WITH bundles of naira packed underneath stacks of CDs in the centre console compartment, we started the drive to Abeokuta. A few kilometres from Murtala Muhammed Airport, the road widened out to the width of about four or five lanes. There were no road markings, which made for something of a white-knuckle ride as we participated in a weaving high-speed procession with other vehicles.
Shortly after the journey got underway, we passed out a minibus, going at 70 miles per hour, which had become so full with passengers that one man was standing in the open sliding doorway outside the vehicle.
To ease the anxiety that I felt at being an unwilling extra in Mad Max, I told myself that these traffic arrangements weren’t as treacherous as it seemed and that the locals were probably adept at navigating in this manner. Just as I was starting to feel a little better, we came across a recently crashed articulated truck that had been turned on its roof.
The poverty was more apparent and heartbreaking in Nigeria than anywhere I had been before. At any time the traffic became congested, people would approach the car window to attempt to sell an assortment of wares that could be easily carried, such as phone chargers or fruit, but often just to beg for money. We also passed several large rubbish heaps with teams of people sifting through the debris, trying to scavenge anything of worth. As in Kenya, the sides of the road were almost always teeming with people, engaged in trade, conversation, observation of passing vehicles and other activities.
Unlike what I had observed in Kenya or South Africa, a significant proportion of the people here were dressed in traditional local attire. Many of the women wore the gele head wrap and buba blouses, while a lot of the men were dressed in loose fitting clothing made from adire cloth (‘adire roughly translates to ‘tie-dye’). I have never been one to take note of, much less admire, fashion but it was impossible not to be impressed by the variety of beautiful colours on display and the culturally unique style of clothing. In my slacks and shirt, by comparison, I’d never felt so mundane.
Abeokuta is the home of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and my reason for travelling to the City was to attend the opening of his Presidential Library, the first of its kind in Africa. The event was also coinciding with the former President’s 80th birthday celebrations.
Obasanjo has been the leader of Nigeria on two separate occasions, the first as a military ruler from 1976 to 1979, at the end of which he became the first African military head of state to transfer power peacefully to a civilian regime. His second run was as the democratically-elected head of state and spanned two electoral terms between 1999 and 2007.
Although his entire life is fascinating (for anyone interested I would recommend his multi-volume autobiography), it’s Obasanjo’s second term as Nigerian President that is of most relevance to my research. It was during this period that he, along with some other prominent leaders, guided the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union.
My specific interest is in the defence policies that the new organisation adopted and the way in which they were different from those employed by its predecessor. Along with the former South African leader Thabo Mbeki, President Obasanjo was one half of the two most important voices in this evolution in how Africa approached security as a continent.
My attempts to get in touch with the former Nigerian President had started over a year ago, when I made contact with a number of journalists that had previously carried out interviews with Obasanjo. After much pestering, one of them introduced me over email to one of the lead men in the Obasanjo Presidential Foundation. After several weeks of email discussions and one conference call regarding the parameters of my intended interview, I was invited to travel to Abeokuta in March for the Presidential Library opening where I was told the opportunity would arise to speak with the President at some point.
Considering my overall budget, the cost of travelling to Nigeria was significant – the visa application alone cost well over €200 – but the prospect of having the contribution of such a pivotal figure in my research seemed worth the expense. In addition to Obasanjo, the organisers said that several of his former advisors – whose contributions would also be highly valuable to my research – would be in Abeokuta for the celebrations and might be willing to speak with me if I asked nicely.
For someone who grew up in a country where the police are unarmed, it was something of a shock the first time we got passed out on the road by a pick-up truck with six young policemen in the back, each with an AK47 on their lap. Every few kilometres along the route we would pass little huts in traffic islands in the middle of the road, generally housing a couple of policeman who were similarly armed.
