. We were fortunate to be shown a substantial section of the wall which we climbed and walked along the top. The mother of one of the present kings of the city saw us as she was driving past and was so flattered to see foreigners interested in Benin’s history that she got her driver to turn around and come back to invite us to visit her.
After the era of the walls’ construction, in around the 15th century, the Benin civilisation saw a change to a more centralised, despotic monarchy. These kings, known as obas, considered bronze sculptures to be important symbols of their rule and commissioned a large number of bronze statues, plaques and busts to decorate their palaces. The Benin museum houses a large number of these bronzes, many of which are exceptionally well produced, sensitive naturalistic depictions of people, animals and great deeds, including many depictions of Portuguese soldiers who sometimes fought for the oba after 1500. In fact these bronzes were so well produced that, after Benin’s bloody defeat by the British in 1897, the victorious imperialists refused to believe that these could have been produced from this Africa, a place of ‘savage chaos’. The conquering imperialists were intent on creating a popular impression of a barbaric, savage Africa. They needed to justify their civilising mission, the white man’s burden, which was crucial to winning popular support at home for these conquests. European imperialist historians came up with a bizarre series of theories to explain how this enormous quantity of outstanding artwork happened to turn up in the palace of a savage. Ancient Egypt, Atlantis and some unknown solitary European of long ago were variously given credit for these works. Nevertheless, even after these theories were substantially rubbished, the imperialists proved keen to hold onto these bronzes despite the savagery of their creators. Today Benin has only the third largest collection of Benin bronzes in the world, trailing behind London and Berlin, the spoils of war.
After visiting the limited sights of Benin, we decided to remain there for the weekend since we couldn’t face arriving in yet another huge strange city without some rest. Fortunately our hotel possessed a reliable generator, so we were able to enjoy, for the first time, the electrical appliances which seem to inhabit every Nigerian hotel room, however modest. We remained in our room for much of the weekend, luxuriating in the fanned, air-conditioned coolness, washing ourselves from actually functioning taps and, most of all, enjoying the delights of television. Nigerian television is unlike any other in West Africa. Elsewhere the state or semi-state broadcasting company invariably dominates completely, competitors are rare and, when they exist, they are limited to the capital city or only available on satellite. In Nigeria, not only is television completely privatised, but there are no national channels, each city or state gives its own licences to local television companies. Oshogbo has their station, Lagos has about 5 stations, little Benin city has two stations all of its own, indeed it seems any place of any size possesses at least one. This atomisation of broadcasting certainly avoids the problem of monolithic, stuffy, politically controlled stations, but it presents another problem; the stations all seem to have ludicrously small budgets. One of the Benin channels would regularly go off air due to power-cuts, they didn’t even posses a generator. The programs which they produce themselves normally feature one person sitting nervously on a chair, staring into the camera and speaking in a monotone while the background and lighting do their utmost to make the presenter look like Frankenstein’s monster. Anything even slightly more elaborate seems to require wholescale commercial sponsorship which utterly dominates the show. The Saturday morning children’s show was called ‘Mirinda fun hour’, sponsored by Mirinda orange drink. The content seemed to consist of a cameraman wandering aimlessly around in a school hall while groups of children gave singing and dancing displays in the far distance. The only props were one cardboard Mirinda advertisement leaning against one wall and paper Mirinda hats which all the kids wore. There were frequent breaks for, you guessed it, Mirinda adds.
In addition to the self-produced content, a few purchased, American produced shows were aired. These fitted into two categories. The first kind was the cheapest of the cheap sitcom or soap opera, often of the African-American variety, full of canned laughter and jarringly predictable jokes. These shows create a strange impression when seen through African eyes. Everybody appears ridiculously wealthy, even depictions of squalor and poverty look like the good life. Many of the jokes are completely incongruous in their African setting. The difficulties of interior decorating or the unenviable status of video store clerks don’t cross the cultural barrier too well, as many people here live in bare mud huts and could never dream of getting a good job in a proper shop. The second type of show is far worse; glossy productions by insane American evangelists, which are presumably given free to the television stations. We were treated to the Saturday night special of “does the bible predict the end of the world?”. The answer was, emphatically, “yes, and soon”. The evidence was largely drawn from the book of revelations: (presenters voice) – “As revelations says, ‘an age of abominations shall come’ and today we see homosexuals rampant” (cut to footage of two men walking along holding hands) -“Again revelations says: ‘an evil empire shall rise and the sky will fill with fire'” (footage of Saddam Hussein addressing animated crowd) -“Was this referring to Saddam Hussein?” (cut to portrait of Saddam, then presenter steps out from behind it wearing a black polo neck, stares fixedly at camera and says) -“Is that a chance that YOU want to take? Will you reject the lord?”
