It is interesting what perspectives one can gain about any country from embarking on a journey by road. A few days ago, I travelled by road from Lagos to Warri and back. This journey told a small tale about the state of the country. Before I continue let me give you some small context to roads in Nigeria. Nigeria has about 195,000 km road network out of which a proportion of about 32,000 km (16.5%) are federal roads while 31,000km (16%) are state roads. The other 67.5% are local government roads. It is important to note that from available statistics only about 60,000km of the 195,000km road network are paved.
One very important thing many people who travel by road in Nigeria must organize is an armed policeman to travel with – ‘’Mopol’’ as we call them. For many (me inclusive) it is simply a case of no Mopol no road travel. I had to ask the Mopol to sleep in my house the night before because I wanted reasonable certainty that he will be available and that we will leave at the crack of dawn. If he did not show up, I will have to cancel my trip. This is the state of our country Nigeria – it is apt to say we are all petrified at the untold outcomes from road travel. Those who travel by road are afraid of armed robbers, kidnappers and the like. In recent times, you are even afraid of police high-handedness and brutality given the recent trigger-happy killings of innocent citizens by men in uniform. So, one thing your Mopol guarantees you is free passage – no police check point will stop or delay you as you journey on our roads. Talking about police check points my road journey of about 400 kilometers must have had at least 30 check points on the way – customs checkpoint, mobile police check point, normal police checkpoint, army checkpoint and even the Nigerian Security Defense Corp (a band of civilians recently licensed to carry arms who have proven to be more trigger happy than the regular policemen). My Mopol insisted that all these checkpoints are illegal. If he is right, then this is a whole band of people doing their own thing. Some people must be permitting this illegality. These checkpoints have logs of wood strewn on the roads to cause you to slow down and little strips of wood in between as a make shift speed bump.
A taste of Nigerian ingenuity at its highest. What goes through my mind each time is why we still have so many kidnappings on these roads despite these checkpoints. I also wonder why some check points are just less than 100 metres from each other. Is this so they can protect each other based on the safety in numbers concept?
I set out early on a Saturday morning heading out through the Epe axis using what is supposed to be a shortcut to bring motorist out directly onto the Lagos Shagamu expressway en-route to Benin. I have not been on this road in several years, but each time it always seems to be in the same sorry state it was the last time I travelled. This road is a state government road – parts of it owned by Lagos State and parts of it owned by Ogun state. The road gets worse somewhere in the middle, almost as if the two states may have a dispute as to whose responsibility it is to pave that part of the road. Being in the car on this bumpy, twisty and windy road – bumping up and down and sideways – is a “good’’ start to my morning– great exercise for all your muscles even gym buffs would envy me.
In the course of conversation, just to get to know my Mopol a bit better, I asked him if he has been posted to Boko Haram areas to join the fight against Boko Haram. He says to me he has been twice and he enjoyed it. In his words “oga because there is money there’’. My interest peeked once I heard money. I said what do you mean? Mopol says policemen posted to those areas get 5,000 naira daily as feeding allowance and another 90, 000 naira monthly as pay. So I did the math quickly. This is 240,000 naira a month. I thought to myself quietly our policemen are so poorly paid that 140k a month (which is what an average worker can earn in the private sector) is deemed as a bounty? No wonder some of them who remain in the city kill people for 500 naira.
One lesson you learn quickly with road travel in Nigeria is that self-help is allowed and many times without self-help you may be in traffic for hours on end. On my journey back I had to pass through Benin City which holds good memories for me as an Alumni of University of Benin. At some junction along Sapele road we were in traffic at a standstill for about 15 minutes. It then occurred to me that if I didn’t come down to check what the problem was, we could be there for hours. I got out of the car and walked for about 5 minutes until I saw the bottleneck at a junction with cars coming from 5 different directions including those who had driven against traffic. I instantly became a traffic warden – thankfully I had my Mopol to help with enforcement. I could feel and touch the fumes from the revving vehicles even though it was already dark at this time. I shouted at some drivers, beckoned on others to move it, stood in front of some cars to make them stop, huffed and puffed until we were able to get the traffic moving one lane after the other. My car came through in about 10 minutes, I hopped in and left the others behind to their fate. I thought to myself – Welcome to Benin City!