We all know the story. Some big shot turns up in a big city without any prior notice and their overly-officious personnel close down some of the busiest streets in the name of ‘safety’, ‘security’ or, even worse, ‘convenience’…
Traffic jams are a fact of life around the world – bad weather, car accidents and unexpected numbers of vehicles can all conspire to bring the best of us to a temporary stand-still. It happens. But in most parts of Africa – take Lagos for example, there is something else that’s guaranteed to bring traffic to a stand-still: something that is entirely avoidable, archaically elitist and endlessly infuriating. You got it – the road blocks made for the ‘untouchables’.
We all know the story. Some big shot turns up in a big city without any prior notice and their overly-officious personnel close down some of the busiest streets in the name of ‘safety’, ‘security’ or, even worse, ‘convenience’. Never mind how unsafe and inconvenient it is for everyone else in said city.
One case happened just last week, when Patience Goodluck Jonathan came to town. The (unelected) First Lady had decided to give a talk at the Ocean View Restaurant on Victoria Island, and so she demanded that the entire road system on Lagos Island be closed off to let her through. Not just for the time it took her to make a quick speech either: for a grand total of nine hours. Nine hours! By the end of it, the queues extended from the financial district on the island all the way back to mainland Lagos. And although the event had been pre-planned, she didn’t have the common courtesy to tell citizens to expect disruption!
Now, you might argue that there are more important things to be getting worked up about than traffic congestion, but closing off all the main thoroughfares in a tow of some twenty million people is more than just a trifling jam. This isn’t just about those people stuck in their static cars for hours on end – although I am sure they all had far better ways to spend that time. The fact is, this is a major safety issue, as a number of cars and motorbikes understandably tried to get around the blockades by attempting some illegal alternative routes, leading to a number of dangerous traffic incidents including a lot of road rage and even a few crashes! Then there are all those pedestrians halted in their tracks, unable even to cross from one side of Lagos to the other. We were all prisoners in our own city.
It’s not just about practical inconvenience and danger either: it’s also about economics. With companies unable to transport their goods, business-people having to cancel their meetings, and workers unable to get to their offices, actions like these cost taxpayers and the country tens of millions of naira. A month’s wages lost in nine hours – you do the math.
The biggest issue of all is the deeper representation of such displays of power. Just think about it – to make life a tiny bit easier for one dignitary (or dignitary’s wife), the lives of millions of ordinary Nigerians are made far more complicated. It’s a disgusting abuse of power and an unwelcome reminder of the way it used to work in this country: a return to the consequence-free corruption of colonialism or military dictatorship.
Ask yourself: would this happen in the USA, in the UK… in fact, in any of the long-established democracies we are supposed to look up to and emulate? I think we all know the answer to that. Of course, those countries have their problems – which countries don’t? – but as a rule, governments are there to serve the people, not to inconvenience them as they abuse their power.
Talking of abusing power, in my native Cameroon, the pithiest explanation of why we have to put up with such came from the “gendarme” at a road-block for the president when I last visited. He not only countered my eloquent truthful defence but also invented a new law about me being out at that time of day, found me guilty of breaking it, and confiscated my driving licence. When I put to him that the law he was citing did not, in fact, exist, he patted his holster and replied: “Do you have a gun? No. I have a gun, so I know the rules.”
Over to you.
Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.