In fact religion also features heavily in indigenous shows as we discovered on Sunday. The two Benin channels provided live, back to back coverage of the, very lengthy, services of the local Anglican, catholic and baptist churches. This finally drove us out of our luxurious room, but we weren’t able to escape the big man above that easily. The restaurant where we went for lunch had a television in the corner and the waiter followed each service, kneeling standing and sitting as instructed by the priest and joining in with the hymns and refrains. This had something of a negative impact on the quality of service. When we returned to our room in time for the evening news we were disappointed to find that the three main news items consisted of recounting the highlights of the three sermons that afternoon. I kid you not. The newsreader sat there with a serious expression on her face and said “today bishop X said that society must be cleansed, love is the answer and the church must be the focus of this cleansing love….” I was stunned by this invasion of religion into what I had thought was going to be a secular medium, only to have this trumped by an item in the Sunday newspaper. Predictably it was a politician who managed to scale this peak of sacred insanity. The article reported a speech by the minister for information, Jerry Gana, promoting an upcoming event in the Lagos Anglican church. It was to be a 12, yes 12, hour long service, entitled “operation quench the matter”. The theme was to be “let us pray” and its stated aim was to “launch intercontinental ballistic missiles into the kingdom of darkness”. The program would include “aggressive prayers for the stability of Nigeria” and “for the well being of the president and commander in chief of the armed forces”.
IV PORT HARCOURT OILFIELDS/BATTLEGROUNDS
Before our car set out from Benin, all the passengers had to write their names on a form. According to the small print this was the government’s new road safety measure, designed to help with the identification of bodies after accidents. Hardly reassuring. We swept Southwards through dense and swampy coastal forest, around the Igbo lands to the North, into the delta region, oil country. This region is home to a myriad of different peoples, most of them with relatively small populations. Most of these peoples have long felt completely marginalised in this state with its rivalries between the 3 main groups. This area produces all of Nigeria’s oil and thus most of its wealth, yet the local people have seen little or nothing of this oil revenue. The land and fishing grounds which they depend on have been heavily polluted as a consequence of large-scale extraction of oil, effectively unfettered by environmental regulations. Over the last decade these forgotten ethnic groups have steadily become more vocal in demanding their rights, inspired by examples like that of the Ogoni people’s MOSOP movement, catapulted to worldwide attention by the military government’s assassination of Ken Saro Wiwa. This vocal opposition has recently turned into violent confrontation and, in many areas, virtual war. All across the region bands of well armed, unemployed youths were fighting battles against police, oil companies and often even their own traditional rulers. The Odi massacres had not been effective. Kidnappings of oil workers, especially expatriates, were still commonplace. Sabotage of oil pipelines was an everyday occurrence and on several occasions hundreds of lives were lost when oil was ignited while it was being siphoned off by locals.
We drove through the outskirts of Warri, capital of the oil industry, where the brightly coloured logos of Shell, Chevron, Mobil and Exxon are emblazoned shamelessly on many of the buildings and vehicles. The road now veered South Eastwards, parallel with the coast, through thick jungle interspersed with lagoons, creeks and the thousands of little rivulets which the mighty Niger river separates into as it approaches the sea. We passed over the river’s main channel, almost without noticing it, now a bare fraction of the width several thousand kilometres to the North where we had last seen it. The city of Port Harcourt, our next destination, sprawled back along the highway to meet us. The road swooped and swerved through this modern city of concrete, cars and, most of all, oil. The flames of gas flares are visible in the coastal swamps behind the city. Happily our bush-taxi happened to drive by our intended hotel and spared us the ordeal of orienting ourselves in another huge, unknown city.
