Democracy, Naija Style

15 April 2007

Location: Home, Benin City

Democracy Naija Style…or the “N” Factor

Today is tax day in the U.S. How smoothly that system seems to work, at least from this vantage point. I know that I have to pay taxes every year, and I have a general idea of how those taxes are used. Of course, there are certain things that I wish more of my tax dollars could be applied to: for instance, education and health care instead of increased militarization and the prison industrial complex. There are also those things my taxes pay for that I don’t think too much about in my day-to-day life in America, things that I take for granted: functioning roads, park maintenance, infrastructural upkeep of electricity and water supplies. Here in Nigeria, the only people who pay taxes are civil servants, and even in that sector, it is not consistent nor can it be tracked well by government due to disorganization, incompetence, and corruption (it is hard to enforce regular taxation when most civil servants don’t even get paid regularly).

Nigerians buy plots of land and put up houses without a thought of property tax. Driving through GRA (this acronym, a colonial hold-over meaning “Government Reserved Area,” when colonial officials segregated themselves from the African population), I often wonder at the incongruence of palatial homes lined up on unpaved pot-holed streets, littered with refuse because there is no such thing as a municipal waste management system. There is no property tax to regularly pay for these basic public needs.

The more fundamental question remains: who are the real tax-payers in Nigeria? The answer is quite simple: the multi-national oil companies. Shell, British Petroleum, Chevron, Texaco, and Agip are responsible for more than 80 percent of the national revenues. In exchange, the government supports and preserves their interests. These multinational companies can make claims on land, on military resources (for protection and for punishment, in the case of resistant communities…just think of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni situation), and on special access to government contracts. These are the real taxpayers. If we regular citizens are not responsible for government revenue, we cannot expect that this government be accountable to us. It is that simple.

Today is the day after our federal elections here in Nigeria. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much violence, and things were relatively quiet here in Benin City. In fact, the streets were mostly deserted; most people stayed home, including me. As we watched the local news, we found that many voting centers opened very late, if they opened at all. Election workers had not shown up or the voters didn’t come. Some centers did not even have ballots. There are rumors circulating that over 60,000 ballots were still sitting in South Africa, the printers of our ballots. Supposedly the federal government paid for them, but requested they stay in South Africa. I hope this is just a rumor. A very small percentage of people turned out to vote. It would be a high guess if even 15% of the eligible voting public actually voted.

Days before the election, the government mobilized the army, posting them at all the major thoroughfares in the big cities. It felt very much like the military days of past years, in the 1980s. The tension has been high for the past couple of weeks, as many people scrambled to get to their hometowns to prepare for staying indoors. Aside from possible violence there was fear of a fuel hike, as well as soaring food prices. Thankfully things have remained fairly stable.

This whole election process has been surreal. It was only in December that the President- and Vice President-elect were even announced as candidates (very late in the game), and since then most of the other opponents have fallen away like ants on Raid. The governors’ races went the same route. They are going to announce Yar’Adua as our new president and Emmanuel Uduaghan as Delta State’s new Governor. For Edo State, even though the Labor Party’s candidate, Mr. Oshiomole is more popular, the PDP (People’s Democratic Party) candidate, Mr. Osunbor, will take the seat of Governor. The PDP has this thing wrapped up in most, if not all states, and even within the PDP there is a select hierarchy. There is no viable alternative party.

This was not a free election. People are afraid. And most of the people who ran for office have been recycled from past gluttonous, authoritarian regimes. It is a tragic comedy, the images of people queuing up to cast their votes, knowing that it really doesn’t matter.


April 20th

They’ve announced our president. As we’ve all known, the ruling PDP party took most governmental seats. Only Lagos and a couple of other states voted in other candidates (voter turn-out must have been higher in these states, or at least the resistance to the ruling Party was strong enough). In Benin, the women have been protesting for the past couple of days. They stormed the streets wearing black, protesting the PDP candidate, Mr. Oshiomole. The Labor Party candidate did not win the election, even though he was the favorite here in Benin. Today, more women will come out and expose themselves. This is a longstanding practice of protest among women in this part of the country. If a woman exposes herself (her privates) in protest, especially an old woman, it is considered a strong curse. In the midst of their protest, they also condemned the former governor, Lucky Igbinedion, one of the most corrupt governors of the former regime.

