Saturday, June 03, 2006

What I've learned about Nigeria

I've been in Nigeria for nearly two weeks, but I've been on the road and on the run so much that I've let the readers of this blog down. It's Saturday night -- almost 11 p.m. here - and I'm now going to focus on words and not just pictures. I'm at the supposedly fancy hotel in the capital, Abuja, but we're leaving tomorrow afternoon for the city of Yola in the northeast of Nigeria (actually, it's pretty much in the east, but for political reasons, it takes the designation of north -- more on this later maybe).

Why am I here? I'm doing consulting for a non-governmental organization (NGO) that exists to promote fair elections around the world. For much of the trip I'm traveling with a brilliant and dedicated elections expert from Poland who was educated in the United Kingdom and now works out of the organization's Washington DC headquarters.

Our mission is to empower journalists from each of the 37 states of Nigeria to take an active role in next year's important presidential election. We're giving them tools and strategies for investigating the absolutely out-of-control political process here. It's sad that a nation with such wonderful people can be so unabashedly corrupt. The corruption has evolved to the point where passing money to someone for the purpose of advancing even plays out on the roadways where teams of crooks put up roadblocks, stop cars and demand a "tax" for using the highway. Even at the public beach in Lagos, someone will declare that a certain parking area is his jurisdiction and collect a tax when you park there. Pass through the public gate and there's someone else there asking for a gate passage fee. Walk on the beach and someone else wants to tax you. Take a picture of the guy riding by on a horse and he'll head back your way to collect a "you took my picture" fee. I've taken a lot of photographs of people with their permission and then noticed that, "Well, are you going to pay me something?" look on their faces. I've found a way to solve the problem (I don't believe in paying for photographs) -- I ask them if they want a copy. When they say, "Yes," I then ask them for an e-mail address. I write it down -- sometimes I take a picture of it so it remains near the photograph -- and I e-mail them a copy. So far, people like the idea.

Where folks in the western world are quick to tip someone for a kind gesture or a job well done, the Nigerians know to pay first and worry about service later -- if at all.

Nigeria is a country that really should have been at least three countries. When the powers in Europe decided to divvy up Africa -- the justification was to end the bloody wars between the tribes there -- the British got the area of western Africa where the Niger and Benue rivers converge on the south-facing Atlantic coast. One young historian I met told me that Flora Shaw, the wife of the British colonial commander, Lord Lugard, came up with the name Nigeria. She was a correspondent for the Times of London. My friend told me that she constructed the name by combining the words "Niger area" and came up with Nigeria. Sounds good to me.

From the very start, around 1900, the British had to somehow maintain control of the three distinctively different areas that were populated by people equally as distinctive. Even today, people refer to the areas as the Southwest, the Southeast and the North. Even though there are maybe 400 dialects people in Nigeria speak, they will all be linked in some sort to these three regions.

The southwest, Yorubaland, is where the de-facto capital of Lagos is located. To the north a ways is the massive city of Ibadan, probably the most populous city in all of west Africa. The southeast, Igboland, is where the rivers come together. The north, Hausaland, is the mainly Islamic part of Nigeria. It was influenced by the Muslims of North Africa -- hence you'll even see people there transporting goods on camels.

Since Nigeria's independence in 1960 it's been on a roller coaster ride of democratically elected leaders in power for short spurts -- in between the many military rulers. Today, the president is a former military man who recently tried to change the system to allow him to run for a third term. It caused quite a controversy here, but in the end, he was unsuccessful. So now everyone's gearing up for next year's election. That means that the money is already starting to flow. I'm constantly finding my self humming tunes from the musical "Evita," because so many of the same factors are at play here as were in Argentina in the '30s, '40s, '50s and beyond.

"Dice are rolling. Would-be presidents are all around. I don't say they mean harm, but they'd each give an arm to see us six feet underground."

or "We have ways of making you vote for us -- or at least for making you abstain."

The way they make people vote for a particular candidate is by outright buying the vote. The poor people have come to expect something for their promise to vote a certain way. They might get cash, they might get a new mattress or they might even get a nifty motorcycle. What they don't get are campaign slogans that promise improved infrastructure or better schools or healthcare for the poor. The elite, it seems, don't even bother voting because the elections are won in the poor areas.

So where does all of the money come from to buy all of these votes (maybe the most expensive elections in the world)? Often times wealthy power brokers they call godfathers here will finance a campaign -- of course with an expectation of the favor being returned in some manner.

While much of the population is suffering with the medical version of AIDS, the godfathers are said to have a different king of AIDS -- Additional Income Deposited in Switzerland.

When the candidate gets elected, he goes about paying off everyone who helped him -- after all, they expect it. He hands out government jobs, grants big contracts to the companies run by the godfathers and maybe even looks the other way when multinational corporations want access to Nigeria's rich natural resources -- that would be oil.

Where does the office holder get the money? He takes it out of the government coffers. It's a sound economical system, except that the money he siphons off cannot be used for those things that people really need: education, healthcare, clean water, electricity, etc.

It's most apparent to a newcomer to the area. Why is it that the 6th or 8th largest producer of oil in the world can't keep the lights on most of the country? Why should the goal of most poor people to be able to afford a gas-powered generator? What's wrong with this picture?

With that minimal background, I'll tell you a little about my journeys here.

The day I arrived in the Abuja, the capital (Lagos used to be the capital, but 15 years ago the government officials decided they had to get the heck out the place -- too much traffic, too many crooks, too many desperate people), we immediately packed up the blue Ford pickup and drove north to Gusau. The plight of the people became immediately obvious as we headed out of the fairly modern and quite clean capital. The road is a magnet for commerce -- for survival.

