Two seemingly unrelated events have made it necessary for this column to revisit a national pastime that has been grafted into our DNA as a people. Exhibition of egregious acts of indiscipline, at the least provocation or for no just cause at all, should not in other climes qualify to be regarded as a pastime. But here it has become a national pastime, and proudly so.
We, the proud citizens of this great country, take extreme delight in the bizarre display of this god given trait and we have no qualms about it. We celebrate and adore indiscipline, almost as if it had replaced the god of our ancestors. May be it has. May be it has become the god of evil with all its devious characteristics of chaos and its proclivity for enthroning insanity on the highways, which insanity leads, not infrequently, to accidents that claim lives at its daily festival of deaths.
Gross indiscipline leads to the violation of what, in civilised communities, people regard as law and order. Here it is called smartness. Have you never noticed the smart way road users outsmart one another by taking one way to avoid gridlock? And in doing so, they cause more chaos in the traffic build-up until road marshals or volunteers step in to bring some semblance of order into the utter confusion.
But even this is a small matter compared to the mobile inferno the disciples of the great god of indiscipline often set off on the highways, their biggest shrine, unarguably, being the stretch of the road referred to as Lagos – Ibadan Express Way, which can be likened to an expressway way to death, death in its multiple proportions. At their most recent festival on the Otedola bridge in Lagos, these disciples had mobilised a fully loaded 33,000 litre fuel tanker to the road at the height of Lagos traffic when workers in their hundreds were returning home from work. The said tanker, antiquated and utterly devoid of any road worthiness, failed to climb the slope of the bridge and began to roll back uncontrollably because its break had failed – and why wouldn’t it fail. Road users, unfortunate enough to be close to it, made frantic efforts to dodge the rolling tanker. Alas, they could not escape the cruel fate decreed by the god of indiscipline.
One lucky companion of the tragic and lamentable death truck recounts his experience thus: “I am happy I didn’t die while trying to escape from the scene. I tried manoeuvring my vehicle to avoid being burnt but my efforts proved abortive.” He did not die. But he left his car to be burnt in the inferno that took more than 12 lives. At least 60 vehicles were burnt as the tanker spilled its lethal weapons of mass death and destruction on them in the jammed traffic.
We all moaned and mourned the dead. President Muhammadu Buhari showed sympathy and expressed horror. Governor Akinwunmi Ambode was aghast and promised to do what every government does when faced with such horrendous disaster – reel out laws that would prevent this horror from repeating itself. After such rituals and expression of platitudes with the usual outpouring of sympathy for the victims, they all went back home leaving the roads free for these agents of death to bide their time for another day.
The Otedola bridge carnage was not the first of its kind on the Lagos-Ibadan Express Way. We pray it is the last. Petrol tankers, with or without road worthiness, should not normally compete with other road users considering the havoc they are capable of wreaking on them when they are involved in accidents. But nobody has succeeded from time immemorial to restrict their movements to certain times of the night.
Even in the metropolis, trailers have allowed their unhinged containers to tumble down from many bridges in Lagos killing other unfortunate road users including pedestrians and even street hawkers. And yet, they have continued to have their way – their might is their right.
Underlining their impunity is an unbridled indiscipline which encourages their open defiance of the law. Intoxicated as it were, they have become impervious to reason and to other people’s right to the road as if they have signed a perpetual memorandum of understanding with the law enforcement agents, which understanding allows them to drive as they like, park where the fancy catches them and use whichever truck they lay their hands on irrespective of their road worthiness.
But the recklessness under review is not an exclusive preserve of the long suffering trailer drivers and their cousins who drive their petrol tankers around the town. I have had occasion to draw the attention of the police and the road safety marshals to the driving habit of the big men, the so-called noveau riche, who ply their exotic cars including the SUV around town, driving perpetually with one hand. The other hand holds their phone sets clutched permanently to their ears. In this mode, they drive cheerfully oblivious of the fact that they are on the road, possibly negotiating a bend or driving from the side road into the main road chatting away senseless inanities.
Little do they know they have constituted themselves into nuisance to other road users and even themselves! And little do they appreciate the fact that using the phone and chatting while cruising in their cars or using it at petrol or gas filling stations is like dialling D for the Devil.
And the women. They are in a class of their own. With their children packed in the latest model of the SUV, they think they are immune to the hazards that these modern mechanical contrivances can expose any mortal to. As soon as they turn on the ignition, they zoom onto the road driving with one hand and the other one clutched to their phone sets. It is time for the continuation of the chit-chats they started from the house, oblivious of the safety of their children.
President Buhari must have thought that the war against indiscipline, WAI, which he introduced during his first coming as military head of state in 1984, was custom made for that era or that it was without an expiry date. Unfortunately it was not so. It did not last forever.
WAI did not, for instance, introduce the Japanese kind of culture in which each citizen is brought up to have a healthy regard for other people’s feeling and welfare; to do nothing that would imperil the comfort and even the general health of the society.
That is why Nigerians in Russia were amazed at the Japanese, when at each venue of the World Cup match in which their team featured, both their fans and their players made sure they cleaned up either their seats in the stadium or the ones they used in their dressing room. For them, it is a matter of habit. It is in their blood.
Apart from the culture of queuing, there is nothing in our conduct today that resembles the good old WAI. The corruption that President Buhari’s administration is fighting today has persisted because an utterly undisciplined society like ours provides the most fertile atmosphere in which corruption thrives.