Former Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, Nigeria

Former Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, Nigeria

Lucky Igbinedion became governor of Edo State in 1999 under the newly formed PDP and new elected President (and former military dictator) Olusegun Obasanjo. Under Igbinedion’s watch, Benin became notorious for its contribution to the global sex trade, especially to Europe; the city’s infrastructure further deteriorated, and Benin continued to roil in an epidemic of armed robbery and thug violence. The people of Benin view him with absolute contempt and vitriol.

People are sick and tired of the political process, but I am always amazed at how much Nigerians can stretch themselves to accommodate this abuse of power. It is so excessive, and so obvious that it is almost a farce.

Postscript: In 2008 the Economic Financial Crimes Commission of Nigeria charged him with 142 counts of fraud and embezzlement, claiming he embezzled over $24 million of government funds. He was convicted of these crimes, but he never served any time, nor has this money been restored to the public coffers.


Igbinedion’s mansion in Abuja (courtesy of, 2011


You No Dey Look Road?

1 February 2007 (Ugbowo, evening)

It is the first of the month, the beginning of my third month here, and today I began getting somewhere with the research…well, a very small start anyway. Dr. I., the Chair of the History Department at UniBen made his research assistant (Frank) available to me to see if we could track down Benin municipal documents from the 1930s in the Edo State Archives. The last time we went, a woman security guard, who appeared to have just woken up, with a child on her hip (apparently she lives in the apartment below the offices), stopped us from entering the building. Apparently, the archive staff was not on duty, even though it was a weekday. She was unsure when the staff would be around: either eleven a.m. or one p.m. A two hour chunk of time is a big margin to work with when the heat is intense and there is nothing to do while you wait, so we had to come back another day.

There was also a big funeral procession taking place on the New Lagos Road that day. The owner of one of the major Benin-Lagos transport lines—Edegbe Line—had recently passed away. The roads would be impassable after noon. Frank and I had to get back to campus. We later found out that our President arbitrarily declared Monday a public holiday in order to encourage voter registration, which meant that we would also be on holiday on Tuesday. Whenever the Federal Government declares a holiday, the State Government follows up with one of its own. So, we could not return until Wednesday of the following week…four days of no work. I set my mind on what I could occupy myself with in the meantime. I always have the documents I collected in England to get through.

We returned to the Edo State Archives today. Again, the director was not around, and the sole staff member was unsure of when he would be in the office (this is a government office, mind you). She suggested I write him a note stating my purpose and giving some details of what I was looking for. I did. It was all we could do. I will return in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I must get started at the National Archives in Ibadan. I still have to find a place to stay there. I’m getting nervous. I’ve been here for a solid two months, my money is getting thin, and I have nothing to show for it all.

On our way back to Ugbowo, I had to negotiate a tricky 5-way intersection. There are no traffic lights in this corner of the country. If you are lucky, a traffic warden is available at some point during the day. So, one has to dance with the other motorists when confronted with intersections. I followed suit with my fellow drivers in this situation, slowly inching my way into the intersection until the competing traffic became overwhelmed with our presence to finally allow us to pass. As I was doing so, I didn’t realize the madman behind me—a Túke Túke bus driver—had become impatient, and decided to jump out of the queue to cut me off in the intersection. He must have miscalculated because I was still inching forward when he turned sharply into my front fender. I heard some cracking, and Frank was as stunned as I was. We had to detach ourselves from his vehicle. And, instead of getting a barrage of cuss-words from the madman, he just sat staring at us. He must have known he was wrong, or he must have been calculating how he was going to get out of it…or both. I pulled up ahead and got out of the car. The Túke Túke driver parked his vehicle, packed with passengers, quite far ahead; I would have had to run to catch up to him. By the time I looked up from the damage to my car, he had already taken a quick look at his bus, hopped back into his vehicle and sped off…passengers in tow. I could see the expression on the passengers’ faces as they watched me recede behind them. Some were smirking; others were gawking in surprised entertainment. Two Okada motorists shouted out different things; the one I heard: “Oyibo, you no dey look road?” In my shock, I just watched the rickety bus get smaller and smaller down the road. In my mind, I cursed all of them: God would find them tonight (not tomorrow or the next day) and deal with them…TONIGHT!

