Riding the Benin to Lagos road is a rite of passage when traveling Africa. There are lots of similar roads across the continent, just as notorious and equally as adventurous.
The road is paved, sort of. It is pot-holed. And then there are the washed out sections where small craters require cars and buses to scale down the one side, drop in a few feet and climb back up the other side.
Why nothing is done about these hazards has only one answer: politics. The federal government says the state governments should pay for the upkeep, and the state governments say they don’t receive enough federal monies to keep the roads in good condition.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s state governors and federal politicos are known the world over and within the boundaries of Africa’s most-populated country to be some of the most corrupt officials on the planet, stealing money from their impoverished brothers and sisters, to the tune of multi-million dollar homes in Europe and America that are paid for in cash.
Back to the road. Aside from the highway’s less than desirable driving surface, there are other hazards the traveler must overcome. First up are the checkpoints that are placed every couple of miles, and sometimes within a mile. If the armed traffic policeman points at your vehicle, you had better pull over. Several will approach your car, maybe ask for you registration and identification hoping to find a discrepancy, and then extort money as payment to allow for you continue to pass down the road. This is a daily occurrence.
And then there are the robberies, car and bus-jackings. The other night we heard that a robbery occurred outside of Benin, the city where bronze sculpture reached its peak in pre-colonial Africa. The news reported it as a case of reckless driving on behalf of the luxury bus driver. The real news story was that when word got around that a bus lay on its side in the dark, a gang of thieves recognized an opportunity to prey on the weak. Forcing them to strip naked, they robbed the passengers of their money and valuables. No sympathy in a land where it seems that the motto is “everyone for his or herself, and then let’s be brothers and sisters at the end of the day, at least in spirit anyway.”
Lastly, the road doesn’t end where the robberies go down. It ends at the potholes and washed out areas. The world’s poorest people migrate to these points, points where vehicles have to slow to an African Giant Snail’s pace, sometimes coming to a stop. On the heads of the women are basins and trays of food: bananas, hard-boiled eggs, bags of water, peanuts, fried plantain, oranges. The weary traveler sweating in the still African air takes refuge in these women, saviors to the dry-mouthed, hungry, and bored.
But if you look beyond the food-wielding heads, you will find the beggars. You will see the single mother with her four children with an outstretched hand, the crippled sitting at the edge of the pothole within reach of your outstretched arm, the child with no parents wandering around not knowing from where or when his next meal will come. They all want one thing: a few crumpled Naira notes.
Like the watering holes where Africa’s great animals merge to for relief, the holes in the Benin-Lagos road are places where Africa’s money-thirsty, be they honest food sellers or dirty thieves or beggars, merge to for relief, a quick but temporary relief from the struggle of their daily lives.
(written 20 November 2005)