Cliff Missen

|| Nigerian Roads ||

January 15th, 1999

Nigerian roads are an adventure unto themselves...

One does not simply "go for a drive" in Nigeria. Much like the physician who "practices" medicine, the driver on Nigerian road attempts to get from one spot to another in relative safety and possibly comfort with the full knowledge that their skills are limited and the outcome is rarely in their control.

Nigerian roads, when they are in good repair, are rather innocuous apparitions that, at a casual glance, are no different than their Western counterparts. There are two lanes of blacktop with packed dirt shoulders and ditches for drainage on either side. Except in the middle of town, where the shoulders and drainage are replaced by -- well, nothing.

Of course, one might notice a distinct lack of lane markings, signage, and traffic control apparatuses -- like signal lights and stop signs. One will have no trouble noting the light poles with their innards dangling menacingly over the passing traffic, the bushes and trees which overgrown the edges of the road, and the rusting heaps of gutted, burnt automobiles which dot the highways and city streets.

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The Nigerian road has room for everyone.

When Nigerian roads are in bad repair, they are tooth-rattling and tire-eating. Wary drivers have learned to read the skid marks on the road ahead of them so as to identify the car-swallowing potholes and swerve (true Nigerians would never slow down…). There are parts of some roads that have been in disrepair for so long that drivers have worn entirely new roads around them. If one notices a large gash in their lane in front of them and sees oncoming traffic in the other lane, one quickly flashes one’s headlights to indicate, "There’s a pothole the size of Delaware in my lane so I’m coming over to yours!" Usually things work out…

Nigerian roads gain their greatest notoriety when you populate them with Nigerians.

Nigerians are by disposition a self-absorbed and over-confident people. As is the habit of self-absorbed and over-confident people all around the world, they take to the public byways with complete satisfaction that they alone possess the right-of-way and pay little mind to the needs and travails of others.

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Sorghum on its way to market..

So the man who needs to carry sugar cane into town has no hesitation to load the three meter lengths of cane sideways across his motorcycle and take up half of the road as he slowly putts along his merry way. Nor does the farmer hesitate to use the road’s shoulder -- and maybe a bit of the road itself -- to lay out his gleanings to dry them in the sun. If one passes friends on the road, then, by all means, one should stop right in the middle of the road and beckon one’s friends to come to one's car for a casual conversation in the midst of busy traffic. And if one's vehicle breaks down, there's no need to move it to the side of the road. God meant, no doubt, for that car to be on that precise spot at that particular time.

As pedestrians, Nigerians are highly status conscious and unhurried. They vigorously defer to elders and higher-ranking individuals, sometimes bowing to touch the ground and keeping their eyes cast down throughout their conversations. They are gracious to newcomers and display a remarkable hospitality to friends, family, and visitors. Inherently polychronic, Nigerians can wait for hours for a meeting, show up to parties five hours late, wait in queues for fuel for days, and defer tasks for weeks until electricity or water is restored.

As drivers, however, Nigerians are uniformly rushed and are positively ruthless to whomever they chance to meet on the road. They are of the New York or LA lean-out-the-window-waving arms-while-shouting-invectives-and-making-disparaging-remarks-about-one’s-lineage ilk. However fast one’s car is capable of traveling is precisely how fast it should travel. So BMWs and Mercedes and late-model Peugeots careen around traffic and blow down open roads at full throttle while rattle-trap 40-year-old trucks and dilapidated Datsuns sputter weakly along the shoulder.

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All aboard!  (literally..)

In this sense, one finds Nigerian roads remarkably egalitarian. The road is a public good and it is equally used by all. So there’s room for the woman with the stack of sticks on her head and the man on the bike with the 10-foot bundle of sorghum and the motor scooter carrying three riders holding two goats and the motorcycle with the fender of a automobile draped across the back and the boys on two mopeds balancing a 8-foot pane of glass between them and the 1960 VW bug with a body that’s more plaster than steel and the pokey Toyota taxi with eight passengers and the ancient Mitsubishi bus with the detachable doors and the slow-moving cargo truck with twenty passengers sitting atop 500 bags of rice and the speeding convoys of government Peugeots carting military chiefs from one meeting to another and the trembling, wide-eyed foreigners strapped in their seatbelts and gripping the steering wheel while navigating ever-so-cautiously down the road.

So the driving style of Nigerians, at first glance seems bizarre and reckless. But it is all a part of a larger system that actually provides the greatest good for the most people. Drivers of slower moving vehicles move out of the way of those driving faster vehicles. Vehicles veer away from pedestrians. Timid drivers acquiesce to aggressive drivers. Drivers of the ponderously slow cargo trucks signal to following vehicles when it’s safe to pass. In tight situations, like when one vehicle passes a slower vehicle and there’s oncoming traffic, all the actors in the scenario jockey around, flashing headlights and honking horns, until the two-lane road somehow becomes a three-lane road and everyone passes safely but within inches from conflagration.

In a country where few receive formal driving training and passing the licensing exam requires more cash than know-how, everyone vociferously pitches in to teach each other how to drive. In fact, driving in Nigeria is an auditory experience. It’s a good things the weather’s so warm, because one does well to drive with the window rolled down – a driver can learn much about his or her situation by listening to the voices, horns, and shattering glass.

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Broken crates and bottles mark the spot where a soft drink truck crashed.

