There is a Yoruba proverb that states, “Jàkùnmò kìí rìn dé òsan, eniabíire kìí rìn ní orú,” which means, “thugs don’t walk outside during the day and good people don’t walk outside late in the night.” This proverb describes not only the danger of going out at night in Nigeria, but also the traditional Yoruba belief in spirits, witches, and wizards among other hazards one can encounter by going out in the dark. Even though I live in a city of five million people, it is often pitch black at night out in the city. Due to almost constant loss of power and poor infrastructure (no streetlights, etc.), candles, kerosene lanterns, and lights on motorcycles (when they are working) are the only sources of light at night. It is pretty crazy and overwhelming walking around in complete congestion-body to body and car to car, at night in Ibadan as it is very difficult to see anything. It also gets dark around 7PM every night and has since my arrival two and a half months ago. (Interesting fact-daylight savings does not exist six degrees away from the equator). The culture of not going out at night has been odd for me to adjust to, as most college students in America are just starting to make plans for their Friday and Saturday nights when 8PM rolls around.
Last night, I had first hand experience with the dangers of being out at night. Yesterday, my family and I traveled to Ile-Ife, a town about an hour and a half to the east of Ibadan for a child naming ceremony. My older host sister gave birth to a baby girl a week ago, so following Yoruba tradition, all of her fiends and extended family came to her house to help name the child (I’ll explain this tradition in a later post). The road between Ile-Ife and Ibadan is horrendous to say the least, even during the day. There are frequent pot holes/obstructions int he road the come up without any warning whatsoever. These can range from three-foot deep holes to treacherously rough patches with no asphalt lasting for 20 yards or more. Extremely thick and tall foliage grows right up to and sometimes over the road, so it is impossible to see upcoming curves and dangers in the road. Furthermore, based on my observations for the last two and a half months, the rules of driving on Nigerian roads are as follows: 1.) Be as selfish as possible. 2.) You own the road and have the right away no matter what. 3.) Beep your horn all the time. 4.) Make a lot of close calls, dangerous moves, and flirt with the possibility of having an accident as much as possible. Therefore, it is impossible to relax while on a Nigerian expressway. Treacherous bumps, jostling from sudden hard breaking, painfully loud semi horns, and back-and-forth wobbling of the car from the lack of grade in the road make the experience far from peaceful.
Come nightfall, all of these difficulties are exponentiated. Last night on the way home, the beautiful sunset over the vast jungle of palm trees and other tropical foliage suddenly gave way to an ulcer-causing experience in the back seat of my family’s Nissan Pathfinder. My older brother Ibrahim was driving and my mom was in the front seat. I was in the back with Lauren (another American student) and a family friend who is also our age. The sky became pitch black. Although the expressway is a divided highway, a steady stream of cars was coming at us the wrong way due to dangerous conditions on the other side of the road. Therefore, the expressway had become a two lane highway. The implications of this diverted traffic pattern were less than calming, as rough patches in the road leave room for only a single file line of cars once every mile or so. Furthermore, many of the vehicles in the oncoming traffic were huge oil tankers. Many cars in Nigeria don’t have working lights, so it is extremely difficult to see them. Those that do have lights (especially the semis) have extremely bright high beams that are completely blinding.
Suddenly, there was a break in the oncoming traffic and the cars in front of us cut into the left lane, most likely to avoid an obstacle. Ibrahim, my older host brother slowed down suddenly, but not too much as he expected the cars in front to quickly speed up after passing the obstacle. Instead of continuing, the car in front of us swerved off the road to the left and stopped almost completely. We were now less than 30 feet behind, so my brother quickly swerved to the right to attempt to pass. As soon as we could see to the right, we realized that three massive logs were sitting the road making it impossible to overtake the car to the right. My mom screamed and my brother slammed on the brakes. Nonetheless, it was way too close of a call and we slammed into the car in front of us going about 35mph. Thankfully, the Pathfinder we were in has a huge metal ram bar on the front that prevented the airbags from going off, and also prevented too much damage to our car. The car in front of us, however, lost its trunk as it was completely smashed into the back seat.