A typical Tuke Tuke bus on a not-so congested road...

A typical Tuke Tuke bus on a not-so congested road…

I didn’t expect the man to offer to pay for the damage; after all, he makes a daily pittance. However, I did expect him to at least face what he had done and apologize. He was in the wrong, and there was no two-ways about it. The markings on my car prove it. I was informed later that I should not have taken the time to look at the damage before running up to him and holding him. People around would have been in support at that point, but since I didn’t do anything, no one was willing to stop and back me up. After all, I was entertainment at that point…an Oyibo assumed not to know her way around or through this place…and a woman moreover (women are always assumed to be bad drivers from the start).

Over the course of the afternoon, my heart became bitter. In this environment, it is the person that shows more strength or imposes more violence who is honored in this environment. It doesn’t matter whether that person is wrong in their action; they just have more power. If you are in any way new in this environment, people will take advantage of you to such an extent that you get to understand through the suffering of it. There is no accommodation; you must learn by force…sink or swim, Oyibo or not.

Thankfully, there is a “panel-beater” next to our compound. Within an hour of coming home, he reset the fender and smoothed it over well. He removed most of the paint from the Túke Túke, and only a couple of scratches remain. He did a wonderful job, and because he felt sorry for me, did it for a very small price. I was so grateful. My heart was soothed a bit. And Efe was kind. He said these types of run-ins are common, and it could have happened just as readily to him as to me. I continue to learn.

A Low Point

Peaceful morning jog, on UniBen campus

Peaceful morning jog, on UniBen campus

8 January 2007 (My flat in Ugbowo, 4:30 a.m.)

Well, the Lawyer finally came with his cleaning men to empty the suck-away pit. The stench wasn’t as bad as I had imagined; the sounds were much worse. The men, not deaf or mute, appeared able-bodied and sound of mind (contrary to how Efe and the others described them). They came with nothing more than their clothes (clean and whole; not dirty and tattered as I had imagined), their tools, and some buckets. No protective gear whatsoever. I greeted them, grateful that they had finally come to usher out the cockroaches.

The Lawyer, upon meeting me, finally put two and two together; it was clear in his expression when he met me. He now understood why Efe had bought the generator, why the water tank was repaired so quickly, why the suck-away needed to be emptied. If this is what whiteness buys me, then so be it. I am at once annoyed and embarrassed: annoyed that they won’t take anyone seriously without some form of inducement or sign of status – wealth, or whiteness in this case; embarrassed that I am actually participating in it to accomplish things.

I am not sure whether I am depressed or bored. Even though the cockroaches are gone, I still listen for them. I no longer sleep through the night and often wake up before 5:00 a.m. NEPA has seized light consistently for the past four nights. And, except for a couple (and I mean two) hours yesterday afternoon, we have been without electricity. The food in the refrigerator is going bad. My tummy is showing signs that it too is going bad. I try to stay cool despite the fact that my hair is matted with sweat and my body molds a damp impression in my foam mattress.

I haven’t left the house in two days, except for a half hour to go down the road to send a quick e-mail. It is not that I do not want to go out…well, that’s only partially true. I am getting tired of being a spectacle every time I step out the door. I need a break. Efe had to run to Warri without me yesterday. Because of the fuel scarcity and the attendant cost of travel, it didn’t make sense for me to go. Plus, I figure he needs a break from me…or I need a break from him. So, he instructed me to stay indoors, not to even venture out for a walk. I am not allowed to go anywhere unescorted. This was rule number one upon entry, when I met up with my cousins. My uncle backed it up, and if my father were here, I am sure he would also support this. Beyond my hypervisibility, I am an unmarried woman. I know that my unmarried female cousins travel about unaccompanied, so we are left with my hypervisibility and my lack of experience in this environment. Fair enough.

I went into the History Department on Thursday to check on progress with my affiliation status. I have to come back next Wednesday. It’s been about a month since the beginning of this process. Without the letter of introduction from UniBen, I will likely not be allowed access to local archives. Local affiliation helps. So I wait, frustrated, trying to think round this problem. On Monday, I will make some phone calls and persuade Efe to take me to the Edo State Library. We passed it on our way back from Warri, and I was surprised to see it. I might be able to find the Old Benin documents. A thought occurs to me: I need to start mobilizing my own personal networks to get things done. Patronage…it is the only way to maneuver bureaucracy here. On Tuesday, I will see the Vice Chancellor armed with a letter from Uncle Newman. He and my parents know the Vice Chancellor personally. I will also try to get an appointment with another Dr. Osaghae, who is the Vice Chancellor of Igbinedion’s University in nearby Okada. If I can establish a rapport with him, paths could open in being able to get access to palace records and perhaps the Oba himself. Yes, I have a plan to get things moving.

As for today, I am lethargic. I have now just finished my third novel since my arrival. I alternate between reading fiction and working through documents I gathered in England (tedious business). I am also journaling heavily. When Efe returned from Warri yesterday, I was irritable. I felt guilty for even letting my frustration get to me; folks here endure no water, no light, cockroaches and rats, not being able to go to school much less have the time and space to think…all their lives. Who the hell am I to complain?

Nothing is taken for granted here. You are forced to think about the most basic things and what it means to be without them. In the case of light: I wake up each day and calculate when I need to have my washing, cooking, cleaning, and bath done in case NEPA strikes. When there is no electricity, there is no water; we cannot run the pump. This means Hyble has to make several trips up and down the stairs to fetch water from the well. When there is no electricity, my time for working is limited to how far my computer battery can take me; and the server at the neighborhood internet café may also be down, or so slow that it isn’t worth the couple hundred naira you pay for the hour. The implications are serious, when on a mass scale a whole society’s productive potential is so constrained by such an extreme lack of steady or even predictable electricity supply. In some countries, they at least schedule when they will give and take light; here, such a thing would be a massive improvement.

Who am I to complain? I’ve only been here for just over a month. Efe has lived with this reality for all twenty-nine years of his life. I am extremely privileged to have the choice come here or leave.

DMW 3: Ugbowo

Chicago Hostel, Ugbowo

Chicago Hostel, Ugbowo

16 December 2006 (2 p.m., my flat in Ugbowo)

It’s the middle of the day and it must be well over 90 degrees outside (something like 33 degrees Celsius). I’ve fallen into a kind of rhythm here, in just two weeks, and it feels like I’ve been here for longer. I wake up between 5 and 6 a.m., and have stopped being surprised that most of the people in my compound, including Efe, are also waking up. The roosters begin their crowing well before this time—each having its own distinctive call, which ends up being a kind of chorus. You can only hear this when there is no electricity (a regular occurrence), and all is still and quiet. The Harmattan air is cool and opaque. It’s hard to tell if it is fog or a mixture of smoke, dust, and fumes from the previous day. It can’t be fog, since we haven’t had a drop of rain since I arrived, and we are not expected to for a long while. It is Harmattan – the dry season.

Things really get moving by 7 a.m. By then, you can start to hear car engines revving up in the neighborhood, and people moving about: gates opening and closing, compounds being swept, and various cooking smells emanating from old cooking pots outside on propane burners. We are always in a bit of a rush to take good advantage of the coolness before the real day’s sun rises over us. It is a punishing sun. I find that most of our running about happens before noon, wrapping up most serious movement around town by 2 p.m. in the afternoon. By then the sun is very high and the heat starts to seep into your core. You grow a bit lethargic, with the added weight of sweat mixed with exhaust fumes and dust settling on your skin. It is normal.

My small flat – a studio apartment in a hostel known as Chicago – is equipped with an air conditioner and a big ceiling fan. The curtains are light blue, transforming the wicked light of the day into a tranquil softness. These all create an oasis effect when I come home mid-day. Thankfully, when there is no electricity, a petrol-fueled generator powers the AC and refrigerator. It’s a very loud machine, sounding very much like an industrial lawnmower. I feel guilty for having it. No one else in the compound has one, and when the lights go out, they have to suffer in the heat. The generator emits a profuse amount of fumes and the noise is so loud that at night I insist on keeping it off, despite Efe’s protestations that it is normal. He also tells me not to worry about the others not having one. If they could afford to have one, they wouldn’t be so shy to use it. Efe thought about hooking up our entire floor to the generator (it’s capable of carrying a full house), although he knows from experience that they would not only refuse to contribute to its upkeep and refueling but would also abuse their use of it, attaching any and all appliances they own, forcing it to overload.

My studio apartment in Chicago Hostel

My studio apartment in Chicago Hostel

The compound is a motley collective: an old man who lives alone stays on one end, a few young men and women (some are coupled) who live and work in Benin, and the rest are students who go to school here at the University of Benin (UniBen). Efe has introduced me to some. There are two hefty girls who are my neighbors, but they are not around at the moment, since most students are away for the holidays. We have a cousin, whose name is Sarah. We share a grandfather; her grandmother was one of my grandfather’s several wives. She lives on the corner downstairs. There is a shady character named Jeff, who does his best to present himself as a worldly man of all things American (I often get greetings of “what’s up” or “what’s shaking” when I pass by). There is The Speaker, a zany character with a lazy eye and an abnormally big head. His real name is Emeka, but they call him The Speaker around here because he’s got crazy notions about all sorts of things, constantly having something clever (in his mind, anyway) to say. He’s not aware of the nickname. There are a couple of Hausa men who guard the compound gate at night and who live in the row of ground-level rooms near the compound gate with their wives and children. Every morning at around 6:30am, one of them sweeps the entire compound while I jump rope in the corner. Efe reminds me how to greet in Hausa, but I keep forgetting, so I just say, “good morning.” Then we have Amos, who lives below me. Amos loves his music, and he’s got a real sound system. He’s our entertainer. Whenever there is electricity, he treats us to all sorts of sounds, from Igbo gospel music to Nigerian Hip-Hop, American Ballads, and South African Reggae. However, if there is a song he’s in love with at a given moment, he will repeat it seemingly without end.

Compound in Chicago hostel, Ugbowo.

Compound in Chicago hostel, Ugbowo.

Hyble, a very sweet young man with very fine features (almost feminine), is well-known in the compound. Apparently, he runs most of the errands that need to be run around here. From morning until night, one can hear (not “Hyble,” where you pronounce the “Hy-” as “Hey-,” but…) AaayboAaaaayBOooo… in all sorts of high and low pitches. I had even started to wonder if his name was really Abel, if I was mispronouncing it. He insisted that it was Hyble. I wonder why he doesn’t correct the rest of them. If there were a parrot in the compound it would be well acquainted with this sweet-faced boy, offering him a symphony with multiple arrangements. Hyble fetches water, sweeps out rooms, runs to buy bread, eggs, or tea at the junction, and washes clothes. The funny thing is that none of them pay; none, except Efe and I. What’s worse is the way they call on him and abuse him daily when he doesn’t come as quickly as they want or doesn’t do things the way they like. I don’t know why he does all this for them, and for no pay. According to Efe, he will withdraw his services from the non-paying folk in the New Year.

As for me, Hyble washes my clothes (minus my personals), fetches water when there is no electricity, and runs to the junction for things like eggs, bread, tea. It feels really strange to have someone take care of these things, but it is also unthinkable to folks around here that I do these things for myself. Most of it has to do with status—my skin color, my Americanness, and my income. If I can afford to employ someone to do it (it costs me about $5.00 a week), then I am obligated to enlist these services. Efe also pointed out that none of the girls on my floor fetch their own water; if they don’t why should he let his “white” cousin fetch for herself? To really consider the reality, it takes so much effort to do these basic things—due to lack of running water or electricity or the lack of convenience stores – I wouldn’t have enough time in the day to do these things as well as collect data and do research.

Privilege. I’m very well aware of it.