Tales and travails of travel

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I LEFT Abuja last Friday morning to celebrate the Easter holiday in Ilorin. I had not been back home since the first week of January, because I have been sucked into the exacting job of trying to be a media entrepreneur, in the past five months. I have been travelling in many directions, but going to Ilorin was not part of the package.

Trust me, when I say that I carry the gene of travel; afterall, my forebears were nomads and I often wonder just how miserable life would be without the excitement of travel. I get a particular adrenalin surge at the thought of travel and most people who know me, can testify to the fact that I get most of my happiness from travelling.

It is a clear case of life imitating the gene. My people, the FulBe, have traversed most of West Africa in search of pasture for cattle and over the past five hundred years, have also been the harbingers of literacy and learning in the old empires of West Africa.

Up to the age of 21, I had travelled more by rail than any other means of transport. I grew up at a time when the trains still functioned and were very much part of the social make-up of our society. And so important were the trains, especially in a major railway town, as Jebba was up to the early 1990s, that as a young boy, in my early teens, I had the hope that I would like to be a train driver.One of the heroes of that phase of my life was an old man who mentored many children of my generation; the late S.B. John, who was one of the best railways drivers in Nigeria during his days. He was as elegant as he was committed to his duty.

He was Igbo but was such a central figure in helping us to make a sense of our lives. There were trips in lorries, buses and mammy wagons. They were some of the most colourful elements of travel when I was growing up. There were young men, apprenticed to the drivers, who would enter the vehicles only when they had started moving.

They were macho; would slap the chassis of the vehicle, run after the lorry for a couple of meters and mount with a sense of disdain for the obvious danger of their act and their daily existence on the margins of life. They were a cross between being working people and lumpens.

Some of those lorries had“Second Class” compartments that were often cramped and not particularly comfortable and many also had monkeys tied to them. In fact, there seemed to be more lorries with those monkeys! And how did  lorries with monkeys and “Second Class” compartments and their “boys” eventually disappear from our roads? Amazing stuff!

In 1981, I did the “Limited” Lagos to Kano train to attend the NLC Convention. It was one of the most controversial Conventions of the NLC. The NPN administration of President Shehu Shagari backed the Nigerian Civil Service Union’s rightwing leader, David Ojeli, against the incumbent President, Hassan Sunmonu. By taking the Convention to Kano, which was administered by the radical PRP administration, headed by the late Abubakar Rimi, the radical tendency within the Nigerian labour movement won a tactical victory, which became a rout for the rightwing and David Ojeli.

The Nigerian railways were then been administered by RITES of India.We moved out of the Iddo Terminus in Lagos on time; hot meals were served on the trains and as we moved through the various geographical zones of our country, the train announcer taught basic lessons about the nation’s geography.

But that seemed like another country. Because in 1995, as a reporter for the BBC, I did the Nigerian leg of the AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE series to commemorate 100 years of the railways in Africa. The series was titled “TALES FROM THE TRACKS”. The Kano to Lagos flight took me five nights and six days to complete, as the train broke down in Minna, Offa, Ibadan, Oloke Meji and Abeokuta

. It was an unforgettable experience and I have not entered a train in Nigeria ever since! I have not been cured of my love for the railways and I keep advocating for a modern, national railways system for Nigeria. There is no alternative to a modern railways system!

My trip last Friday between Abuja and Ilorin took us nearly 12½ hours to complete as the road was clogged up with traffic from Gwagwalada to Koton Karfe in Kogi state. Commuters formed many lanes on what is normally a two-lane road and it just went completely anarchic.

We diverted from the main highway, through the bush and rustic villages where young people in some of the villages barricaded what passed for roads and insisted we paid them before we could move through villages with very few trappings of modernity or the presence of the state!

We were tired; angry; dejected; were cursing and gritting our teeth and feared a holiday on the gridlocked highway. Then something happened. Soldiers appeared from, I don’t know where, including special Nigerian troops with black t-shirts that carried a message: “THE HARD WAY, THE ONLY WAY”.

