Thursday, September 20, 2012

How to Survive a Road Accident in Nigeria (as happened on September 15, 2012)

The road home is clear. These twenty kilometres are so familiar it is easy to go into auto-pilot and drift into thoughts only my head can manage. I have had a long day- work, a reading, and dinner with a dear friend.

There is a lot on my mind. On the road I drive through the bends and turns that lead me to the wide Umar Musa Yar'Adua express way. In my head I take the bends and turns that lead me through the maze that is my mind. To painful decisions I must take, long overdue. To thoughts of all the things I planned to do before I turned thirty. To the fact that I turn thirty tomorrow and have done none of them. I try to find my way back to the beginning of things; to discover how I got here, this lonely cold place I cannot recognize.

I am tired. I shake myself awake. My body fights back- it demands rest and it demands it now. Five more minutes, I tell myself, five more minutes until I get home. I reach the express. Some parts are lit, some parts are not. I drift again and in one second it all happens. I run into a curb at one of the points where the road bends suddenly. Instinctively I step on the brakes. It is too late. I lose control of Sylvanus, my old tired car and we are screeching at a 45 degree angle. I hit something else and my head slams into the steering wheel. My head spins and suddenly everything is upside down- my body, Sylvanus and my thoughts. Sylvanus comes to a halt by the side of the road. Upside down, I feel the blood filling up my mouth.

It is fear that actuates my body, makes me ignore the pain and crawl out through the shattered glass. Fear that a fire might break out and I might get trapped in a burning vehicle. I drag myself to the side of the road, my white caftan soaked in blood. I feel open flesh hanging in my mouth. It is 2am. I am cold. Alone. In pain.

Writers who try to describe blood must not have bled like this. Real blood pouring from ones body does not smell metallic. It smells like fear. Like death.

The first car that stops is a green taxi. I am lying on the gravel with my right hand up in the air, calling for help. The taxi reverses, stops and suddenly drives off. I think of crawling back to the car to see if I can find my phone. I am too scared of a fire and too weak. Slowly as I slip in and out of consciousness cars begin to stop and voices begin to multiply.

“Do you know anybody’s number?’  someone asks, from a distance almost as if he is afraid to come close. I shake my head. He is shouting. Everyone seems to be shouting.

“My phone,” I manage to say, “in the car. My phone.”

I am afraid the phone might have flown out of the car during the crash. Someone finds it.

“Your wife, what is her number?” A man assumes I am married. I shake my head. Suggestions fly over my head. My father’s voice, on discovering I was not quite acting like a virgin, plays in my head: “I was not up to your age when I got married.”

“His brother.”

“His family”

A police van stops. They do not come close. They make radio calls that have nothing to do with an ambulance or first aid. I know at this point I must do something or bleed out in front of passers-by arguing about what to do.

“Call Achile,” I say to the man holding my phone, spitting out a glob of blood. I try to get up. They all scream at me to lie back down. They try Achile. He is asleep. They try Al-kasim. He is asleep.

Suddenly I feel like this is it: I am going to die out here alone. My parents are nearly 200kilometers away and the only other relatives who are in this town, are strangers to me.

“Garki hospital!” I call out as the police and others argue. “I have a card in Garki hospital”

Nobody is listening to me and I am fighting to retain consciousness.

After a few minutes, a man who I later will learn is Group Captain Onyike, orders the policemen to stop what they are doing and take me to the Air force Base where he lives and where there is a hospital. I am put at the back of the police van like a ram that has been knocked down by a car. I am handed my phone and they drive off.

I am afraid that I will lose consciousness completely and nobody will know where I am. I manage to send messages to a few people and tweet with the only information I know. That I am at the back of a police truck headed for the Air force hospital near the airport. I pass out.

Group Captain Onyike makes sure I get treatment. I come to and the doctor is able to get a friend, Salisu on the phone.

In the morning, the worst has passed. I am stable. Kasim, Musa and Achile are around and are taking care of things. I open my eyes and I see the dear friend with whom I had dinner last night. I am not sure how she knew or who called her. As much as I did not want her to see me like this, I am grateful that she is here. And I cannot stop my tears from rolling. But for the quick thinking of an air force officer, she might have been the one to tell stories of my last words, my last thoughts, my last feelings.

This is how to survive a road accident in Nigeria: Pray. Pray that someone with quick thinking and hospital contacts runs into you. Do not expect the police to know what to do. Do not expect emergency services. Just pray.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


(The Gospel According to Prophet Sule as penned down by his dubious self-appointed scribe Elnathan)
You are a critic. A fiery academic. Nobody is spared from your acerbic tongue. Usually people will shy away from saying unflattering things about masters like Soyinka and Achebe because they have earned a place is history and all but no, not you. Achebe is overrated. You nod your head while you say this- a confident almost defiant nod.
You are upset about Nigerian literature. This is the real reason you are so bitter and so merciless when you critique works by Nigerians. So you take the bull by the horn and you decide to write your own books. You are not doing badly- as a Nigerian academic, students must purchase your books. The competition you entered for the last time did not even as much as shortlist your book. And you see the winners- none of them would pass a course if they were your students. But this is not why you will declare that no book that has won the biggest Nigerian literature prize has become a classic. It is not why you think giving so much money to one undeserving writer is bad. You do it because deep down you love Nigerian literature.
If you don’t do something fast, something terrible will happen. Nigeria may disintegrate in 2015 without a modern classic. This is serious enough to make you return to your vomit. To make you lie between the legs of the woman you called a slut only 5minutes ago, drooling. It is all for Nigerian literature. You will enter the prize and win. And everything you have been trying to teach lazy unskillful Nigerian writers will be learnt through your book. It will be celebrated even 50 years after, and if at that time any upstart rises to call you overrated, God will judge them mercilessly. This is how you write a classic: start out intending to write one. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Beyond Boko Haram: Towards a more Peaceful North

The heat of the Sunday sun is sweltering. I have wound down all four of my glasses but I feel trapped in this boiling box that is my car. I am driving slowly between Makera and Kakuri in Kaduna looking for a cybercafé to send an email to a friend. As I move from the point where Makera becomes Kakuri, I can literally see the street change from shirts trousers and skirts to caftans and hijabs. I know that this is the case in much of Kaduna, but to see the difference in so short a distance is disconcerting.

