If Not For ‘Okada’

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Now that Governor Babtunde Fashola has concluded that the next phase of the ‘remodelling Lagos project’ is the eradication of commercial motorcycles from the streets of Lagos, the debate about whether he actually is a hero or villain inevitably resurfaces. In all honesty, no one doubts that at the core of his being, Fashola means well for the generality of Lagosians, but his tactics have been called to question time and time again. Who will forget his decision to banish street beggars and crippled folks from Lagos to Ibadan and Ota? Who will forget his audacious mission to eradicate street hawkers and wealthy agberos from Oshodi? Who will forget his one-man show on the BRT-lane earlier this year, singlehandedly arresting an errant uniformed military man? Whether he did these things for popularity’s sake or whether he genuinely perceives himself as an upholder of decency, the appropriateness of his strategy remains a debated issue among Lagosians.

After five and a half years of governing Lagos, Fashola must have learned a thing or two about the resistance of Lagosians to change; even change coming from a much admired Governor. In 2008, when the inevitable decision was made to close down a section of the Third Mainland Bridge to facilitate the long-overdue repairs on the city’s most relevant highway, the hue and cry from Lagosians was heard as far away as Maiduguri. And so, on this occasion of the announcement of the ban on commercial motorcycles, no one is surprised that the cries are heard far across the Atlantic Ocean and at the uttermost parts of the earth. For one, bikes are the main drivers of the Lagos economy.

Not that I can claim to be an expert on anything Lagos, but my forays in the City of Excellence provide me ample material to discuss the influential role that bikes play in keeping the city awake. In May 2007, I made a bold move from the sleepy city of Ibadan to the bustling metropolis of Lagos to work as a reporter with The Guardian Newspapers. Moving between my residence at Gbagada and my workplace at Isolo was the least of my worries – two transits on those noisy yellow jalopies called buses was sufficient to get me to and from work, but those were not significant concerns. More often than not, there would be a conference to attend at Bourdillion road in Ikoyi, or at Akin Adesola Street in Victoria Island, or somewhere in Omole Phase II. How on earth was a Lagos novice with no GPS system and no personal car expected to know where these places were or how to get there? That was the power of the Okada. All you had to do was give an address to the often illiterate Hausa lad who rode the bike, and away you went, praying for the safety of the bike, the rider, your legs and your head. This was my routine every day for four months.

In June 2008, I returned to Lagos, this time to work as a Corporate Communications intern at Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Ltd., domiciled at the beautiful newly-launched Murtala Muhammed II airport. Once again, I appeared to be in luck as I found residence at Oregun, only about twenty minutes away from the airport, but again accommodation was not a major concern. On an average day, leaving home an hour before work commenced at 8am meant that I had to be about thirty minutes late for work because of the impossibly slow pace of traffic on the by-pass leading to the ‘Ikeja under-bridge’ flyover that connected the airport to the rest of the city. My saving grace was the bike. Even though I was so frustrated by the N100 fare price that I had to give up everyday between Ikeja under-bridge´ and the airport (a five minute ride), it was a worthy price to pay to avoid being late to work. I recall several occasions when I rode past my bosses in their fancy Toyota RAV-4 SUVs on my way to work. Pretending to be on the phone was my escape route from having to prove that I was quite impoverished at the time.

However, neither flying a bike to work everyday, nor dashing off to catch an urgent appointment on the Island from Oregun was significant proof to me that Lagos bikes were ordained by God to save the rich and the poor from untold tears. It was my encounter on the 1st of July 2010 that proved to me that countless dreams will be aborted in their infancy without commercial bike riders in Lagos. The entire day seemed to play out like a movie script written by James Cameron. I was scheduled to travel to Moscow to attend the 8-day International Youth Forum hosted by the Russian Government. For some weird reason, after a highly intriguing process of commuting between Ibadan-Lagos-Abuja and back to Lagos within 36 frantic hours, I received my Russian visa early in the morning of Thursday July 1, 2010.

By noon, I had successfully withdrawn the N160, 000 needed to purchase my flight ticket, plus some extra change to buy myself some Russian mugs and pens as souvenirs for my expanding fan club.  By 2:00pm, the ticket was purchased and I was on my way home on the campus of the University of Ibadan to slap together some clothes into my suitcase. It was a brief trip so it was easy to plan. My flight was scheduled to take off from Lagos at 9:00pm, so leaving Ibadan at 5:00pm wasn’t an absolutely bad idea – I would have at least two hours to check in and buy myself a Coke. True to expectation, I was approaching Ikeja by 6:45pm, enjoying the ambience of the Peugeot 406 that conveyed me to Lagos. My dad was seated all by himself at the back, reading the day’s papers; I sat tensely in the passenger’s seat while the dutiful driver kept his mouth sealed. For almost three hours. Night slowly fell as we snaked through the 7up junction at Ilupeju through the streets of Ikeja at actual snail speed. I had never spent 90 minutes covering a 500-metre space. My frustration was blasting its way through the roof. I shifted in my seat repeatedly.