They knocked order into the chaos of our day, forcing the multiple lanes to revert to two, with one facing the Lokoja direction and the other, Abuja. That intervention took us out of the hole; it was very slow but at least it moved, with some amount of order. We eventually arrived badly shaken, drained and exhausted!

I have always wondered just how much the chaos of festive-period road gridlocks in Nigeria deeply reflect the Nigerian condition. We know the buildup would happen, but somehow, never seem able to prepare adequately for them. It is the same inability to plan practically any aspect of our nation life, which expose how much the capacity of the Nigerian state has atrophy!

There are islands of competence often sticking out like sore thumbs, but the truth of modernity, is that we must be able to do things in ways that incrementally lessen the burdens of  the Nigerian citizen. I love to travel through our very beautiful country and I have been privileged to see practically every part of Nigeria. It is the knowledge I have of our country’s incredible diversity and beauty which makes me love it so intensely.

But when we cannot travel in relative peace; when we might become collateral victim of sundry crimes; of a dissembling state system; when we are not sure of the security of our persons, loved ones and property, it becomes very difficult to know the country. It is not likely that most people can love what they do not know so much. Tafiya MabudinIlimi (Travel is key to knowledge), as the Hausa say. Travel is full of travails in Nigeria, but they never stop us telling tales.

 Adams Oshiomhole: 60 garlands for the workers’ leader

TODAY, Thursday, marks Adams Oshiomhole’s 60th birthday. Adams is the quintessential humble individual who defied the challenging background he emerged from, to burn an imprimatur on the country of his birth. Adams did not follow the beating path of children of the ruling class and the rich. On the contrary, his life reflected that of the mass of the Nigerian people: peasant and proletarian in the main.

Adams Oshiomhole went to work for the trade union and working class movement and it was testimony to his character and the circumstances within which he was cultured, that he rose steadily, to become the number one Nigerian worker, as President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).

Adams Oshiomhle led the Nigerian working people in titanic battles against the neo-liberal policies of the Obasanjo administration skewed against the working class and the poor. It was from his leadership of the Nigerian people that a new aperture opened in the field of politics. Adams entered politics with a determination to make a difference from the type of politics which has largely been responsible for the underdevelopment of Nigeria. He joined the Action Congress of Nigeria and was elected as governor of Edo state.

Oshiomhole, in the first fours years in power, provided a very liberating ambience in Edo state to the appreciation of the people; he won a landslide re-election! In being re-elected, he de-mystified one of the fossils of Nigerian politics, the colonial-era policeman, Tony Anenih!

In Adams, Nigeria found the new type of politician that can make a difference: the activist turned politician, who never forgot that he came from the people and is of the people! Accept my best wishes, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole on your 60th birthday anniversary today!

Jamilah Tangaza: An elevation deserved

LAST week, I received a message that JamilahTangaza, the Senior Special Assistant on Information Management Systems to the Minister of the FCT, has been elevated as Director of the Abuja Geographical Information System (AGIS). I was not surprised at the elevation. Jamilah joined the FCT after working at the BBC World service for twenty years.

She threw herself into the different ambience at the FCT, and learnt very fast that the Nigerian situation is a completely different kettle of fish. I have worked with her to assist the media work she leads together with a couple of other colleagues and so can vouchsafe for her incredible levels of commitment to duty.

She has brought her experience to help improve the challenging work of information management of the FCT  minister. It is a pressure cooker existence, and a minister of the FCT is one of the most high profile jobs in our country. It is Bala Muhammed’s information system that Jamilah has devoted time to manage and it is her devotion which earned the elevation.

I have been friend with JamilahTangaza for over twenty years. She graduated top of her class at the BayeroUniversity, Kano and was then employed as a lecturer in the university before she joined the BBC, where she rose to head the Hausa Service, as well as making a mark in other departments and working on NETWORK AFRICA; FOCUS ON AFRICA and others. She has studied at OxfordUniversity and HarvardUniversity. It is quite good to see a very remarkable  lady, like JamilahTangaza, rise high to serve Nigeria, even better!

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