Guest Columnists by Wole Soyinka
Following an increasingly commonplace epic journey between Lagos and Abeokuta this last weekend – 5hrs 10 minutes outwards (Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Saturday Sept 15) and 4hrs 25 minutes return journey the following day via Otta – I feel compelled to offer this article in recognition of a national commitment to the predictable, and a passion for time travel – backwards! It formed part of a recent publication – THE ROAD-MAP OF A NATION for the 40th Anniversary of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC). It did however appear in the dailies over two decades ago. Hopefully it will contribute to the general debate on the existence or not, of what is known as a‘national character’.
The four-lane Expressway that links Lagos with the interior – two inwards and two outwards from Lagos – advertises the most conspicuous characteristics of the educated elite, albeit with keen competition from the commercial driver. Let us however concentrate on the nature of what example is set for the ‘illiterate’ classes by the presumably better educated, and often more traveled car owner – businessman, lecturer, technocrat, senior bureaucrat, banker, medical doctor etc. Less sanguinary in the main, the manoeuvres executed along these ill-maintained ‘Express’ motorways, differ in routine from the junior, interior dual carriageway spectacle, where the ‘luxurious buses’ exercise their unique, undisputed laws.
The provocation is, shall we say, a normal back-up from a toll-gate – now dismantled – or a mild hiccup caused by any of the arrogant conduct of those religious camps that now infest both sides of the Expressway, presumably on the divine authority of whatever deity they claim to worship. One moment, the traffic is sanity itself. The next moment, whatever the cause of the temporary delay, at the first break in the otherwise solid barrier of concrete blocks erected to keep the permanently warring troops apart, or drains dug abnormally deep to serve the same purpose – that is, keeping inbound and outbound lanes separate – our educated, sophisticated, ‘been-to’ motorist decides that, rather than suffer a delay of a few minutes, he or she must encroach on the lane assigned to oncoming traffic. Each commences the process of slithering down, then clambering up those trenches, wheels churning mud and often becoming firmly held. Does it serve as a warning to others? No, that warning is translated in the brains of his fellow sophisticates, not as a signal to desist altogether, but to try “a little to the left or a little to the right” of the pioneering voyager, now firmly held prisoner by the mud!
Sometimes, motorists even make a U-Turn on their own lane, attempting to return to starting point, thus confronting other traffic going in the legitimate, outbound direction, especially if they are still not too distant from Lagos. Retain that scenario as Look me, I look you. I no fit go, you no fit pass!
Next, Rain! The effect of rain on most of the living species is tranquilising. Rain slows down motion, cools the brain, and soothes the viscera. Rain on the Naijaman/woman motorist is however the harbinger of a collective, infectious dementia, and most especially in the heart of Lagos. An imaginative entrepreneur would make a fortune with helicopter tours just after a downpour, although of course, the moment to begin would be with the very commencement of rain. Still, one cannot have everything, and the spectacle that is unveiled the moment a puddle has formed on the streets beats any stampede of rhinos, elephants, giraffes or warthogs in a National park. Even an aerial still photo would reveal the trademark spectacle of these variegated objects in steel and wooden frames caught in the final throes of motion. Animate that photo just a little and you will observe the last illusions of motion, a succession of still frames as these strange objects in total frenzy head for the same space as if they would clamber over one another.
The initial appropriation is always the hesitant stage. After that, attitudes harden – if one lane, why not both? A newly aggressive column comes up from behind the first marauder to reinforce that challenge and expand the front, eating voraciously into the second Lagos-bound lane. There is no more nibbling, no more prospecting, the headlamps are ablaze, the hazard lights have gone demonic, and the throttle foot has found its resting place. Motorists on the Lagos bound lanes – suffering from varying degrees of cardiac arrest – although of course many have become inured to it – swerve madly onto their own fast lane shoulder, and begin to scrape along as best as they can, bouncing over discarded tyres and tyre rims, wood blocks, rusted hubs, rocks and logs abandoned by broken down trailers. Yet even this inhospitable territory becomes contested by outward bound interlopers from across the barrier as reinforcements are brought up from the rearguard of the invading force until….again the inevitable!
An absolute immobility, a snarling, frustrated bunch of directionless ants in the midst of whose columns a little stone has been thrown, corrupting the scent of orientation that was laid by the head of the advance – not yet defeated, not yet conceding self-defeat, simply incapable of confronting their total loss of both rational and moral compass. The sight of any unoccupied patch of space – sidewise, forward, backing up in a futile endeavour to gain an inch of advantage over the neighbouring vehicle – each niggardly opening is the signal for a new round of multi-directional manoeuvering, a starting pistol for a new race towards individual salvation, yes, a mirage of individual salvation that guarantees collective perdition – get in there quickly, get in there, occupy that space – never mind that it is only a cul-de-sac barricaded by other contenders, and that the maximum span of motion before a final shutdown is perhaps no more than the circulation of a car wheel
It would be kind to imagine a populace in flight from some man-made or nature disaster – a volcanic eruption, an expanding Chernobyl bubble, an invasion by aliens from outer space or by pitiless, hostage-eating rebels swooping down from hidden redoubts. Or maybe to imagine a people caught in a gold-rush – in short, to see them merely as deluded human beings whose rush for wealth or salvation comes up against and reinforces a solid, implacable grid that holds them firmly, sometimes till the early hours of the following morning.
No, that would be much too unkind to genuinely menaced humanity, terrified by the unknown, or the maddened sand-elves of Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode. Much more truthful an image is the progression of woodworms scampering from rotted wood under a fire, or maggots scrambling from a freezer after the notorious NEPA – the Nigeria Electric Power Authority – has inflicted a blackout on a household blissfully away on vacation for over a month. Or perhaps, most apposite of all: a pack of rats fleeing a flooded edifice. And the scene repeats itself again and again, day after day and week upon week, its participants incapable of grasping that the unchecked ego of one is the guaranteed ruin of any community. With a mind-numbing predictability, these drivers and passengers are left staring into space, maybe into the fading apparition of a magic carpet that keeps floating just beyond the ridge of the nose of each individual motorist, promising an escape from the remorseless logic of gravity, of the delimitations of space and occupancy, self-made prisoners of an epidemic of plain, collective – stupidity!
The foregoing, we might point out, is the benign, mostly non-lethal scenario, usually of limited catastrophe. Any damage is mostly incidental – stress, the unnoticed attrition of stability, missed engagements, missed flights, missed opportunities, and the unpublicised lives lost as an ambulance finds its spinning lights and sirens helpless against the final erosion of a people’s collective common sense. On the main highways, the exaction is instant and brutal. I have joined in cleaning up after the mess at many such scenes, but it is always a different experience altogether to witness an impact, to see it coming and watch it happen. Before all else, before pity or empathy, the emotion is one of rage, for such a moment is hardly ever inevitable.