Now I was really freaking out, as there was only a 6 foot window to pass between the bush growing over the left side of the road and the logs in the road. A huge oil tanker was quickly gaining behind us showing no signs of slowing down, its ear-piercing horn and painfully bright high beams blinding all of us. My brother pushed forward a little further and the truck whizzed passed us missing our car by less than six inches. The car shook as the truck brushed past us. Had that oil truck been where our car was, the truck and the car in front of us would have become one of the several burnt skeleton remnants that line Nigerian expressways.
We inched forward a little more following the car we had just hit, and conveniently placed about ten feet in front of the logs were four Nigerian policeman on foot with AK-47s dressed in the typical garb of a helmet and an all black uniform. They were talking to the car in front of us and directed us off the road down a gravel path cut into the median between the bush. My brother and mom were yelling in Yoruba “Why were they in front of the obstacle, what good does that do!?” As they were directing us off the road, the seeming coincidence of the placement of the gravel path, the policeman on foot, and the logs seemed all too fishy to me. My mind flashed back to meetings with State Department security officials both in Washington and the Lagos Consulate about how Nigerian police (many times robbers dressed as police) put obstructions in the road at night to get cars to stop, then harass them for money and steal things. There was no way of knowing whether these police were real or not. They ordered my mom and brother out of the car. A fifteen minute yelling match insured where the four cops, my mom, my brother, and the husband and wife in the car we hit were all screaming and flailing arms at each other and the damaged cars. The three of us in the back seat were in the car hoping the police couldn’t see our white skin through the tinted backseat windows and that we would all make it home okay. My brother then stepped to one side of the car and called my dad. I heard him say in Yoruba, “The poise caused it wasn’t my fault! They put the logs in the road to take advantage of us!” The girl in the car yelled, “Is he crazy!?” My mom also started yelling at him. After about twenty-five minutes of arguing, the other car finally agreed to leave, as there is a general consensus to avoid police at all costs in Nigeria-especially considering it was pitch black out and we were in a fishy situation. The police let us drive away, but all parties involved had to agree not to file any report and not to let the insurance companies know. This is a way for the police to ensure they were “punishing” us for not using their services. Had we filed a report, they would have asked for a large sum of bribe money. Since both parties involved were Muslim (this provided a sense of brotherhood/sisterhood) and it was strikingly obvious that the police had put the logs in the road to cause problems, we agreed to go and settle it the next day amongst ourselves. We exchanged numbers and drove away.
For the rest of the drive home, I was freaking out as this was the closest to a near-death experience I’ve ever had in my life. Images of that oil tanker just scraping by our car, and the angry police yelling at my mom and brother with their AK-47s were burned into my retinas. After several more scares with sketchy road conditions and other erratic drivers on the way home, I made a vow to myself to avoid highways at night at all costs from now on. I also kept thinking about how unfortunate it was that my family, and more so the car we hit got completely screwed over when we fell victim to the corrupt police officers’ scheme to collect bribe money. My brother kept muttering, “Had I only been able to see his number. The officers covered up their ID numbers so we couldn’t see. Had I seen it, I would have put it in my phone and immediately reported them to the Osun state police commission.” I asked, “Why can’t you just ask for their number?” My mom and brother immediately and authoritatively answered, “Hey-ah! They would have instantly shot all of us and made it look like an accident!” I could’ believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Nigerian citizens, as they are subject to this type of harassment every day. Due to the fact that we all agreed not to get insurance companies involved, we took on the cost of the accident ourselves, in order to avoid further police harassment and excessive bribe collection. This whole experience is such an injustice but it is a good experience to highlight how distant the theory and practice of government are so distant in Nigeria. Roadways, TV’s and radios are filled with propaganda and praise for various politicians about how they will fix this and that, do this and that, and how they have accomplished this and that. When traveling on the road and having first hand experience with corrupt Nigerian police officers, however, it is not hard to see that while many of these politicians and government officials have their hearts in the right places, a large majority of this is complete bullshit as the practice is so out of line with the theory.