Travelling dangerously in Nigeria-Reuben Abati

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A fortnight ago, I was in Ondo state to attend an event; that was the day the heavens chose to open up. The rainy season seems to have started early this year, and whenever it rains, even mother earth opens up to drink water from the skies, the heat wave of the dry season abates, a certain balance is restored to the environment, man, animal and nature are re-united in a silent cosmic communion. 

It didn’t just rain on this particular day. It rained cats and dogs. On the first leg of the journey, I had travelled to Akure through the Ibadan-Ilesha route and I felt this was a particularly stressful road. By the time we got to Ikeji-Arakeji, my stomach was tied in knots. I was so distressed I felt I needed sleeping tablets to survive the rest of the journey. My limbs ached after more than five hours of a journey that had become a trial and error experiment on crazily damaged roads.

I resolved that I would not take that route back. I also sympathized with my friends from that part of the country who have to endure so much punishment to travel from Lagos or wherever to their homes in the Northern part of Yorubaland. Navigating one bump after another, jumping from one pothole into another and having to manage all the dangers that lie in wait on the long road to one’s destination is absolute nightmare. 

The Ife-Ilesha bypass, which used to be so smooth has become really bad, it has fallen into shameful disrepair, a signpost of poor maintenance and the poor quality of road construction, with the contractors, gaining more than the people in the long run.  

I decided that the return journey would be through Ondo, Ore all the way to Ijebu Ode and further down. A straight line, we are all told, is a shorter distance between two points. I also felt we could save time having arrived at our destination, rather late.  So, on the return leg of the journey we headed towards Ondo. And the rainfall began. 

It was so heavy it rained all the way from that axis down to Ibadan and Ore, and many houses in Ibadan, I later learnt, lost their aged, brownish, zinc roofs to the accompanying storm and turbulence.  If you have ever travelled between Akure and Ore, you’d recall many parts of the road that are so bushy, the trees and shrubs cantilever onto the road. In places, trees even cast a shadow upon the road on both sides, evoking images and feelings of rustic naturalness. On this day, nature was no longer an aesthetic luxury, but a hindrance and a threat.  

As the rains fell and the storms raged, many trees were uprooted and they fell across the road.  The rainfall had disturbed visibility and slowed down our movement and as time passed, I became restless. I didn’t want us to travel at night, but we were already on our way back and it looked like nature was going to delay us. We eventually had to stop. Very heavy traffic had built up ahead and for a while, we kept wondering what the situation was all about.

 In the midst of that rainfall, some people stepped out of their vehicles and started walking ahead to find out the cause of the gridlock.  They soon returned one by one, in twos and threes, and as they did, some of them went to the boot of their vehicles and brought out machetes: shining, well-sharpened, glistening machetes. 

In a matter of minutes, more machetes had surfaced, with young, able men, wielding the machetes and moving forward in the direction of the source of the gridlock.  Three trees had fallen across the road, with the branches turning the entire road into a wall.

About twenty minutes later, the men with the machetes began to return to their vehicles, soaked wet from head to toe, but looking excited and pleased. They had taken care of the nuisance of the fallen trees. With their machetes, they reduced the trees to moveable parts, severed the branches and created enough space for traffic to flow again. My driver was happy. He engaged some of the machete-wielding men in paced conversation and they assured him they had taken care of the problem. I watched as they returned their machetes to whence they took them from. Gradually, the traffic began to flow again. It continued to rain.

We got to Ondo, and moved towards the Ondo-Ore road, about two hours of travel time. We had done less than an hour when again we ran into another traffic gridlock. Again, trees had fallen across the road and blocked movement.  I wondered aloud if we would ever get home.

“Oga, e ma worry. People will sort it out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Don’t worry.”

And just as had happened previously, drivers started opening up parts of their vehicles and brought out machetes. The bus driver directly in front of us walked briskly to the boot of the vehicle and pulled out about six machetes, which he gave out to some volunteers, and together they marched, along with other machete-wielding folks, towards the front as if they were going to war. I didn’t find it funny. I complained.

“Egunje, the way these people are bringing out machetes, this road is very dangerous. Look at how people are brandishing machetes.”

“E jo sir, e ma fi iyen sile. Leave that matter, Oga. If these people don’t carry machetes, we would still be stranded between Akure and Ondo.  Which government is going to help anybody cut any tree in this forest? But with those machetes, we’d soon be free.”

“But a machete is a dangerous weapon.”