By 8:15pm, I turned in my seat and told my dad that it seemed as if I would have to retrieve my suitcase from the boot and get on a bike. He said it wasn’t really necessary and that traffic would pick up. I wasn’t convinced. 10 minutes later, we were still somewhere around Computer Village and I knew that if I didn’t find my way out of that car, I had just tossed about N200, 000 in the air. I slowly opened the door, picked my single suitcase out of the boot, told my dad that I’ll take care of myself in Moscow and flagged down the next bike.

“Airport!”, I screamed.

“N1,500”, he retorted.

“N1,000”, I replied.

“Climb”, he said.

Within seconds, the faces in front of me blurred as the bike man took me on the fastest motorcycle ride of my life. All I could think of was whether or not the check-in counter will still be open at the Turkish Airlines booth. I saw several people lined up all the way to the airport with several suitcases on the road beside them; several hundreds of stranded passengers who were not as privileged as I was to have single suitcases. At about 8:42 pm, I jumped off the bike, handed the rider a N1000 bill and sprinted for the Departure wing of the airport. I saw the lady close the check-in ramp, and I screamed at the top of my lungs “Wait!” She did. I was checked in within seconds, cleared security and immigration in about five minutes and dashed for the entrance of the aircraft. I caught my breath as I found my seat, said a quick prayer as I fastened my seat belt and sent a text message to my dad: “I made it. Safe trip back home”.

What would I have done without that Okada? How would I have explained the fact that I missed my important flight because of some freak accident that caused an unimaginable traffic jam? How would I have passed up the opportunity to meet the Russian President, Dimitri Medvedev because there were no bikes in Lagos? Now, I know that there are several good health and environmental reasons why bikes have to be eradicated from the streets of Lagos, but my mind always goes back to that eventful evening in 2010 every time I hear an argument for the extinction of commercial motorcycles in Lagos. If not for that Okada, what would I have done that evening?

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

Moving Nigeria Forward (III): Back to the ’70s

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In an ever-evolving world, it is not entirely strange to look to the past to garner inspiration for moving forward, but it is quite unsettling to persistently agitate for the glory days in history. This exactly is what Nigeria has grown to personify at the moment. Very little in the present gives satisfaction to the older generation or the new breeds; we have expertly documented the several challenges that cripple our country’s economic and social fibre and concluded that we were much better off in the past than we are now and that the most prosperous era in our history were the 1970s. Actually, many Nigerians would much rather live again in the 1970s if telecommunications and internet access could be guaranteed. But what is it about the ‘70s?

The four years that preceded the ‘70s were perhaps the darkest years in our history. The loss of 200,000 military and civilian lives in Nigeria and the loss of about 3,000,000 military and civilian lives in the Republic of Biafra left both regions of the country extremely weak and dependent on each other for survival. In spite of the relative victory of the Nigerian army over Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu’s troops, the nation was wounded almost beyond repair and desperately needed the words of Gen. Yakubu Gowon on January 16, 1967: “The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.” Whether or not the nation heeded the justice and reconciliation call specifically, fair trade and industry seemed to thrive in Nigeria in spite of the instabilities in government.

