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September 2, 2014
African Voice
Famished Roads
by Imo Eshiet

There are eerily disturbing paradoxes in Wole Soyinka’s poem, “Death at Dawn.” In the poignantly bewildering poem, order is beset by chaos, joy by grim apprehensions, and the vitalities of life by the wrenching exhaustion of death.

The poem resonates with the appalling and curious impossibilities riddling its social referent. Its landscape is endowed with enormous potentials, “sunrise” and “Markets,” yet it is crushingly “burdened” by “closed contortion” and “Sudden…death.”

Though set at dawn, yet in place of the freshness and hope common to that time of day, we find stalking inertia, futility and “wraith,” all of which suggest a jarring absence of life.

Although Nigeria is a nation of journey-loving people, yet travelers in the poem are crushed by anxiety, pain, and fear: “Perverse impalement” and the “Wrathful wings of man’s Progression.” The road is perverse because it falls short of even the modest expectation of citizens.

The poem thus takes down many gnawing ironies in its startling environment. Through the miserable condition of road, the poem hints at the lethal misrule that has bedeviled the country from independence. Apparently the poet suggests that if leaders had the sense to use the gory state of roads in the nation as mirror, they would be shocked at the extreme human and economic cost of road mishap to the nation.

The frightening risks of traveling on these monster roads persuades a careworn mother in the poem to caution:

May you never walk
When the road waits, famished.

Soyinka’s play, “The Road,” again engages the monstrous carnage on Nigerian roads. As in the poem, the road is strange. It is like a killer spider lying in wait to spring a surprise at its unfortunate traveler- victim. Its bloodthirstiness thus becomes a conceit.

Like the nation’s anemic, dummy institutions, roads that were created to advance the people’s progress, instead bleed the nation bloodless and cannibalize whatever is left of the road users.

For anyone familiar with the awful roads in this country, the metaphors are not farfetched. Many reasons account for the unnerving bloodletting on these roads.

Untrained drivers factor as a major cause of fatal accidents. Many commercial and private drivers buy their driver’s licenses without basic driving knowledge. Many are kite-high on drugs while driving.

At most parks where travelers board taxis or buses, drugs are openly sold and just as commonly consumed. The most deadly alcohol on sale is “Combine,” so called because marijuana is soaked in moonshine to extract the maximum effects of both drugs.

Just a shot of this crude mixture can cause instant insanity. That is perhaps why the concoction is also called, “Rapid Result,” because its fiery, explosive effects on abusers are immediate and optimal. When unschooled drivers high on dope jump into rickety vehicles barely held together by rust and speed down roads that are a byword for deathtraps, the result is frequently a notoriously high record of fatalities.

Another reason that the roads are so lethal is that more often than not, they are unmarked and without vital traffic signs to guide users.

Thugs and police are readily on hand to molest and extort money from gutted passengers and weary drivers. Thus, instead of stopping traffic violations, officials abet it, hence the devastation on the roads.

The vehicles themselves are often dilapidated. Cars and trucks designed for four passengers carry twice or more that capacity. Officers turn a blind eye so long as they get their bribes from the drunk drivers. The inevitable ghastly crashes never bother such officials.

Reckless drivers apart and unfit vehicles apart, trips on Nigerian roads are extremely hazardous and arduous because the roads are often in pathetic disrepair.

A road in Abia. All photos were taken by Kaanayo Nwachukwu, and were used with his permission.

Beltways surround many cities like some oddity in science fiction. However one gets the impression these are built more for prestige than function. Officials construct the fancy roads to glorify themselves and distract attention from inept leadership.

The cost for the beltways and flyovers is often hyper-inflated, so officials can get their cut of the filthy lucre. Hence, nothing is left for the maintenance of derelict motorways or the construction of new ones to decongest the few passable but clogged roads.

This soccer game, also in Abia, is halted while a Mack truck that is up to its passenger windows in pothole makes its way down the road.

Because of this, potholes rapidly degenerate into craters and deep gullies, thus making the roads so badly rutted that motoring is extremely daunting. Roads are commonly strewn with wreckages of upturned vehicles, corpses of accident victims and the goods they were hauling before the mishap. Armed robbers take advantage of the gruesomely misshapen roads to ambush, rob and rape their victims.

One never knows whether the people on the side of the road are bystanders or armed robbers, ready to take advantage of the situation.

The result is slowed down economic progress. Trips that could have taken hours to make stretch on for days because of long diversions.

Many factors account for the deterioration of roads after they had been paved. The volume of traffic and the weight of the vehicles that ply the road should be considered in planning a road. Living in the country, I never saw any facility for truck weigh-ins.

Even downtown, there is no effort to do any road maintenance.

Soil testing before construction ought to be imperative. Most of Southern Nigeria, for instance, is moisture saturated. Throwing asphalt on such terrain is counterproductive when what a system of bridges is what is needed.

Often these conditions are taken into account when proposals and contracts for road building are written and awarded. But these good intentions bend to official greed and graft as they collude and conspire with contractors to cut cost for personal gain.

Thus shoddy and hardly completed projects are commissioned for public use by authorities once money changes hands in the cesspit of deals that define leadership here.

Were transparency virtue in the country, the morbidly blighted conditions of roads could be righted. The state experimented with tolls to raise money to service the roads. Unfortunately since government itself is neck deep in voodoo accounting, those who run the tollgates used it as license to become overnight millionaires.

Cheated, the state dismantled the tollgates. But the reaction was just as futile.

If a way was found to embrace a people-first leadership approach, our lucrative oil reserves could adequately maintain our roads. In addition, the way states in America raise funds to keep roads in good shape could work for us too. Registration and property tax alone could provide money to fix roads.

If citizens were taxed based on the value of the cars they drove, they would be enough money to keep the roads in drivable condition. That is, if the money got into the treasury and was used for the intended purpose.

Also, annual registration of vehicles after inspection to guarantee their worthiness would bring in enough money for maintenance and other facilities necessary for road safety.

However, since powerful state officials take to the skies in private jets bought with state funds, it is unlikely anyone will pursue creative ideas to stop road carnage in Nigeria. Because rulers ensconce themselves in these luxury jets, they hardly spare a thought for the lives of other citizens they disdain as “ordinary Nigerians.”

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