We passed only one night in this city, time enough to visit the local supermarket which caused us a severe case of ‘product shock’. The sight of all those aisles of shiny Western goods, imported for the expatriate oil workers, was overwhelming. We didn’t buy anything, just walked around ogling all the products that we hadn’t seen in months. We spent that evening in an open air bar watching European championship football, alongside a huge crowd of enthusiastic Nigerians. Italy were playing Sweden. I supported Italy. The Nigerians, to the last man, supported Sweden. I would say the scenes of joy when the Swedes equalised were unparalleled in Sweden itself. Happily Italy soon scored again and so I was able to celebrate in the face of the whole crowd who naturally took their defeat gracefully.
From Port Harcourt we continued Eastwards into the territory of the Ibibio people, nowadays in Akwa Ibom state. Our destination was Calabar, in Cross river state, which is separated from Akwa Ibom by a large creek, spanned by a wide bridge. As our taxi approached this bridge, a large man wearing unidentifiable khaki clothes, carrying an enormous machine gun, stepped into the middle of the road. He waved his gun wildly in the air gesturing for us to stop. Bandit or soldier? we asked ourselves (in as much as there is a difference). Our driver kept going at tremendous speed. When we were a mere 20 metres away, the armed man stopped waving his gun, cradled it in his arms and took aim at the car. We skidded smartly to a stop, terrified at the prospect of being shot or robbed, but it turned out to be merely a joke on the part of our driver. He rolled down his window and called jestingly to the man, a soldier, “you wouldn’t really have shot me would you?” Our papers were checked and we crossed the bridge to find a scene of vast destruction. For several kilometres beyond the bridge, every village, house and structure of any size was in ashes, razed to the ground. Here and there wretched groups of people were gathered together in settlements of makeshift tents. Ten days previously a boundary dispute between Akwa Ibom and Cross River state had flared up. The bridge had been the site of a massive battle between residents of the two states. The Akwa Ibomites, at least 1000 strong, armed with rifles, machetes and petrol bombs had driven their opponents back into Cross River state and proceeded to lay the country waste before them. It is a measure of Nigeria’s volatility that nobody seemed to think that such battles, where the combatants are well armed and number in the thousands, are particularly out of the ordinary.
We sped onwards, among swamps and jungles, through many small villages where vendors thronged the car selling bowls of fat cucumbers, and finally arrived at Calabar. The city, mainly inhabited by the Efik people, was one of the principal trading ports on the Nigerian coast in precolonial days, as long ago as the 15th century. The city came to be controlled by a small number of trading families, such as the Henshaws and the Hawkins who adopted European names as a sign of status, having been made rich by their contact with Europeans and the slave trade. The would equip huge war canoes with as many as 90 men and launch slaving expeditions into the maze of creeks and rivers behind the coast, raiding villages and ambushing any solitary people they found to carry them off for sale to the European hulks which were permanently moored off Calabar. The city flourished on this trade and attracted many newcomers from surrounding regions. For many Africans the city presented a unique opportunity for them to attain high status, since even men of low birth could rise to importance here merely by mounting a few successful raids. In the 19th century the great trading families switched from slaves to palm-oil and continued to prosper until the new demands of colonialism dictated policies to undermine native-owned industry in favour of metropolitan companies.
Today, Calabar, although large, is a very pleasant town by Nigerian standards. The old town rises up two hills from the harbour, dominated by pleasantly scruffy old colonial buildings. We wandered around this quiet and calm area filled with the ever-present hordes of children. On several occasions in Nigeria, we had witnessed what seems to be a cultural memory of the slave trade. Parents, upon seeing us, would sometimes jestingly pretend to hand their small children to us, whereupon the kids would scream in genuine terror, apparently still regularly scared by bedtime tales of white people who would take them away to eat them. Walking through the streets of Calabar we came across two young girls fighting with each other. They were so engrossed in their battle that they didn’t notice us approach until we were only a foot or two away. Suddenly they perceived us, they stopped dead still, mid-wrestle, their eyes opened with terror and they both burst into tears and fled in opposite directions as fast as they could run.