“But they have not used it to cut anybody’s flesh. They are using it to make the road motorable. May we not see something bad. What if somebody travels on this road at night and runs into a fallen tree on the road? People have learnt to protect themselves.”

“The police should not allow people to carry machetes.”

“It’s like you don’t know what is going on sir. People carry guns. They carry other things. Ilu le. Country hard.”

“So, all those checkpoints. The policemen don’t look out for dangerous weapons.”

“Police. Which police? Nigeria police? Well, if they had checked and seized all these machetes, we would probably end up sleeping in this jungle.”

“There are very serious security implications,” I said.

“There is nothing. When people travel on Nigerian roads regularly, they are prepared for anything, especially these motorists. They know all the dangers that lie ahead and they are tired of expecting government to perform any miracle.”

While we chatted, the volunteers again sorted out the problem.  Four young men returning to their vehicles at the back, scratched the road with their machetes, and attempted a mock dance as they raised the machetes above their heads and crossed them mid-air.  The traffic moved. Our journey continued. I was uncomfortable still with the number of machetes on the road.

We had two more such delays before we got to a village close to Ore, and at each point, the same story, but certainly not the same vehicles or motorists, but as it were, it was as if every vehicle or motorist was armed with machetes, to be called to service at the moment of need.  I felt this was wrong.  

The least that either the state government or the Federal government, even the affected local governments can do is to clear any thick bush along this particular road, create necessary setbacks, make the shoulders of the road less of a hindrance, and trim or remove all trees cantilevering onto the road. The road between Akure and Ore is old, broken, dilapidated, narrow, and even as the rainy season begins, nature poses an even more serious threat.    

As we got closer to the next village, we encountered a few speed breakers, and the driver slowed down to cross them.  As he did, first, second, we suddenly heard a loud crashing sound from behind.  The driver and I were pushed forcefully towards the windscreen, but the seat belts pulled us back, the books I had kept on the back seat flew in all directions, the vehicle itself was propelled forward. Another vehicle, running at high speed, and ignoring the speed bumps had crashed into our vehicle. The accident didn’t make any sense whatsoever.   

It wasn’t yet dark, so the other motorist could not have claimed he didn’t see the speed breakers. But it was as if something stood between that other vehicle and ours to reduce the impact. The vehicle lost its entire front, from the radiator, close to the windscreen. 

Water dripped from its radiator, broken vehicle parts and glass shards littered the floor.  Seeing the extent of the damage, I pitied the motorist. He was travelling with his son and they both made a show of apologizing and pretending to be sober by patting our vehicle and the damaged bumper as if they were caressing a woman.

We picked whatever pieces we could match together. I didn’t utter a word, even as Tony Tetuila’s “You don hit my car…” played in my head. But other motorists on both sides of the road who came along did not spare the man at all.

“What is this now, Mr Man? Were you sleeping?”

“Is this man drunk? How can you run into any vehicle with all these speed bumps here?”

“Stupid man!”

“Ki le le yi. You must make sure he repairs your car for you.”

The man kept pacing up and down. I said nothing, as my driver started giving the man an ad-hoc driving lesson. I thought it was pointless. Many Nigerians driving on our roads never bothered to learn how to drive. It is in fact a thing of pride for someone to tell you: “Nobody taught me how to drive. I never went to any driving school.  I just took a car one day and I started driving it.”  Ask the same person if he has a driver’s licence, he will produce a valid one! There is also the large population of those who drink and drive and nobody arrests them, those who have no regard for speed limits or traffic regulations and the utterly impossible ones who refuse to maintain their vehicles.

I looked up; something crossed my mind. A friend once told me that armed robbers and kidnappers on Nigerian roads use all kinds of tricks to stop you and carry out their evil plan. They could deliberately run into your vehicle from behind, knowing you’d come out of the vehicle. They could throw an egg targeting your windscreen and as the yolk spills onto your windscreen, you may lose visibility if you try to clean it off, or an object with nails can be placed on the road, to burst your tyres… I looked at the man and his son…they didn’t look like kidnappers and armed robbers.  But how do kidnappers and armed robbers look? What if they had machetes in their boot? 

I kept my eyes on the man. As each passing motorist hurled expletives at him, I watched. Then someone suddenly called out my name from the other side of the road. I saw the man who had hit our vehicle now moving towards the back of his car… The image of people fetching machetes from their boots flashed through my mind. I quickly jumped into the car and asked Egunje to move.      

We got home very late. As we parked the car, the entire exhaust pipe suddenly dropped onto the floor. The driver screamed and held his head with both hands.

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