The state of public transportation in Nigeria

Reporting from Nigeria – Emeka Nweze

Most of my readers are no doubt aware of the airplane that crashed into Nigeria’s most densely populated city on June 4, effectively killing all one hundred and fifty three passengers on board. What most of my readers are most likely unfamiliar with is the fact that the ill-fated airplane was over twenty years old.

This catastrophe, unfortunate as it is, remains a mere a symptom of a graver illness. The diagnosis in brief is this: ALL (as in not some) modes of transportation in Nigeria are in a state of horrendous disrepair. I can provide easy to substantiate statistics concerning Nigerian-based airlines and fatality rates, or I can proceed with my signature technique of providing you, my reader with an “on the ground’ perspective. I’ll opt for the latter.

The transportation system of a country populated over one hundred and sixty million people is expectedly large and convoluted. So let’s keep things simple and examine three modes I’ve actually used: the okada, the keke napep and the bus.

If you ever find yourself in a city in Nigeria and fancy the okada (commercial motorcycle) as an expedient solution to arriving at this or that location on time due to its ability to weave through dense traffic…don’t. There are no words to describe the strange “cargoes” I have seen this tiny machine carry from one point on this planet to another. I loathe taking the lord’s name in vain, but even HE must have done a double take at the sight of some “fares”. I’ve seen goats, half a cow, a gate (yes the gate of a house), building equipment, two passengers, three passengers, three passengers and a sack of garri…but it is not just the cargo that makes one pause for thought (by thought, I mean standing with my jaw grazing the ground). In times of desperation and despite my better instincts, I have gotten on one of these contraptions. The driver must have been very new at his job because we crashed into three pedestrians, a car and after grazing my shoulder against a passing car, the machine finally spun at a funny angle and flipped us off. We were still quite far from my destination, but I paid the driver handsomely, thanked him for not killing me and limped (my big toe was…never mind) all the way.

The keke napep (commercial trycicle, or motor rickshaw)is considerably safer than the okada. It is supposed to seat three passengers. But the good lord gets carried away sometimes and some people end up with more “people” than is necessary. This one passenger took up space meant for three. I summed up the situation in nanoseconds and the thought of pain led me to convey two words to the driver: hell no. But there was an impending rainstorm and the perishables in my backpack drove me towards becoming a sardine if only for a few minutes. It is strange how those few minutes felt like hours though. Pain usually works that way. Pleasure on the other hand always seems ephemeral. Despite being incredibly slow, unhygienic and unreliable, this mode of getting around DOES get you to your destination in one piece (don’t think about the toe) so I guess that’s something.

The bus is probably the safest mode of transport in Nigeria. To be sure, it is slow, tends to break down, never on time, unhygienic and so on. What it has going for it is that when it flips over and explodes, roasting its passengers like suya at some beer parlor, it does so very quickly. I for my part love the bus for one reason: it is a microcosm of Nigeria. The passengers ask for change without actually giving the conductor any money, nobody really seems to know or care what the driver is doing and when the bus passes close to a road safety unit, the driver and passenger in the front seat pretend to wear their seatbelts, only to let go and resume not pretending to be safe after passing the road safety check point. There is always someone on the bus peddling the last thing anybody ever needs (no sir. I don’t need a spare clock for my house) and arguments about the most unimportant things gain credence with uncanny swiftness. Yes, it is VERY interesting how vultures are circling this part of town today. No! It is ok! I don’t mind your leaning closer to yell more important facts about vultures in my ear as we careen over potholes. I can’t think of a decent way to end this entry because my missing…body part is hurting again. So I’ll end it by saying I’ll end it here. “I’ll end it here”.

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