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From go-slow to standstill: Our daily traffic ordeal

Traffic gridlock. Photo Guardian Nigeria

You are permitted to read this with a smirk on your face.

The UN Information Centre, Ikoyi, offered me a good job in 1974. The centre was headed by a fine Cameroonian gentleman called Pen Malafa.

I had just proudly emerged from the crucibles as one of the pioneers in the National Youth Service Corps.

A good job was the next logical step towards my putative middle class status. It was welcome.

But I did not take up the job. Instead, I took up a job with a lesser pay as chief sub-editor with The Nigeria Standard, Jos.

Blame the Lagos go-slow, the ruiner-in-chief of businesses and personal ambitions. I ran away to escape the Lagos go-slow.

I thought it was the smart thing to do. I had been subjected to the wrenching ordeal for three years as an undergraduate at the University of Lagos.

Go-slow then was nothing compared to what we have now. I knew I could not take it any more.

Our country had just made the grade as an oil-rich nation. It showed in the insane vehicular traffic.

Cars flooded and clogged the arteries of the narrow streets of the then Federal Capital Territory.

Only the Carter Bridge connected the mainland with central Lagos and thence Ikoyi and Victoria islands.

It is impossible now to imagine that we spent hours on the single lane bridge to and from the islands.

I had relations who lived in Yaba and Ajegunle whose places of work were in Ikoyi and Victoria Island. They left home before the cockcrow at dawn.

On a bad day, they got to their offices in the early noon. They returned late at night when their families were asleep.

It was said in those days that children saw their fathers only at weekends and often mistook them for visitors.

I knew I could not survive the daily struggle in molue buses to and from work.

I bolted; or depending on how you look at such things, I chickened out.

I was willing to sacrifice the big pay for the relative comfort of living in Jos, a clean and compact city then that had never experienced go-slow.

The army, led by Col Paul Tarfa, had to be drafted to the roads to force the unruly Lagos drivers to have a modicum of respect for other road users.

It was said that the colonel used koboko to whip them into line. He has since told me that he did not.

But life has its quirks and surprises. Ten years after I turned down the UN job to escape go-slow, I was drawn back to Lagos.

I joined my friends, Yakubu Mohammed, Ray Ekpu and the late Dele Giwa, to found Newswatch Communications Limited to publish Africa’s first international newsmagazine, Newswatch in 1984.

I am sure go-slow chuckled at my return. It had won. That was 34 years ago. I still met the daily grind of the go-slow.

I lived in Ikeja not too far from my office. I could take it because I no longer had to jump from one molue to another in the sweltering heat.

We did not experience the relief we thought we would after President Babangida formally relocated the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1992. The population seemed blissfully undisturbed.

Some 22 years ago, I relocated to Amuwo-Odofin local government area of the city. Bad roads and bad driving have always exacerbated the traffic problem in Lagos.

This had become progressively worse in the city that forces you to live with your heart in your mouth.

Then came Ahmed Bola Tinubu, governor of Lagos State, 1999-2007. He introduced radical changes to the architecture of the Lagos traffic.

He dualised nearly all the roads in the city. This reined in the madness of the drivers.

Convinced that only people with a mental case would drive against the traffic, he ordered LASTMA to arrest all such offenders and take them for psychiatric examination.

N50,000 fine paid on the spot saved many big men and women the shame of having their sanity tested. But it worked until a minister ordered them off federal roads in the city.

I still face the daily horrors of the go-slow. This has become particularly excruciating in the last three or four years. Six months ago, matters took a turn for the worse.

Suddenly, hundreds of tankers, trailers and containers took over all the roads in the Amuwo-Odofin area.

And turned the manageable go-slow into a traffic standstill. It began with the Oshodi-Apapa road.

It has now spread to every road in the area and extended to Orile, Eko Bridge and Western Avenue.

Five or six days a week, we contend with these behemoths whose drivers have no respect for other road users. We are at their mercy.

They take over the entire roads. Sometimes when things get so bad, the army and the navy are drafted to the roads to restrict the drivers to one lane while the rest of us make the best use of one narrow lane.

We crawl through the narrow spaces left for us to and from work. It is a horrible experience, better experienced than imagined.

It is quite normal for me and my fellow sufferers to spend four or five hours holed up in the traffic.

How, I wonder daily, did these people become a law unto themselves? Why does no one seem interested in solving this problem?

It is easy to imagine what harm this standstill does to our productivity and consequently, the national economy.

If you spend the better part of your morning in the traffic on your way to the office, the result is that by the time you get there, your nerves are frazzled and you are mentally unsettled and grumpy.

Think of the thousands of people who suffer this 7/7 or 6/7 to and from work and the toll it takes on their health – rising blood pressure, the aches and pains and the sheer anger of their feeling abandoned by their governments to the mercy of tanker, container and trailer drivers.

Think of what effect this has on the state economy and the national economy. Think of the thousands of man-hours lost 7/7 to this gridlock on our roads.

Does anyone pretend this is not happening? Does anyone think this is the poor luck of the poor?

I cannot think of a nation that would allow its citizens to be subjected to this sort of punishment on a daily basis.

I do not believe the government, federal or state, is helpless about this. We have four ports in this country – Lagos, Port Harcourt, Warri and Calabar.

Was the purpose of this investment not to diversify the business of importing and exporting?

Why let them converge in Lagos to the extent they do now and turn themselves into a major problem in our business development environment?

I know there are things we do not always understand about our country but I tell you this one passes all understanding.

A friend of mine once visited me and was so shocked at what those of us who live in Ojo, Festac, Amuwo-Odofin and other areas suffer that he was driven to ask the only question that made sense to him.

“Do we have a government in this country.”I said, “We don’t have a government in this country.

We have governments. 811 of them actually: one federal government, 36 state governments, and 774 local governments. Probably the largest in the world.”

I do not know which of these 811 governments can save us. But I am reminded of the wisdom that too many cooks spoil the broth.

Perhaps, too many governments too lead to the cynical neglect of the governed. Chew on the irony.

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