People with no other way of feeding themselves or their families gather on the roadways to make money any way they can. It seems that there isn't anything you can't buy along the roadway from people with makeshift, three-sided huts to vendors who artfully display their products on the edge of the asphalt to the women and girls who are constantly in transit while balancing containers of just about anything on their heads.

They'll offer fruit, drinks, bread, dental products and clothing -- all in baskets or boxes or big bottles that are balanced on their heads. Or they might be carrying fire wood they collected in the nearby brush area -- wood for the fires just about everyone needs to cook the food.

When we had car trouble, our driver, Emmanuel, knew exactly where to stop. Before we turned off the motor, five or six guys came out of the crowd of commerce to remove the fan, move the alternator and install new (at least new to that truck) belts. At the same time, two more guys noticed that the canvas cover over the bed of the truck had torn. Without tools, they were re-securing it to the metal tubes there to support it.

When the job was done, each got what was equal to about three or four dollars and was happy.

In the six-hour drive, I doubt that we drove more than a half mile without passing someone selling something No need for fast food -- if you need a bunch of bananas or some peanuts or bottle water or Coke, you just pull over.

The terrain was mostly flat -- rolling hills at time. Most of the land was being farmed, but we'd see very few tractors or other motorized equipment. The cows that weren't grazing were paired up with yokes and were pulling plows.

Oh, I didn't see a lot of dogs among all of the people by the roadside -- maybe two. Instead, there were goats and cattle everywhere. Many times we had to swerve or brake to avoid the animals that seemed to be on their own to wander where they wanted. There were a lot of chickens also. It was sad to realize there seemed to be no organized system for dealing with trash. It piled up where it wanted to. When there was enough of it, people apparently declared it as official dump site.

It seems that all developing countries are the same in some ways. Trucks spew out black or gray smoke and try to compete with the un-muffled motorcycles in decibel duals. There are few taxis -- at least the way we know them. Many people pay for rides on motorcycles -- sometimes you'll see the driver scrunched up against the handlebars, a man behind him, the man's wife behind him and the baby tied to the mother's back. The motorcycles are small -- the size of the small Hondas and Yamahas we used to play on back in the 1960s. There are brands I've never heard of -- some made in Japan, one fellow told me.

Other people -- usually men -- will hitch rides on the big trucks that traverse the terrain. It doesn't matter what they're carrying or how tall the load is, there's always room for a rider or a dozen riders. The driver picks up some extra cash and the riders get a wonderful view of the constantly honking cars that are alerting the truck driver that they're passing on the right. For some reason, the trucks seem to stay in the left lane and the cars pass on the right.

Toward the end of our journey, we had turned in a westerly direction for a while and were able to see the tropical sun's rays breaking through the gathering clouds and forming picket fences of light. We were racing the sun, you see, because we didn't want to experience the highway at night. Much too dangerous. Everybody knows that.

During the day, there were numerous times when armed police would wave us to stop for some kind of inspection. I always sort of do what people carrying automatic weapons tell me to do, but Emmanuel would just tap the horn a couple of times, wave back at the young men and speed on by. I would try to shrink down in the front seat to avoid the 7.62 mm rounds I was sure would be trying to catch up with us. But nobody ever opened fire. Later I learned that our blue truck with the canvas cover was a perfect match for the trucks the police drive. Yes, Emmanuel was pretending to be one of them, and it apparently worked.

There was one time in a fairly rural area where young thugs with big sticks tried to make us stop for an unofficial tax collection, but Emmanuel was ready for them. One was on the left and the other was on the right. The one on the right held his five-foot-long stick as if he was about to belt a fastball out of the park. Emmanuel threw him a curve instead and headed straight toward him. After a few you-wouldn't-dare moments, the batter dove for the side of the road. At that moment, Emmanuel swerved to the left just a bit. The other guy was already retreating.

We had to drive for about an hour in the dark -- all because the time it took to fix the truck -- but we made it to the city of Gusau without any more incidents. It would be my first night in a Nigeria hotel and I would learn quickly that we all take certain basics for granted, such as water that runs on demand, electricity that stays on for more than a half hour, protection from the elements (and the mosquitoes) and clean towels.

The next morning I was delighted to share my experiences and resources with about 20 of the most dedicated and brave journalists I'd ever met. They were mostly Muslims -- most all of the men dressed in colorful, traditional garb while. The women's clothes were even more colorful. Of course, like in any Islamic area, they were appropriately covered (check out the group photo I sent last week -- it's down below).

I found out that the state we were in, Zamfara, was the first state to adopt Islamic law as the official legal system there. Muslim women cannot ride in vehicles or on motorcycles with men, unless it's their husband or brother. The laws are the same ones that have been around for centuries. You may recall the woman a few years back who the Islamic courts found guilty of adultery. They sentenced her to death by stoning. Only after a lot of publicity and a lot of pressure from the outside did they finally stay the execution.

I wanted to tell you more now -- knowing that I might not get access to the Internet for the next few days -- but it's late and I need sleep. If I had more time, I'd go into great detail telling you about one of the most difficult situations the journalist face as they try to expose candidates who take and give bribes. In brief, most of the reporters do not make enough money to get to and from news conferences or interviews. So the Nigerian tradition takes over. When they're done with the news conference or interview, someone will give them a brown envelope filled with "transportation money" so they can get home. If they don't accept it, they tell me, the person they're interviewing will call them ungrateful and refuse to speak with them again. The publishers and television news directors apparently justify the low wages they pay by reminding the reporters that the people they're interviewing will pay them.

I'll be writing an article about this for the NGO's newsletter. If you're interested, I'll provide a link to the story.

On my next installment, I'll take you to Nigeria's Plateau state and the city of Jos.

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