I spent the holidays in Cotonou and the road trip from Lagos to Cotonou was very interesting. The road from Lagos to Seme border is one of the roughest roads on earth. There were massive potholes and the driver had to be skilled in the techniques of driving through sand. On the other side of the border, I had a shock, the expressway from Seme all the way to the Togolese border is smooth, wide and did not have a single pothole. I wondered which was the richer country, Nigeria and Benin? Okay I agree, the quality of roads alone cannot provide evidence of economic strength. What is clear, however, is that over the past two decades, Nigeria has lost the capacity to complete road rehabilitation projects and so many of our road modernisation projects initiated under the Obasanjo regime are still ongoing and the parts of the roads completed earlier have already broken down. Let’s face it, we cannot fix our roads.
The big drama on the road is the short distance between Badagry and Seme. There are fifty checkpoints mounted separately by Customs, Immigration, Police and the Nigeria Army. You come to a checkpoint every 200 to 300 metres. It was fascinating watching the driver navigate these toll gates. Each toll gate demanded their 200 Naira rite of passage. The driver had to invent strong reasons why he cannot pay this time. His arguments included “I paid you in the morning now, no be every time” or ”I no get change”. At one point, he pointed to me and said “e be big government Oga”. I warned him not to drag me into this wahala. In the end, he was forced to pay up at about five tollgates.
I wondered what the rationality of so many checkpoints was. My guess is that the massive number of times you need to bribe would discourage smugglers by raising their cost of doing business. I asked the driver and he said I was partly right. He asked me to observe vehicles passing, many of them have had the body of the car raised high so they can drive through the bush paths. No smugger can make profit bribing their way through 50 tollgates. The main smuggling path, however, he says, is through the lake and lagoon system, which connect Cotonou and Porto Novo to both Lagos and Ogun States. The smugglers have moved on and the checkpoints he said are part of President Buhari’s plans to suffer drivers and passengers.
The border itself was interesting. It was the emptiest I have seen on my numerous trips on the route over the past four decades. What used to be a major marketplace for rice, textiles and alcoholic drinks has become a ghost town. The officials at the border were however polite and professional. I wondered how they chose the good guys to be at the border while the bad guys are spread among the 50 checkpoints. I noticed many Dangote trucks patiently waiting with their cement consignments enroute to Ghana. I asked why they were not passing through and was told Benin Customs delays them for days as part of the Benin-Nigeria cold war that had been ongoing since the days of the border closure. This Benin Government has been consistent in calling Nigeria’s bluff and there is apparently little we can do. My collapse of the Naira moment came when I was told by the money changers at the border that the exchange rate was one Naira to one CFA Franc. In the eighties and nineties, we used to get hundreds of CFA for one Naira, then the value of the Naira continued to dip and it is today one to one.
On the cultural front, I decided to stopover in Badagry and visit the slave museum. It was a very worthwhile visit. They had preserved artefacts from the period such as chains, huts where they kept the slaves to wait for the ships at the point of no return and mouth muzzles. They had excellent tour guides that gave moving narratives on slavery and it’s impossible to leave without shedding tears. I felt proud about the work they have been doing. This might be because I decided to visit the so-called slave museum at Ouidah. It was a scam, there was no museum, they did not have a single artefact to show and they were taking us to empty patches of land and told us to imagine what they suffered. We also discovered we were made to pay 10,000 Naira for the tour and it turned out the official charge was only 1,000 Naira. We demanded for a refund and they refused. Bloody scammers.
Benin is the world headquarters of the voodoo cult and we visited some of the shrines including the den of pythons and the evil forest. Voodoo adepts from Latin America, the Caribbean and other parts of the world would be converging in the country on 10th January for World Voodoo Day celebrations. We were told people with spiritual, emotional and health needs from around the world would be coming with a guarantee of getting their problems solved. The visit to the old Palace of the King of Ouidah was quite gory with tales of a large number of beheadings of people who had wronged the king.
At Porto-Novo, we visited the world-famous Songhai Integrated Farm, which trains thousands of people on the techniques of regenerative ecological farming. They do not use chemical fertilisers and combine fish farming, animal husbandry and farming. Electricity is produced by methane produced by organic waste after which the end product is used as manure. Water from the fish ponds also makes their farms very productive. The Songhai Centre’s mission is to fight underdevelopment by raising the standards of living for Africa’s poor. It provides proven necessary skills needed to succeed and prosper. As an international not for profit organisation, it is “a new cream of individuals who have the knowledge, the skill and value system… capable of doing new science” said its founder, Fr. Godfrey Nzamuja, a Nigerian priest, who has been doing great work since the 1980s. I was really impressed to see many locals coming to the Songhai Centre to buy all kinds of grain, vegetables, fruits, meat and fish for their end-of-year celebrations. I was glad to hear that they were working with the Katsina State Government and had opened training centres in the state.