I had the great misfortune of being one of thousands trapped on the Abuja-Kaduna highway last week Friday, 9th August for many, many hours. Our family’s version of the ordeal lasted for thirteen hours, from 2pm when we left Abuja until 3am when we crawled into Kaduna. Many others who had left either Kaduna or Abuja earlier were worse off because they lasted longer in the frustrations and chaos many said they had never seen the type of. Many vehicles broke down on possibly the worst highway to break down in Nigeria. For many, getting to Kaduna or Abuja was only one leg of a journey they were undertaking. They were on their to celebrate Eid, many with rams, chicken and traditional expectations of festive days ahead in towns and villages beyond these cities. They still had a long way to go beyond these cities, so they had to make difficult decisions on whether to sleep in vehicles in Kaduna or Abuja, or proceed on perilous journeys to ultimate destinations.
They said the nightmare started when policemen or road safety officials shot dead a driver, and other drivers decided, as they often do, to protest by blocking the entire route using their vehicles. There were other versions of the trigger, but, to be honest, no one was interested after hearing one or two. Most people were many hours and dozens of miles away in the hold up from the triggering incident, so they saw nothing but anguish and unprecedented helplessness. If there were neutral people taking a tally of events, they would have recorded the best and the worst of Nigerians. There were heroes who attempted to untangle incredible logjams of hundreds of vehicles tied up from both directions with nowhere to go. For me, the heroins that most affected me were the women and younger females who, for the ten or more hours that the nightmare lasted, resisted the temptations to squat and relieve themselves a few feet inside the dangerous bushes, or on the edge of highways in full sight of hundreds of people, and vehicles bumper-to-bumper.
There were heroes who gave vehicles that had broken down a push. Some offered wailing children water and a little to eat. Some with spaces in their vehicles offered lifts to terrified women and children who would have been abandoned because their vehicles could not move in the middle of nowhere. Passengers of commercial vehicles who thought they could walk past the unknown source of the blockade and avoid the temptations to be kidnapped or robbed as they sat crammed in rickety vehicles, trekked for miles, and some begged and found comfort and compassion from stationary vehicles to relieve their unfounded presumptions. When we got close to Kaduna, someone said Governor el-Rufai had visited the chaos, but we did not see him. If he did go to help, he should be commended for showing concern.
But mostly, we were just typically Nigerians. One moment we were friends lamenting the terrible state of the nation, and the next moment we were scrambling against each other for a few inches of space. Every advantage was taken to cut corners, and many vehicles showed the results. You would think our numbers were enough to give each other comfort and confidence that no kidnappers or other criminals would spring from the bushes and dare to pluck a few of us from the chaos and the scramble. You would have been wrong. The fear of these was palpable and real. An entire battalion of soldiers could not have raised our levels of confidence, but there was no battalion of soldiers. We did see a few tired policemen and soldiers here and there, but we did not get the impression that that they would not run with us into bushes if they heard gunshots of kidnappers or armed robbers. And then there were the curses and prayers to God to punish everyone responsible for our plight, from the policemen, to the drivers, to the government. Even Julius Berger Plc, the contractor handling the rehabilitation of the highway received a lot of curses. The angels must have been very busy recording prayers for restitution and revenge that night.
The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari must have lost a few supporters and admirers on Friday and Saturday last week. Even making allowances for the fact that he may have been entirely unaware that thousands of men, women and children under his charge were exposed to criminals and unspeakable hardship over an avoidable series of events, who else was there to be blamed? With a gridlock from Jere to Sabon Gayan, Kaduna to Tafa lasting hours and hours, you will not blame citizens who thought government or any authority could have done something, anything, to reduce our hardship. Those who defended the authorities one or two hours into the nightmare changed their minds after six hours of being stuck on a highway while children wailed with hunger and everyone shivered at the prospect of an attack while being helpless.
It was inevitable that a major topic of discussion through the entire nightmare was the raging media war between the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police over the killing of policemen and the freeing of an arrested kidnap suspect by soldiers in Taraba State. Even in a nation numbed by extraordinary events daily exposing our helplessness in the face of increasing insecurity under an administration that seems isolated and insulated from it all, the Taraba incident and the deeply-damaging media war that followed it broke new grounds. If the Army and the Police could take to the media in a most embarrassing war of words for days without a reprimand or orders for immediate cessation of hostilities, why should thousands of people trapped for almost an entire day on the most dangerous highway expect relief from the federal or state governments, or from feuding police and army?
Will they bother to investigate and bring to book all those responsible for that nightmare? Unlikely. Can it happen again? Very likely. Will the rehabilitation work on the Abuja-Zaria-Kano dual carriageway pick up, or are we doomed to suffer and die for many years to come on that vital artery that appears to be the only link between the North and South of Nigeria? Will the former Minister come back as Minister responsible for roads when the President gets round to assigning portfolios and swearing-in his Ministers? Very likely. What can we do in future to avoid being victims? Nothing. Ask those who ply the Birnin Gwari road and many highways that are being abandoned by travelers while our governments and security agencies congratulate themselves for curbing banditry and kidnapping.
Our nightmare last week brought home the deeply worrying indications that our nation is grounding to a halt. We move too slowly towards doing nothing about security, about poverty, about human rights, about the economy. A nation cannot stand still. It retrogresses when leadership does not keep it going by doing the most basic things such as keeping major highways accessible and safe.a