The Calabari people are famed in Nigeria for their cuisine, which is unusual in that dog is a favourite dish. Restaurants have cages of live hounds outside and are decorated with wall paintings of cute dogs with their tongues hanging out, standing beside bowls of rice. We had the pleasure of sampling some of this exotic dish and found the meat to be extremely succulent, somewhat similar to lamb, served in an intensely hot chili sauce. Our host was a certain Mr Magick, an amiable fellow who used to make a living by catering for the overland trucks full of tourists who used to pass through Calabar on their way to South Africa from London. Since the mid 1990’s, it has been generally impossible to go through the Congo, thus any traffic which wishes to go overland from West Africa to Eastern or Southern Africa has to travel through Chad and Sudan, the only open route, which avoids Southern Nigeria. This development proved fatal for the tiny number of Nigerians who depended on this trade for their living, like Mr Magick. He remains hopeful that it will return and, despite having lost his restaurant, brought us to his house for a meal. Regardless of his good intentions, it is hard to see him making a living from entertaining people such as us. We asked him whether many tourists came through Calabar, he replied that yes, many tourists come here, only a fortnight ago his wife had seen one in the market.
While eating at his house, a torrential downpour started, as it does on many evenings in the rainy season. After waiting a couple of hours for it to relent, we gave up waiting and decided to brave the trip home, regardless of the wet. Mr Magick kindly offered to give us a lift home on his motorbike. I sat at the back, Deirdre in the middle, with him driving. The rain was so heavy that we were utterly sodden by the time we’d climbed on. Mr Magick’s brother was also standing out in the rain, holding a torch for us. I thought that this courtesy was somewhat uncalled for since he was getting drenched for his trouble and we could have mounted the bike without light. Mr Magick started the bike after many attempts then, to my utter surprise, his brother draped himself across the handlebars at the front, still holding the torch. It turned out that he was to be our headlight! Because the bike was so crowded, I wasn’t able to move my head from pointing towards the side and thus I couldn’t see what was happening in front of me. I was very thankful for this since my sideways view was terrifying enough. The roads were utterly flooded to such an extent that my feet sometimes trailed through the puddles, yet, even with four people on board, in the midst of a torrential downpour, we managed to travel at lightning speed. My view gave me a good opportunity to study the stunned expressions of the other motorcyclists whom we were overtaking, splashing them with large waves as we zoomed by. We even managed to overtake the only two cars that I saw who had dared the weather, swerving around them in reckless manouevres. Despite our protests Mr Magick, a gentleman to the end, insisted on dropping us all the way to our door.
VI THE TROUBLE WITH NIGERIA
Of all the places we had visited in Nigeria, Calabar had easily the most dysfunctional electricity supply. We spent four days there and I believe the electricity functioned for less than four hours in total. On the couple of occasions when the current starts to flow, it seems that every electrical appliance in Africa is concentrated in this small city. Fluorescent lights shine on every porch, stereos boom from open windows, thousands of fans whir, air-conditioners hum, televisions are wheeled out for crowds to gather around. Then, inevitably, darkness suddenly falls, a sigh runs across the city and life returns to normal. The locals explained that their supply was so bad as the power station was far away in the North and they were at the end of the line. A fault requiring a repair anywhere between them and the power plant would cause them to lose power. The people of Calabar consider places like Lagos to have good power supply. Yet despite the very rare power, Calabar seems to posses a wealth of electrical appliances, far more than one would expect in other West African towns of comparable size.
Indeed all across the country the same could be observed. Not only electrical appliances, but also hard-surfaced roads, hospitals, universities, manufacturing plants, publishing houses, cars, bridges, concrete buildings, and all the other signs of developed society are much more common throughout Nigeria than anywhere else in West Africa. Yet it all seems to be falling apart at the seams. The hotel rooms have telephones and air-conditioners which have obviously not worked in the last decade. The highways are littered with potholes and fringed with the rusting hulks of vehicles abandoned after accidents. The universities are so starved of funds that many lecturers earn their living by selling handouts to their students, sales of examination papers are common and those who oppose the corruption can face assassination. Manufacturing suffers from gross under-utilisation of production capacity, 32 percent in 1999. Houses crumble and rust. The sense of decay is everywhere.