I was born in the capital of the North. The state that once represented everything positive: developed, cosmopolitan, progressive. Today, having returned to live in Kaduna after a few years away, I have become a witness to the shameful dying spectacle that the North has become.

In some sort of self-inflicted religious apartheid, our cities, notably Jos and Kaduna- once quiet and integrated- are now religiously-exclusive, passive-aggressive (sometimes openly aggressive), mutually-suspicious contiguous communities. True some might argue that this quiet separation that has created Muslim and Christian communities has its positive effects, but it is not without obvious dangers. Sadly because of the increasingly widespread attacks of Boko Haram, no one is talking about the issues germane to the North, pre-Boko Haram. In fact some have cynically implied that the Boko Haram attacks (that affect everyone) have reduced the perennial Muslim-Christian crises. We must however look at the problems we have, beyond Boko Haram.

What separation has caused is a heightened otherness- convenient for trading blame and the spread of dangerous rumours and propaganda. One of the things I am grateful for is that I grew up not in a homogenous community but with Christian, Muslim, Hausa, Yoruba, Nupe, Igbo, Ibibio, Edo, Ebira, Urhobo, Tiv, Idoma, Igala and Fulani neighbours (in addition to the large numbers of people from the indigenous tribes of Kaduna). I did not grow up wondering if Muslims were good or bad people, if Southerners were good or bad people, because they were all around me and I did not suffer from the suspicion that is the product of ignorance. As a result it is hard  for me to contribute or even listen to talk about how Muslims or Southerners are ‘our’ problem. The violence that has forced people to live separately is capable of creating even more deeply rooted violence. Children in Kaduna and Jos now grow up in exclusively Christian or Muslim communities where it is easy to speak disparagingly
of people of another religion or culture; where it  is easy to blame them for the problems that is common to everyone; where the only debate is ‘Us vs Them’.

The violence which living separately is quietly breeding is further worsened by the irresponsibility of leaders from the North. Leaders who have benefitted from the perpetration of poverty and dependence and the divisions that have prevented Northern Nigerians from demanding good and responsible governance from their leaders.

The problem with poverty, which in my opinion is more acute in the North than in the South, is that it looks for enemies to blame and lash out at. That is why poorer communities generally have higher crime rates, more domestic abuse, more rape, more senseless rumours that lead to violence. There can be no quick fixes to decades-old problems and because change can be painful and demanding, the few but immensely powerful persons whose power derives from this current unacceptable situation, will fight any move to fix the North and liberate its people mentally and economically.

We must expect this while we chart a course for the reduction of poverty and the empowerment of women and young people in our communities.

What we must begin to do is to invest in the North and insist that those who seek our support for votes equally invest in the North. When we have industries, and businesses- real investment as opposed to the embarrassing poverty eradication schemes which governors in the North now bandy about like Keke Napep and motorcycles- then there is a possibility that people will be able to empower themselves and have a stake in developed, stable North, so much that they will be  able to fight from within the forces militating against peace and stability.

While the current situation of separate religious communities is unfortunate, there is no quick fix for that either. The mistrust and mutual suspicion is deep and can only change over time and years of education and re education. We can achieve this if we start now teaching the next generation that the other is not the enemy. That  the enemy is poverty and bad, wicked leadership.  That we cannot all be Muslim or Christian. That no one is evil simply because of his/her religion. That every human being deserves to be treated justly and with dignity. That violence and oppression only begets more violence and oppression. That respect begets respect. That the construct of superiority of tribe and/or religion is only useful to those who seek to perpetuate themselves in power to the detriment of ordinary people.

I believe that real economic empowerment and re-education will make our cities have more tolerant, more cosmopolitan and more secure communities. The fact is that we are weaker, easier to exploit and attack, when we are hungry and dependent. In the end we have more in common than divide us, more common enemies to fight than differences.

We must as individual Northerners must look inward. Agriculture must be supported, not on small subsistence scale but on a scale that is capable to empowering poor farmers, their families and employees. Northern politicians and self-styled philanthropists should be judged based on how much concrete, sustainable development they have brought to the North. We must begin the critique from within.

I want to be able to drive through the Muslim Tudun Wada and Rigasa in Kaduna and not feel afraid. I want to be able to invite my Muslim friend who lives in Badiko to the non-Muslim Sabo where I live and not be scared that if a crisis breaks out, I alone may not be able to save him. Today I cannot. Tomorrow can be better.

 I think it is time that social movements for change are led by serious professionals who are able to think critically and apply pragmatic, tangible solutions to solve our real problems. Top on the list of those problems are poverty and inequity. Without equity and economic empowerment for all groups in the North- whether they be poor farmers in Borno, religious or ethnic ‘minorities’ in Kaduna or ‘settled’ Fulani in Plateau- the bitter, dangerous feeling of intra-regional marginalization will fester and lead to more crises.
Much will depend on the sincerity and courage of those who will tread the path of change that has littered with empty words and impotent schemes. I think, it is possible.