New Internationalist

Suffering And Smiling

Issue 343

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Speed-Up / TRAFFIC JAM

Suffering and smiling

Class warfare on the streets of Lagos: 'slaves' and 'bastards' vie for position.

Photo: Betty Press / Panos Pictures

Ike Oguine sits in a Lagos traffic jam and
ponders on the way the private automobile
isn't getting anyone anywhere.

While capitalism has speeded things up for some, others are clearly on another track. For many in developing countries, some of the tools that should enable speedy communication are themselves sources of frustration.

This frustration comes in many shapes and sizes, but for those of us who live in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and former capital, dealing with road traffic is the most exquisite frustration of all – a perfect example of how the things which should grant us speed instead immobilize and debilitate us. In Lagos the struggle with overcrowded roads is complicated by exhausted buses that tend to give up on the most crucial flyovers, by road junctions without traffic lights or wardens, or by the seasonal fuel queues. Road transportation options cover a very wide spectrum: from the molue, the geriatric, clumsy, uncomfortable yellow-painted buses, to the roundlight, the latest Mercedes Benz with two pairs of round headlights that currently represents the summit of material achievement. Other options include danfos, also yellow-painted passenger vans, smaller siblings of the molue. Danfos, yellow taxis and the unpainted, moonlighting kabu-kabus tend these days to be tokunbos, used vehicles imported mostly from Belgium. How you end up travelling is decided by your pocket, and for most people who cross the city back and forth every day to work or trade or in search of either, the molue is a lifesaver – and also occasionally a life-taker.

Molue and danfo drivers are considered to be some of the rudest and toughest people in the country, possibly in the entire world. It would be amazing if they were not. Having to deal with those choked roads all day and, on top of that, harassed by the police and protection rackets that control the bus parks, one’s quota of goodwill towards the rest of humanity is bound to dwindle rapidly. The molue/danfo driver is either a very skilled or a very bad driver, depending on the circumstances and your perspective. To be able somehow to place their clumsy buses on and speed along narrow pavements, and to dash through tiny spaces, requires great dexterity. In Lagos a two-lane street can, with the right amount of determination, be converted into a four- or five-lane broadway.

Molue and danfo drivers parked near Lagos Cathedral: they are world-record breakers for rudeness.
Betty Press / Panos Pictures

The molue/danfo driver is by far the most inventive and aggressive of all, but if you drive around Lagos long enough you will imbibe the culture. Nearly every bus or car, including many roundlights, carries the scars of battle – paint smudge, deep scratches, crooked fenders, cracked lights. The heavy cost of replacing a headlight or restoring a bent fender becomes insignificant in comparison to the resolve not to yield ground to anyone. You grip the steering wheel with all your strength and, shouting a warning or a curse, you step on the accelerator and swing the steering wheel. And if your opponent doesn’t back down, things reach their logical conclusion and you rush out of the car to quarrel and curse, still possessed by that madness. Fault usually remains unresolved. If it’s clear your opponent is at fault, but they begin to plead for your forgiveness and the people around join in, soon the whole world is pleading with you. You have a broken light that will cost you thousands of naira to replace and you are either a hardhearted fellow who insists on receiving compensation (often equivalent to trying to wring water out of stone) or you eat the cost.

The choicest curses of the molue drivers are reserved for those in private cars – in the lingo of the road battles, the ‘slaves’ and ‘bastards’ who are drivers to the car-owning class. Class warfare is thus conducted on our streets every day – and gender warfare too. Women car owners receive a special dose of hatred for subverting the ‘natural’ order of things by owning cars when millions of their God-ordained superiors have to ride in or drive molues. Women are presumed awful drivers, too slow, too careful – qualities despised on the roads of our city. A woman learns to give as much as she gets. Into this mix, throw the sirens (and the armed men and convoys) that accompany powerful government officials and bank bullion vans. A stranger to our city, already stressed to the limit by other road aggravations, who hears the sirens rushing toward him and looks back to see the flashing lights and armed men waving their automatic weapons, would be forgiven for abandoning his car and taking to his heels.

And, if the brew isn’t interesting enough, add the floods of the rainy season. They sometimes rise so high they seep into the interior of the car, into the engine. At roundabouts and junctions especially, flooding takes up a good part of the road and slows down already sluggish traffic. An impatient plunge into these flooded areas sprays you with water. Cars sometimes come to a halt a few feet ahead, smoke pouring out of the engine. You need to be extremely civilized to resist the temptation to jeer at their drivers.

When you do manage to get to a stretch of road – no matter how short – that is not clogged, there is a wild sense of liberation. Molues, roundlights, tokunbos, everyone flies off immediately at top speed like race drivers. And this isn’t just on major roads: many a child sauntering on a little street has been killed by a driver enjoying their few minutes of ‘liberation’. When we are set free we nimbly dart in and out of lanes on the expressways, testing the possibilities of our long-suffering cars, like children finally able to play with their toys. Inevitably, tragedy strikes at these moments of sweet freedom. With the cost of spare parts rising all the time, as the naira continues to plummet, and given the hit-or-miss approach of our mechanics, brakes have a tendency to fail without warning. We see on the roads, and read in newspapers, about molues that plunge into the lagoon, about lorries that fly into crowded markets decimating scores of people each time. Perhaps the most horrible accident of all occurred when a molue (probably carrying cans of petrol, because it was a time of petrol scarcity) crashed on the Third Mainland Bridge and burst into flames, immolating about 30 passengers. I arrived at the scene soon after the accident and they still sat stiffly on their seats in the black shell of the bus, staring straight ahead like a class of over-obedient school-children, bone-thin and very black.

The late Fela, poet of the pain and absurdity of Lagos, summarized it in a 1980s hit song as ‘Suffering and Smiling’. ‘Smiling’ probably includes the grim fatalism with which we go out to confront everyday life and the miraculous humour with which many of our people still bear such suffering. (A friend who’s been abroad recently observed that the humour in the buses now has a strained, brittle quality).

as in other spheres of our national life... we pay collectively, through lives lost, time wasted...

The return to civilian rule in mid-1999 brought us a new State Governor who is attempting some sensible things, but he faces a complex task. He has proposed compulsory annual vehicle inspection, causing a huge outcry from the owners and drivers of molues, danfos and taxis. Spare parts are expensive and the proposal would provide new opportunities for extortion to the police and the bureaucrats issuing inspection certificates. It appears the Governor has remained resolute and some form of vehicle inspection will commence one day – which should lessen the number of vehicles that expire on flyovers (but would also reduce the number of buses available, as many molues are certain to fail even the laxest inspection).

There are now young men employed by the state who help to direct traffic at some junctions; there are not nearly enough, but it is a start. Some road repairs are taking place, which have worsened the traffic jams in parts of the city, but when completed they should bring a little relief. But in order to achieve real change a re-examination of our approach to transportation policy is badly needed.

For too long we have viewed public transportation as another source of enrichment for public officers. Contracts to purchase buses for public use have filled the roads with repainted old contraptions from Europe and Asia that soon fell apart. Occasionally one hears talk of a mass-transit rail system, but such noises have come and gone over the years and nothing has materialized, apart from a messy dispute with a French consortium which was once awarded a contract soon thereafter cancelled.

This neglect of public transportation has resulted in Nigeria becoming the world’s largest dumping ground of used cars, in Lagos streets being choked with long lines of smoke-belching molues. To reverse this trend it is essential to make the improvement of public transportation a national priority and at the same time discourage the use of private vehicles through substantial road taxes and similar measures which have been successfully employed in some other large cities.

At the root of the current savagery on Lagos roads is the general belief that life is a pitiless race in which you trample or are trampled. We reproduce on the roads the battles we fight for contracts, public offices, licenses and other preferences; what the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake described as our militant materialism. And as in other spheres of our national life (and similar trends are observable in many other parts of the world), we pay collectively, through lives lost, time wasted, the huge cost of importing cars, a very high price for this materialism. This cost seems too obvious to be missed by anyone, but the culture of individualism easily overpowers rational policy-making. When we are embarked on the rush to move faster and acquire more than everyone else, we seem to leave our senses behind. In the process we remain stuck in self-inflicted traffic jams while the 21st century gathers pace all around us.

Ike Oguine is a writer and NI columnist based in Lagos.


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