Between 1970 and 1979, Nigeria witnessed perhaps her best extended period of social and economic growth; characterized by a massive explosion of revenues courtesy of the oil boom. So great was our wealth that General Yakubu Gowon famously declared that “the only problem Nigeria has is how to spend the money she has”. When his government was overthrown in 1975 on account of corruption, his successor General Murtala Muhammed instantly demonstrated his resolve to build an equitable and prosperous country by using the words “Fellow Nigerians” for the first time. Murtala is reputed in the country, not only for his forthrightness, but more importantly, his courage. His tenure saw the mass retrenchment without benefits and trials of over 10,000 public officials on accounts of age, health, incompetence and malpractice. He ensured that his reforms cut across the diplomatic service, the judiciary, the academia, the military and the civil service; pruning government and diversifying public offices between the military and civilians. Within the seven months of his presidency, Murtala Muhammed faced inflation in the Nigerian economy and attempted to reduce the amount of cash flow in government, promoted private sector expansion, and adopted a ‘Nigeria First’ foreign policy. Unfortunately, good things never thrive in Nigeria and Murtala Muhammed was brutally assassinated on February 13, 1976, but not before laying the foundations for a successful economy managed by his successor, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Jimmy Carter with Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo o...
Jimmy Carter with Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obasanjo’s military rule was much shaped by the oil boom which saw Nigeria gain a 350 percent increase in oil revenues. Several sectors of the Nigerian economy were boosted both by this unexpected windfall and the dedication of public servants to national development. Infrastructural projects were multiplied across the country; long-lasting roads were built, hospitals were constructed, steel factories were established, and manufacturing was greatly promoted. During Obasanjo’s tenure, the Nigerian manufacturing industry witnessed so much growth that vehicle assemblies sprung up in the country, most prominent of which was Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN); the five existing Nigerian universities were equipped and eight more established; universal primary education was instituted in the country and the northerners who had hitherto lacked much investment in education began to derive some benefits from increased schooling opportunities; and the green revolution was sparked with massive distribution of seeds and fertilizers to farmers all across the country leading to increased productivity in the nation’s agricultural sector.

The ‘70s were such blessed years for Nigeria that the country’s currency had a much better exchange rate than the US dollar, durable commodities were produced and sold at cheap prices, food was available in abundance, and oil flowed endlessly through the nation’s refineries. It was also during this period that several easterners and westerners earned foreign scholarships to study Medicine and Law in the United Kingdom, several others secured employment in the federal civil service, health facilities were less crowded and more effective in treatment, solid structures were constructed across the Western Region under Chief Obafemi Awolowo, smooth roads which have defied wear till this day were built, leaving the country with fewer road accidents and making the country much more peaceful and stable.

The ‘70s are the years that our parents can never stop speaking about; they were the years when every single parent purchased those mathematical sets which they still brandish before their children; they were the years when two kobo purchased a good meal of ‘amala and goat meat’; they were the years when every one of our parents were top of their classes, even when there were 40 students in a class; they were the years when Government College, Ibadan, Government College, Umuahia, Government College, Ughelli, Government College, Zaria, Wesley School of Science and Kings College, Lagos, were the pride of the Nigerian education system; they were the years when ‘National’ brand fans and radio sets were purchased at ridiculously cheap prices, and on the foreign scene, they were the years when Nigeria had almost zero external debts.

There was something about the ‘70s that made Nigeria very prosperous, and it was not just about the oil boom; there were visionaries in government who made the decision to administer the country with a clear purpose and to invest the country’s resources into lasting projects. There were no thieving legislators who took bribes from successful businessmen to cover up corrupt practices and subvert national interest, there were no governors who embarked on 22 foreign trips in 24 months to ‘attract foreign investors’ to their states,  there were no anti-corruption agencies which seconded the prosecution of big name politicians to the British government; there were no senators who served as covert sponsors of northern terrorist groups and there was no president who claimed to be ‘saddened’ by the wanton loss of lives all across the country while maintaining a disposition that displayed extreme comfort in crisis. The ‘70s were the years when Nigeria was governed by democrats who put the interest of the country above theirs; the ‘70s were the years when military subordinates kept a very close check on their superiors and made it clear that they could be ejected at a moment’s notice for non-performance, and more importantly, the ‘70s were the years when Nigeria conducted a peaceful election and made a smooth transition from military rule to democracy for the first time.

There is an urgent need to revisit the practices of the ‘70s as we forge a path forward for Nigeria. National interest was at its peak during those years; the efforts of General Murtala Muhammed and General Olusegun Obasanjo on the local and international scene were tremendously great influences on local administration and regional integration. The ‘70s were the years when Nigeria truly earned the toga of ‘the giant of Africa’, and we demonstrated across the continent that we had a system that worked. The ‘70s were the years when Ghanaians flooded the country because of the widespread economic development which we offered not only our citizens, but all citizens of Africa. We need the ‘70s again, but more importantly, we can make this decade and future ones more successful and more prosperous than our past. The same values that guided our leaders then can be revisited and we can collectively build a nation that we can be proud of. If Ghana could rise from the ashes of economic desolation, reclaim her citizens from Nigeria, attract Nigerians en masse to her markets and then flush out illegal Nigerian marketers within a span of thirty years, it will be a massive shame for Nigeria to stand aside and allow ethnic, religious, political and other roadblocks to hamper our development. We would be haunted forever by the memories of the ‘70s if we fail to act. The time is now; let’s rebuild Nigeria.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun