Driven to Distraction: An Academic in Africa

The rage has been building.

For the last few days I have been incapable of driving here without the stupidity of it all getting to me.  This morning, for example, I was genuinely nearly killed.  Overtaking an open backed truck on a stretch of dual carriageway – not a dangerous manouevre in any way, this was between a huge diversion and a roundabout, and the traffic was relatively light so there was no reason for anyone to get too crazy – suddenly, a car coming the other way decided to pass the truck on his side by crossing the central reservation and driving directly towards me.

a car coming the other way decided to pass the truck on his side by crossing the central reservation and driving directly towards me

Now, this is not an uncommon Nigerian traffic gambit, but usually people do it when there is at least the semblance of a gap in the oncoming vehicles before they try it.  Not this guy.  He pulled out around 100 yards in front of me, both of us doing around 80 kph, and put his foot down.

I just managed to slam the brakes on and tuck myself in behind my lorry as he passed, no more than a foot from my front bumper.  Insanity.  At that moment, I didn’t really reflect on it as anything other than an outstanding display of idiocy, and had a brief sign language conversation with the guys standing in the back of the lorry to that effect.  Summed up it went – did you see that? Yes, man, you did well, this guy is crazy….

I’ve performed the odd inadvisable overtaking strategy in my lifetime

But you don’t have to think for long to realise that whilst I probably wouldn’t have actually been killed, it would have been a preposterously unnecessary and unpleasant experience.  And what on earth was the guy thinking?  I mean, really, I’ve performed the odd inadvisable overtaking strategy in my lifetime, but never effectively challenged someone to an abrupt game of chicken on a major expressway.

Two days earlier, after pulling into the loop with one exit on which I live, I parked on the side of the road to visit a small second hand book stall.  It’s ludicrously expensive, and is stocked almost entirely with Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Dan Brown and John Grisham books, but it does in an emergency, and after a particularly vexing drive home I was in the mood for a moment’s light shopping.

Unfortunately this was interrupted by two guys who came to tell me that where I had parked was “wrong”.  I didn’t go into explanations at this point. I knew it was worthless, and that I had parked in a perfectly legitimate manner that was going to cause no one any trouble. I just said I’d be one minute, then I would go back and move the car, I’m sorry sir, etc.

Twenty seconds later a profusely sweating bald old Nigerian stalked up and began bellowing in my face from about a foot away.
“Who are you to abandon your car outside our place?”
“I’m sorry, I’ll literally be two seconds…”
“No!  Why should you be allowed to do this? Who do you think you are to come to our country and park like that?”

When he said he would call the police, I told him to do it

At this point, I got a little bit angry.  I pointed out that there weren’t any “no parking” signs where I’d stopped, that he didn’t own, or represent the owners of that piece of street and that it had nothing to do with me being oyibo.  He shouted at me repeatedly during this, and I shouted back.  When he said he would call the police, I told him to do it, that he was an idiot, that he should wind his neck in, and generally enquired what the hell he thought he was doing talking to me in this way.  I then pointedly told him that I would make my purchase and return to my vehicle.  After an unnecessarily long period of browsing I selected a tome (The Scarlatti Inheritance) and gave the vendor my money.

She was petrified by this point, and to my delight didn’t have any change.  That meant she had to run a few hundred yards down the road to get some, prompting the guy to shout at me one more time.  I just pointed at the woman and then gave him a gesture, palm down, flexing my fingers between pointing at the floor and towards him, as if to say “run along”.

He did, and by the time she had returned he was long out of sight.  I was still seething though, and when I got back to my car I was tempted to either just casually lean against it and have a cigarette whilst pointedly staring at him, or to go into the hotel where he worked, find the manager and generally cause as much disturbance as I possibly could.  Fortunately, for both him and me, he was nowhere to be seen, so I just got in and drove off.

And I’m usually so mild-mannered.

the aforementioned near head-on collision actually worked to dissipate my gathering ire

The funny thing is that both that incident and the aforementioned near head-on collision actually worked to dissipate my gathering ire.  Today, the drive home was full of Nigerian nonsense of the highest order (driving against the traffic, six lanes of cars all trying to turn right into a one lane slip road and blocking up three other streams of traffic as they did so – or “impatience” as Juliet calls it), but I just proceeded with an air of genial amusement.

You might as well shout at gravity for making you fall over

It, quite literally, isn’t worth dying over, and also, getting angry with it is the ultimate exercise in futility.  You might as well shout at gravity for making you fall over.  The worst are the people who drive in an utterly insane way, but do it all in slow motion, or “the glacial creep” as I’ve come to think of it.  This consists, in its most extreme form, of pulling into a fast moving three lanes of traffic at a speed that would embarrass a snail, and/or just randomly meandering from lane to lane with no indication, purpose, or necessity.

I’ve realised, though, that at least half of these people are doing it because they’re terrified, and the other half are doing it because that’s how most of the other people drive.  And all around is a complete and utter lack of foresight which is truly remarkable.  Everything seems to be just reaction, and no one can understand why you would expect them to be doing anything differently. Although perhaps there’s another element.  When we were driving back from Afi and got stuck in traffic on the outskirts of Abuja we got embroiled in all sorts of fuckwittery that prompted a discussion as to why Nigerians drove the way they did.  Satu’s explanation was perhaps the most convincing one: optimism.

functioning anarchy bordering dangerously on the failed state

As she said, Nigeria is an utterly stupid country, it does not work on any level.  In fact, it was described today by a constitutional body as “functioning anarchy bordering dangerously on the failed state”.  That doesn’t work, grammatically, but it’s pretty descriptive.  And despite recognising all the problems, a huge number of Nigerians just generally seem to believe it is all going to be OK.  God will provide, and so forth, and everything is just a matter for laughter, from state sponsored murder via fraud so breathtaking that it is amazing that some of these politicians that have been caught swindling millions or billions of pounds haven’t been publicly lynched (rather than having streets named after them), all the way down to every single person you buy something from trying to rip you off.

In surveys that are oft quoted here, although I have to say I am cynical about the provenance, Nigeria is rated the happiest country on Earth.  I thought that was Vanuatu, or possibly somewhere in Scandinavia, but apparently not. But it has an element of verisimilitude if only in this blind optimism that is visible everywhere, and is reflected in the driving.  It is as if nothing could possibly go wrong, so driving one inch from someone’s bumper, weaving in and out of traffic, going off the road at the drop of a hat, is all done as if the results are guaranteed to be fine.  Which of course, they aren’t.  And this pattern of behaviour is repeated across every level of society and in every single second of every single day.

the imposition of some sort of Western homogeneity onto the unfortunate savages

It’s infuriating.  But it’s also difficult to argue with, because I can see why it all happens the way it does.  To a certain extent blind optimism in the face of the impossibly malfunctioning, and pure pragmatism in the face of the massively corrupt is the only option on a personal level.  But that in itself makes me angry, because I don’t believe that there’s anything here that can’t be fixed, or anything that simply entails the imposition of some sort of Western homogeneity onto the unfortunate savages, which is where this argument strays if we start to talk too much in comparative terms.

this is not a case of there being something inherent in Nigeria or the Nigerians that has caused these problems

Thomas says to me things like “Africa is a lost cause”, and whilst I can’t be bothered to have the argument with him, I viscerally disagree.  It’s an understandable, but I think inherently racist, or at least blinkered point of view.  I’ve said it time and time again, but this is not a case of there being something inherent in Nigeria or the Nigerians that has caused these problems.  Changes are possible, and are not necessarily even as difficult as people make out.  A huge part of it for me rests on harnessing the inherent cultural optimism to the right causes, and on breaking (or at least diluting) the system of status or class.

The brighter ones had the decency to look slightly uncomfortable

Basically, this last means that anyone who is above you gets treated with deference bordering on sycophancy whilst anyone below you on the ladder is there to be stamped on, insulted and possibly hit.  I asked my students if they thought that everyone was equal a few weeks ago, and they said of course (everyone always says that).  So I asked them if they would treat a waiter in the cafe here the same way they would treat Debare or me.  Of course not, they said.  The brighter ones had the decency to look slightly uncomfortable, but the explanation was that this was how things were, and that it was how you got things done.  People with greater status could make things happen for you, and how would people know you were important if you didn’t act accordingly?Prayer, by 'africa'

I hate it.  Debare speaks to waiters, for example, like they’re scum.  And this is not when someone has proffered poor service, it’s from the moment they walk up to the table.  But it’s not just the rich – Julius will do the same to people who are lower than him in the hierarchy here, and he has an inordinate amount of pride in the fact that he is a driver and not, say, a gardener or a cleaner.

So, everyone kicks downwards and everyone desperately crawls upwards.  And this is a part of the reason why the people at the top get away with such vicious corruption – for many it’s almost to be admired, and certainly not to be criticised, because how do you criticise someone who is higher up than you?

I do not think that accountability and Nigerian culture are incompatible

Of course, if you get into comparisons then, again, you run the risk of getting embroiled in an argument about cultural relativism, what we mean by “development” and so forth.  But I do not think that accountability and Nigerian culture are incompatible.  And something has to give.  The UN predicts that Nigeria will have no less than 730 million people by the year 2100.  Given the state it’s in now, can you even imagine what that would mean?

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