It is not an exaggeration to assert that one uses their horn more often than their brake when driving in Nigeria. It is considered friendly and thoughtful to give a honk when barreling at 120kph through a small town where children are playing on the road. Or to blast a few bars at a taxi just beginning to turn onto the road in front of you without checking first for oncoming traffic. Or to tootle the children who are frenetically playing tag on the concrete lane divider in the busy market section of town. Of course one always honks when passing another vehicle, especially since the other vehicle’s turn signals likely don’t work and its rear view mirrors fell off long ago.

Newly arrived drivers are often perplexed about when to use the horn, but soon discover that they should pay more attention to when NOT to honk. (The answers being: when approaching a police checkpoint or when your spouse is checking the engine oil.)

Speaking of police: Nigerian roads are decorated with three major varieties of police. There’s the orange-shirted traffic cop who stands at busy intersections and directs traffic with cheerful energy and flourish, stopping all the smaller vehicles when large trucks approach so the truck driver can proceed unimpeded through the intersection and drop a 10-niara note out the window in thanks. (All the waiting cars must remain still while the officer chases the banknote across the intersection in the wake of the truck.) These guys are relatively harmless and depend upon the kindness of passersby to supplement their meager salaries. (Which explains their cheerful and energetic demeanor.) My mornings have been brightened every day by a clutch of officers who hang out at a busy intersection on my way to work and deliver makeshift salutes and hearty, "’Mornin’, Master!!" as I pass by.

Then there’s the Men-in-Blue. Real police officers in real police uniforms carrying some very real assault rifles. These guys command respect – usually in ten and twenty niara increments. They rarely stop "baturis" (Hausa for "of Europe") and well-off looking Nigerians in private vehicles, but they seem to target local taxi and money bus drivers. Ostensibly they are looking for drug runners and tax evaders, but they set up at the same lucrative corners every day, totally ignoring other well-traveled routes, so one must conclude that they're either looking for really stupid drug runners and tax evaders or they have other motives.

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"Just checking to see if you had any spare cash lying around, sir."

Finally there’s the Federales: guys in camouflage with even more impressive firepower. They stake out major highways between towns and stop all cars and trucks in search of a whole litany of bad-ass criminals.  Highway robbery is a big problem in Nigeria, with many deaths in recent times from gangs of robbers who dress up as – you might guess – police and stop cars to relieve all the occupants of their possessions.  (Frequently they take the car, too.)  So one approaches a police checkpoint with a strange mixture of relief and dread.  Seeing an actual federal vehicle with federal license plates and burly guys with well-fitted uniforms and howitzers across their chests is, oddly, cause for elation. (The robbers usually can’t employ all the trappings of their law enforcement counter parts.)

On the other hand, the Federal Police are not at all shy about asking for a "present."  (It’s a tough job, y’know, and it gets awfully hot out here, and, gee whiz, a cigarette or kola nut would sure taste good…)  Often they will take advantage of the most recent holiday to extend their best greetings in the hope that their quarry will be overcome with generosity.  There’s nothing like hearing a powerfully rendered "Merry Christmas" from six very large and restless looking dudes with huge semi-automatic rifles on a quiet road that is miles from any village.  It brings out the best in everyone…

The police run checkpoints largely because they don’t have cars. (If one sees flashing lights in their rear-view mirror, it’s because a convoy of Peugeots with a very important "government functionary" is about to pass by.)  One may occasionally see an old Peugeot station wagon with eight beefy Federales and 600 pounds of artillery roaming the road, but even if they ditched the artillery, they wouldn’t be able to reach reasonable cruising speeds, so those with well-functioning cars just blast right past them.

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Suddenly, we have three lanes...

But for all their charm, the Federales do a fairly good job of making the roads safer for travelers and commerce. Local lore in Jos relates how last year the Federales caught a local man with several human heads in his trunk. Such things are used for juju (black magic) and generally frowned upon by most federal agencies. So the police simply took the man out of the car and shot him. The same fate befalls captured highway robbers. It’s gruesome and brutal, but one can’t find many Nigerians who sympathize with the alleged criminals.

The best thing Nigerian roads have going for them is the PTF.  The PTF, Petroleum Trust Fund, is a semi-governmental board that was set up to handle a portion of the proceeds from Nigeria’s oil exports.  The Fund itself is a monument to the inability of the federal government to keep from frittering away the money.  In a rare moment of lucidity (of which all the details I have yet to hear) it was decided that the PTF, under the leadership of a much-trusted retired general, would manage the disbursal of the oil profits that remained after the Federal government snagged the lion's share.  The PTF has garnered significant respect amongst Nigerians by tending to serious infrastructural problems first and by delivering top quality results. (In almost awed tones, Nigerian friends recount how a contractor was not paid until he fixed some problems with a road he’d just built…)  So when traveling Nigeria, one is wise to seek out PTF roads.  Many of them are on par with similar two lane roads in the U.S.   Some even go so far as to have painted lines down the middle and mile markers!

Nigeria is a gloriously beautiful country, from its steamy seaside jungles in the south to the rocky, whitewashed deserts of the north.  Its roads, like those in many developing countries, are at times very dangerous.  But they do open up a world of options for all Nigerians, and Nigerian drivers, for all their faults, make the most of what vehicles and opportunities they have at their disposal. Armed with good defensive driving skills, a great deal of flexibility, and a good sense of humor, one can manage quite well on Nigerian roads … during the day.

Only the woefully suicidal drive at night.

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OO  Our Jos Experience Home Page

OO  The Jos Project Home Page

OO   Internetworks in International Development

OO  The University of Iowa

1999 by Cliff Missen