The most commonly advanced reason for Nigeria’s decay is corruption. The money for improving infrastructure, repairing roads and powerlines, and constructing new facilities is frittered away by an administration which is profoundly corrupt at many levels. Certainly there is something to this idea. The recent regime of Sani Abacha is reputed to have been the most corrupt ever. He is believed to have stashed billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts and is said to have surrounded himself with a bunch of fast living military cronies who filled the presidential halls with prostitutes and sumptuous feasts. He is remembered with a sense of shame and the memory of the celebrations which followed his death is very much alive. However Abacha did not invent corruption. As long ago as 1975, the crusading military ruler Murtala Muhammed felt it necessary to sack over 10,000 civil servants for corruption in ‘operation deadwoods’. The corrupt practices of embezzlement, bribing, overcharging on public contracts and shoddy, uncompleted projects at vast expense have a long history in Nigeria, yet there has not always been such decay. At one stage all of the infrastructures, hotels and facilities which are now decaying were shiny and new, corruption is not the only answer.
Another factor which undoubtedly has contributed to the decay so evident in Nigeria today is the changed in the price of oil. In the early 1970’s vast reserves of crude oil were discovered in the Niger delta region and a series of partnership deals were signed with multinational companies to exploit these reserves. This pumped a huge amount of money into the economy and financed the building of many of the modern infrastructure, on a wave of optimism that Nigeria was going to fulfil its destiny and become a great nation. By 1978 president Obasanjo, then military dictator, felt confident enough to declare that ‘Nigeria will be one of the 10 greatest powers on earth by 2000’. Mcdonalds, Kentucky Fried chicken and other companies, symbols of the opulent West, began opening branches in Nigeria. The oil boom had peaked by 1980, global oil prices started a steep and steady decline which they still have not recovered from, despite the recent large increases. The partnership agreements turned out to be excessively favourable to the foreign oil companies who controlled the extraction and were able to manipulate it to limit the payments to the government. Debt repayments started eating huge chunks from the budget and IMF loans came at a very heavy cost. Today, after 20 years of this process, the average income may be as little as a tenth of what it was in 1980. The country simply doesn’t have the capacity to supply electricity to all those who were connected, nor does it have the money to build new power stations or replace ageing machinery. At least some of the blame for Nigeria’s decay must be found here, in the functioning of the global capitalist system, beyond the control of Nigeria’s rulers, however corrupt they may be.
Yet there is more to Nigeria than violence, decay and corruption. While it may be volatile, it is also vigorous. People are generally very quick to object in they feel they are not receiving the treatment they deserve. Massive demonstrations and protest movements can spring up quickly in the face of injustice. Concepts of direct action and resistance are very much alive. Education appears to have had a much wider reach here than elsewhere in Africa. Nigeria probably has a much more substantial output of literature and drama than any other African country. There are an enormous number of newspapers and current affairs magazines with large readerships. Many of these are of very high quality, representing a broad range of views and opinions which would put the output of most Western countries to shame. Many of the traditional cultures retain great strength, even in the large urban centres where Western culture has proved irresistible elsewhere. Many of the manufactured goods sold in the markets are made in Nigeria and the country generally appears far less economically and politically subservient to the former colonial masters than any other country in the region. Women have been far more successful in attaining education, jobs and status than in most of West Africa. Many of the positive aspects of pre-colonial societies still exist, such as the Igbo principle whereby everyone should have a say in decisions, a legacy which undoubtedly contributed to the proud fact that Nigeria, almost alone among African countries, has produced a movement belonging to the anti-authoritarian branch of socialism. A modern anarchism which draws heavily on indigenous practice as well as 19th century European theorists. The fact that this could emerge in a country, racked with problems which make organising extremely difficult, under the yoke of a repressive dictatorship, bodes well for a brighter future.
VII OUT OF NIGERIA
The last day of our epic journey across Nigeria should have been the shortest. Calabar is only 25 km from the Cameroon border at the little town of Ikang. Since there are no roads in that part of Cameroon, we would have to take a boat from Ikang through the coastal mangrove swamps to Mundemba, our destination, the first town in Cameroon. Thus we set out bright and early on Saturday morning, hired a car to get us to Ikang and arrived there in no time. There was a military checkpoint at the entrance to the town manned by four soldiers, one of whom waved for us to stop. He approached our driver and asked him our business. For some reason our driver took it upon himself to declare that we were journalists, almost giving me a heart attack, but we quickly corrected the mistake. The soldier instructed us to wait.
