5 May 2001
A VISIT TO NIGERIA-A SOCIAL OUTLOOK
The urge to have a re-union with my former colleagues of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was the driving force behind my decision to pay a visit to Nigeria after more than a decade. I was also curious to experience the changes that have taken place in this country especially after the departure of the dreaded president Sani Abacha.
The first thing I observed at the Mfum border post in Cross River state is that the anti-corruption campaign of the Obasanjo regime seems to be a gigantic joke. The Nigerian border officials have perfected the art of corruption and have virtually turned their duty posts into Naira mints for personal enrichment. The Nigerian cab driver transporting me from the Cameroon border post through the Nigerian border post to the town of Ikom demanded the sum of 2200 naira. When I queried why he was charging me about 12000 cfa francs for a 15 minute journey, he replied that most of the money was destined for ‘settlement’ of Nigerian border officials. I paid the money and he took my passport and only gave it to me at the end of my journey dully stamped by the Nigerian immigration. I did not have to get out of the car to be identified even if it is only to confirm that the face on the passport was mine.
My first day spent at Ikom was quite memorable as my hospitable host, the Ekpenyongs prepared pounded yam that I have missed for so long. Ikom had not changed much but for the proliferation of religious sects which is a current craze in Nigeria. The Nigerians have turned religion into one of the fastest growing businesses.
During my trip from Ikom to Abakiliki by bus and indeed during all other bus trips, we, the passengers were held hostage by volunteer preachers. The Nigerians seem to accept the fact that an unknown person with dubious theological credentials can get up in public and shout down his religious believes on others without the courtesy of demanding permission from his listeners. The most shocking thing I observed was how illegal drug peddlers were manipulating the unsuspecting public with religion in order to market their wares. In one particular instance during my trip from Abakiliki to Onitscha in an old bus containing 70 passengers, one man rose and gave a prayer before tuning a popular igbo chorus. Most of the passengers sang along with him while I looked on with indifference. The singing was followed by a sermon that this volunteer preacher craftily transformed it towards the end into an advertisement for his packets of vitamins.
Before I could know that the preaching had ended, I heard the preacher say; ‘you can live without money but you cannot live without vitamins’. This was followed by outright falsehood about the indications of the medication. As a pharmacist, I was horrified to hear this ‘preacher’ tell his audience that the vitamins will wash their brains and improve children’s academic performance. After selling about ten packets of the vitamins, he removed another drug I could not identify. He claimed this other drug could cure typhoid, malaria and all types of pains including rheumatic pains. I looked around and realised that I was the only one who seemed to be shocked with the ‘preacher’ for all his dangerous lies.
I got into Onitsha in the evening and decided to check into Bolingo Hotel-a modest facility costing 1100 naira per night. That this amount is about 11 times the amount we used to pay annually for university accommodation in the eighties tells you how far the naira has collapsed. As usual, I spent most of my two nights in Onitsha in darkness because of the chronic inefficiency of N.E.P.A-the national electricity supplier.
During my stay in Onitsha, I traced one of my classmates Madu J.C who practises in the town and he tried to brief me on the direction of the pharmacy profession in Nigeria. I emerged from the briefing convinced that pharmacist have lost control of their profession to a powerful cartel operating from such markets as Bridge head in Onitsha. We visited the market together for me to see things for myself. I saw hundreds of expensive car brands belonging to the drug merchants packed outside the market. At the entrance to the market was a clear sign reading ‘Onitsha Proprietary and Patent Medicine Dealer’s Association’. I got into the market and I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the stock of medicines both fake and genuine and the population of people involved in this business. If we assemble the stock of medicines with all legalised wholesale houses in Cameroon, it will only amount to a small fraction of the stock I saw at Bridge head.
I learnt that any government official trying to raise the issue of the illegality of this market will be made to choose between an envelope from the traders or an assassin’s bullet. Nigerian officials are always wise enough to choose the former-hence the constant growth of this market.
Onitsha has remained as boisterous as ever and is certainly maintaining the lead as one of Nigeria’s frontline commercial cities. The inhabitants’ mad rush after money coupled with indiscipline has taken a toll on the cleanliness of this town. When shopping inside Onitsha main market, you virtually have to fight your way through a sea of people. It is really hectic in there.
I returned from Nigeria after a stay of four days. The impression I got from this trip is that it will need quite some time before Nigeria becomes governable. Unchecked extremism on both sides of the religious divide is jeopardising national cohesion and further compounding the issue of governing this big nation.
Copyright ã May 2001 by Njei Moses Timah
Njei Moses Timah