For the remainder of the journey, I struggled to keep my eyes open due to the heat and the 4am start that morning in Nairobi. Thankfully, Abeokuta arrived before exhaustion knocked me out. The organisers had booked me a room in the hotel that had been built as part of the Presidential Library Complex, which also includes a museum, an historical archive, a church, a mosque, an amphitheatre, a 1,000-seat auditorium, a children’s fairground and open park spaces, including a site called the Rock of Inspiration with a beautiful bird’s eye view of Abeokuta.
Shortly after arriving, I met with one of the organisers that I had liaised with over the previous few months. He informed me that we would sit down to chat about the interviewing opportunities I would have before too long. First, though, he had to deal with the arrival of a long list of dignitaries that included several heads of state and many other important African political and military figures.
Not for the first time that week, I cursed Kenya Airways for bringing me to Nigeria a day late. Had I arrived 24-hours earlier, the possibility of doing the interview straight away might have been realistic. Now, however, I was arriving at the same time as several hundred other guests, all of whom were higher in the pecking order than the sweaty researcher from Ireland.
With the possibility of conducting interviews out the window for the remainder of Friday, there was one important task that I could carry out and that was obtaining a Nigerian sim card. If an interview opportunity were to arise with President Obasanjo or others, there was a good chance that the notice would be short. Therefore, it was essential that I was both easily contactable and could also make my own calls without having to get out a mortgage to cover the roaming charges.
Thankfully, I had the assistance of a Nigerian scholar and fellow UL student in helping me complete this job. The Irish Embassy in Abuja provided me with the contact details for an absolute gentleman by the name of Haruna Paloma, who did a Masters in Peace and Development in UL a few years ago. On top of our common research interests, the two of us also shared an academic supervisor, he for his Masters dissertation and me for my PhD thesis.
After I made contact with him a few weeks before travelling to Abeokuta, Haruna very kindly offered to come to the City to meet me. Shortly after meeting, he further established his gentlemanly credentials by offering to bring me to a local market to get a sim card.
We drove a short distance from the Library complex to one of the many markets that are located along the side of the roads in Abeokuta. There, Haruna negotiated the terms for the sim card while I waited in the car, as he said he would get a better rate than what would be offered to me.
When the negotiating was over, I got out of the car and walked over to Haruna and the lady who was doing the selling. Next to the lady was her son, who was only two or three years old, and who immediately burst into terrified tears when I walked over. The lady laughed and said he was crying because of me but I didn’t have the gumption to enquire further as to why I would have inspired such terror.
At that point, Haruna realised that he had to move his car and he instructed me to go through the necessary sim card registration process with the lady. There are strict rules in Nigeria regarding the registration of sim cards, informed in part by Boko Haram’s use of burner phones, which means that the purchaser’s name, photo and fingerprints have to be taken.
Once Haruna had walked back to his car, the lady told me to follow her and took off at a fast pace away from the front entrance of the market where we had been and deeper into a maze of laneways between houses and through a crowd of people, drawing quite a few stares as I went. For the first time since arriving, I started to feel somewhat unsafe and also particularly stupid for bringing my passport holder with me, full of cash and, of course, my passport.
About 30 seconds into the journey through the market, at which point I was struggling to keep up with the lady, I heard Haruna shouting angrily from a good distance behind us. We stopped to allow him catch up and when he did, he berated the woman for taking me off on my own without telling him that it was necessary to go to another location for the registration process.
The exchange between the two seemed quite fractious to me at the time but over the next few days I would learn that what appeared to be quarrels between Nigerians were often perfectly pleasant discussions that I was misinterpreting. We completed the transaction without further incident and bid the lady a friendly farewell when we got back to the front of the market. By then, her son had resorted to hiding behind the skirt of another woman until I left.
After once more double-checking that there was no possibility of my conducting an interview that evening, Haruna and I sat down for dinner and a few beers in my hotel. Over my objections, he insisted on paying for everything, explaining that it would violate his sensibilities as a Nigerian if he did not handle the bill for a guest to his country.
We had a delightful evening, sitting outside, talking politics, religion, culture and the similarities and differences between our homelands. It was so enjoyable that, at times, I almost forgot that I had no interviews done and no idea yet when any would occur. Almost.