20 minutes later we were still waiting, assuming this was a build up to some scam, wishing that they’d hurry up and ask for money so the haggling could begin. We sent our driver to see what they wanted and he returned with the news that they were fetching an officer. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, an officer walked into view along the road. He was young and clearly well educated with a neat uniform and well-groomed appearance. He bent down to peer in the back window of the car to inspect us. We explained the purpose of our trip here and he responded with a very worried look on his face: “do you know that this is disputed territory, the Bakassi peninsula disputed between Cameroon and Nigeria?” We did actually know of the dispute over Bakassi but hadn’t realised that Ikang was on the peninsula. He continued: “there are several more checkpoints to pass. Whatever you do make sure that you ask for the officer”, he glanced around at his men, “they won’t understand about tourism. It’s very dangerous, just ask for the officer”. We thanked him for his advice and, before continuing, asked him if he knew how easy it would be to find a boat to Cameroon. “I don’t know,” he replied, “they won’t want to take you since if the Cameroon army see white people in the boat they’ll open fire at once. It’s what we’d do if they were coming from there. Some of the boatmen have been killed like this so they won’t want to take you.” We turned around and drove straight back to Calabar.
Having failed in the direct route, we had two options. The first was to take a ferry across the Calabar river to Oron from where we could take a smuggler’s barge to Cameroon. This would also involve passing Bakassi but we’d be far enough out at sea to avoid the customs and therefore also the soldiers. We tried this option, but there was no boat for Oron until the evening. The final option was to take a bush-taxi 200 kilometres north to Ikom from where we could find transport Eastwards to meet the only road in that part of Cameroon. This was a serious detour, but we had little choice. By mid-afternoon we were in Ikon, at the taxi park, an awful place full of con-artists and hustlers waiting to take advantage of naive arrivals from the backwoods of Cameroon. Eventually, after being misinformed and misdirected by various spiteful young men, we found a car heading towards the border at Mfum. The horrible atmosphere of the taxi-park seemed to infect everything and it took us at least half an hour to leave the park since our driver got into a raging dispute with the official manning the gate of the park over how much he had to pay. The driver, having lost this argument, proceeded to take it out on a petrol pump attendant, whom he abused horrible for some minuscule mistake.
We finally put the horrors of Ikom behind us and sped through the forest towards the border 30 km away. Naturally there were many checkpoints on this stretch of road. We passed the first two without any problem. At the third we had to get out and bring our passports to a bunch of soldiers lounging in the shade of a low, sloping wooden shelter. We handed our passports to the soldier in charge and he slowly flicked through them with a disinterested expression on his face, not looking for anything in particular, just showing us that he was the powerful one here and that we’d have to wait as long as he wanted us to.
Suddenly a jeep roared up from the direction of Cameroon and screeched to a halt in front of the barrier. 3 large men climbed out, wearing civilian clothes, sleeveless t-shirts, jeans and dark sunglasses, clutching large, automatic weapons. The soldier with our passports and all his colleagues immediately grabbed their guns, raced over to the barrier and started shouting at these 3 men: ‘you’re so damn stupid!’. The two groups screamed, jostled and pushed each other, waving their guns around for effect. The soldier still had our passports in his hand and thus we had to wait, cowering around the car, for this stand-off to end. Our driver, still enraged over the dispute in the taxi park, was impatient to go and tried to persuade me to go and retrieve the passports, which I totally refused to do since it would have meant interrupting a dispute between a large bunch of heavily armed, apparently insane me. In any case the situation was somehow defused, we got our passports back, and were soon deposited at the small village of Mfum, one kilometre before the border.
We walked to the Nigerian border post and were miraculously waved through by customs which was fortunate since we had a ten kilogramme bronze replica of a Benin statue in our bags and Nigerian customs are famed for invoking the clause which prevents export of works of art. We entered the immigration shed where 7 or 8 of the most bored people I have ever seen were seated at desks, some sleeping, others playing board games with each other. Each one of them interrogated us in turn, filling in different forms with our details, yet, despite the lengthiness of the proceedings, none of them raised any problems. Finally we emerged, having received our exit stamps, and walked across a beautiful suspension bridge over a fast-flowing river, which one of the Nigerian officials had told us was 5 kilometres deep, into Cameroon and out of the Nigerian cauldron. We breathed a long, contented sigh of relief.