Young man, go back to 1970




Independence Day, which we are marking with a public holiday today, is a usual day for lamentation in Nigeria. Newspaper and TV commentators monotonously say that this country stepped away from selfless political leaders, hardworking civil servants, efficient public services, decent societal values, a fast growing economy, good internal security and a respectable place among the comity of nations to a situation best described as a morass.

Youngsters in this country, who believe they are not too young to rule, seem to believe that Nigeria has gone downhill with respect to all socio-economic and ethical parameters since independence. One young fellow once sent me a text message saying, “Nigeria is worse in all respects than it was 30 years ago.” Trouble is, he was less than 30 years old so it’s not like he knew how things were 30 years ago. He complained, for example, that Nigerian roads are full of potholes, “not like before.”

Before when? In 1967, when General Yakubu Gowon divided Nigeria into 12 states, my family packed into my father’s Holden car and we left Ilorin for Jega. We departed at 7am on Saturday and, after driving non-stop all day and night, we arrived Jega at dusk the following day. Crossing the one-lane Jebba Bridge alone took five hours. There was not an inch of tarred road between Ilorin and Jega and our car got stuck in the mud several times. Villagers always came out and pushed it.

Someone recently said “Nigerian roads today are not up to standard.”  Which standard is he talking about? Up until 1974, the trip from Jega to Sokoto through Tambuwal and Shagari used to take a whole day on a very dusty untarred road. That was until the Gowon regime tarred it in 1974. Birnin Kebbi is only 32 kilometres away from Jega but in 1970, it took a lorry most of the day to cover the distance. Lorries struggled to reach each of the major landmarks, the three bridges at Ruwan Kanwa, Basaura and Langido. I was amazed to discover in later life that the Ruwan Kanwa bridge, which in those days took several hours to reach, is only three kilometres away from Jega.

Sometime in 1970, a football match was organised between our primary school in Jega and the one at Kimba. I was selected to go as a cheer leader. We set out at dawn, marched through farmlands and bush, crossed what looked like a mighty river, and got to Kimba late in the afternoon. In 1993, the Chairman of Jega Local Government took me in his car to see a project he did at Kimba, my first return there since 1970. I settled down in his car for what I imagined would be a long drive. We drove along a tarred road for a few minutes, drove across a culvert over a narrow stream, and he pulled up in front of a school and said we were at Kimba. I couldn’t believe it.

These days, Nigerians daily complain about poor GSM and internet service and they condemn the mobile phone firms for “epileptic services.” Very good. Try getting a NITEL telephone land line, as I did in Kaduna in 2000 AD. Although I first applied in January, hired several touts and went to NITEL’s Kawo office at least 50 times in the next one year, I only got a number assigned to me in April, after which I paid the full fee. Three months later, I was told that even though I had paid for the phone box and the cable, none were available in NITEL’s store and I could hurry things up by buying them in the market. This I did. The cable was finally drawn to my house in September, but there was no dialing tone. It took another two months and the intervention of a General Manager at NITEL headquarters in Abuja before I got the dialing tone. Two months later I moved to another house and NITEL said the line was could not be transferred to another area.

Before NITEL installed digital phones in some cities in the 1980s, we used analogue rotary phones and one could dial many dozen times before the call got through, if he was lucky. NITEL’s analogue exchange itself was a major improvement over P&T’s phone exchange of the 1960s and early 1970s, which operated like the old office intercom. You must first dial the P&T operator and beg him to hook you up to another line.

It was better in those days to just post a letter. In 1979, whenever my brother Ibrahim sent me a letter from Zaria, it arrived in Sokoto within two to three days. If the message was urgent, then one could send a telegram, which was more expensive because you paid per number of words sent. Even though we were generally happy with the Post Office in those days, it sometimes misfired big time. A letter was sent to my brother Abbas addressed to “Koko Secondary School, Koko,” and it went to the coastal town of Koko in Midwestern State. He finally received it six months later because one thoughtful postal clerk wrote on it with a red biro, “Try Koko in the North.”

Another “fast” telecom method then was Police radio signal, which connected police signal stations. Even that was not failsafe. In August 1979, the Etsu Nupe sent a message to the Sultan of Sokoto through Police conveying news that the Ramadan moon was sighted in Bidda. Though the police radio room got it at 8pm, the Sultan received it at noon the following day. A Ministry of Information Land Rover then went round the town telling people to “catch their mouth” because the Ramadan fast had already started. These days people think it is late if the Sultan does not make an announcement by 9pm.

The loudest complaint in Nigeria these days is that “the security situation has deteriorated.” It has, but it’s not like things were completely rosy back in colonial times. My late father once told me a story that when he entered Kaduna College in 1944, it was very difficult to go to the Friday market at Kawo. He said they first went to Unguwar Sarki and joined an ayari, an assembly of several dozen people, and moved with them to the Kawo market, protected by tough vigilantes. This was because the area presently occupied by Badarawa and General Hassan Katsina House was thickly forested in those days and robbers regularly accosted market goers. Today, a bus goes uneventfully from Unguwar Sarki to Kawo within minutes.

Nigerians bitterly complain these days about the state of public hospitals. In 1971, during the morning assembly at our primary school, many pupils had smelly open sores aggravated by bacterial infection. Some were so smelly that we had to cover our noses with handkerchiefs. Teachers assembled all of them each morning and marched them to the town’s Dispensary. It had no doctor or nurse, only a Dispenser, the very hardworking Malam Umaru Dispensa. It was this man who attended to all the patients, dressed all the sores, then sat down and listened to all the sick persons. He then dispensed either tablets or the extremely bitter quinine syrup of those days. The dosage for all the patients was the same. As he dispensed it, Malam Umaru would say, “Two in the morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening. Drink a lot of water. May Allah bring relief.”

Even the people who complained last week that “inflation rate in Nigeria is higher than it has ever been,” knew not what they were talking about.  In early 1974, when the Gowon regime paid many months’ Udoji salary arrears to all civil servants, policemen and soldiers, prices of all items shot through the roof overnight. The day Udoji was paid in Sokoto, I entered the market to buy battery for my powerful palm-size torchlight. I had been buying it for 10 kobo for two years but that day, the trader brought it out and said, “One naira.”

Even with respect to plain peace in neighbourhoods, Nigeria has come a long way. Soldiers returning from the Civil War in 1970 had no barracks. They were scattered all over communities, living in compounds with other tenants. That made for a lot of fights. It usually started at the communal water tap where a soldier’s wife quarreled with a civilian’s wife in the struggle to fill pails of water. The soldier’s wife will run home and call her soldier husband, who will arrive with a belt or a whip and severely beat up the civilian. Those fights only ended when government built military barracks all over the country.

The gangs of restive youths these days who could start a riot if the reception failed during an English Premier League match between their favourite clubs, should count themselves lucky. In the early 1970s, there were television stations in only a few cities in Nigeria. There were no video players, not to talk of CD player, satellite dishes or DSTV. Our movie shows were mostly courtesy of Nigeria Tobacco Company [NTC] Land Rovers that toured villages to do film shows, what we called majigi. The films they showed mostly glorified cigarette smoking, which is prohibited these days.

Any young Nigerian who is complaining today that Nigerian roads are too pot-holed, its communication services epileptic, its people too sick and its entertainment too boring should please enter a Time Machine and go back to 1970.

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