Our reporter mirrors fears and excitement that characterise over-land trip from Lagos to Onitsha in the heat of the Yuletide
By Tessy Igomu
The thought of travelling to Nsugbe, home to the first College of Education in Anambra State, evokes nostalgic memories. Imagine being welcomed on arrival with a bowl of pounded yam and some steaming Ofe Nsalla (White soup) prepared with fresh fish.
Nsugbe community is bordered by several tributaries of the River Niger. Fresh fish remains an important delicacy of the residents. That is why the area is the preferred place – a melting pot for mongers, desiring fish straight out of the waters.
But doing an eight-hour over-land trip from Lagos to Nsugbe to relish this fresh fish delicacy is not a tea party. Any day, it can be as traumatic as anything. For a woman, it can be more than a handful, having to travel with two tots, ages two and four.
Imagine the thought of having to sit still, for long hours, accompanied by a duo of demanding kids. What that means for the woman is that she has to steel herself for every eventuality that might arise; even the dramatic cannot be ruled out.
Any day, Nigerian roads are home to the untoward. There is always a litany of woes being recited by the regular travelers. They advise that one way to play safe is always to leave in time. With this mind, we hit the road as early as 5.30am. This is the natural thing to do even when one is so sure of the vehicle they are using. On this occasion, ours was heavily weighed down with all manner of loads. Then we had to turn to instant prayer warriors and hand ourselves to the Supreme Being; that is another natural and necessary thing to do. The reason being that there are mounting concerns of the unexpected; all these continue to gnaw on the heart of every road user until they arrive safely.
From the Berger end of Lagos, a discomforting ride had begun. The first noticeable thing about the road leading out of Lagos towards Ore was that several portions of the facility had failed. But work on the road was in progress. So, everyone was craving for speedy completion of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.
Soon after, traffic heading for Benin City and beyond veered off at Shagamu inter change to face Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State and Ore in Ondo State. From that point we began to see numerous potholes and mini craters, which had been part of that road for long. As the car raced on, it kept bumping into many of them and rocking violently each time. In the recent and distant past, several vehicles had been involved in accidents apparently because their drivers were trying to avoid the terrible spots. Carcasses of such vehicles, which littered the road were evidence of what had transpired.
Several times, monstrous, articulated vehicles burst onto the scene, some driving against the traffic while trying to avoid the bad spots; each time they chased the smaller vehicles off the road, leaving the heart of every commuter pounding with fear.
But, for the kids, it was all excitement – a great fun they had never experienced before. After all, what do they know or understand about life and safety? But when weariness set in, every now and then, they dropped off to sleep and for a while remained in slumber.
Having been on the road from dawn, sitting quietly up to mid morning, fighting to ward off sleep became a big challenge. Then we had to keep an eye on the driver. So, we kept waking up often, following occasional swerves as the driver spiritedly avoided some terrible potholes and failed portions of the road. Then there were the jerks, bumps and blaring of horns by recalcitrant drivers; all this drove sleep further afar. As every leg began to grow numb and back wracked by pains, we began to contemplate the trauma that lay ahead of us.
About 300km separates Lagos and Benin City. At 100km per hour, the journey can be made in two and a half hours. But for us, this was never the case due to the poor nature of the road.
As the vehicles sped past some thickly forested areas, with leaves graciously waving at motorists and commuters, soon that stretch’s notoriety began to manifest in the form of a series of traffic snarls caused by lots of potholes, which had in themselves been part of the road all the way from Shagamu, Ogun State. There were many of such potholes such that it became impossible to avoid them no matter how careful anyone was.
Wherever the big potholes and failed portions of the road were, vehicles took turns to pass through an alley. The rest motorists, who knew about such bad spots easily switched from one lane to the other thus increasing the level of chaos everyone had to deal with.
Part of this chaos was a series of checkpoints mounted by men of the Nigeria Customs Service, police, officials of the Federal Road Safety Corp (FRSC) and even various local government revenue collectors.
It was approaching 10am when we hit Ore town. It was, we were told, a feat given the chaotic traffic situation, which characterised the road. Sometimes, it might take some unlucky close to six hours to reach Ore. Here we were talking about a journey that could have been done in two hours. While in Ore, most people made a stopover to buy food and snacks; drivers refuelled their vehicles ahead of the push for Benin City.
From Ore, the road was smoother and much better, devoid of the nightmares everyone experienced some hours ago. But occasionally security agents stopped vehicles to conduct checks and in the process, extorted the drivers.
At Benin Bye Pass, a unit of stern-looking Customs officers we met was particularly rude. The operators were demanding for “import papers and tinted glass permits” of vehicles. They contributed to the agony and delay some people experienced, thereby increasing the travel time on the road. But the regular drivers, who were familiar with their antics avoided them; some drove against the traffic. They kept running away from ‘greasing the palms’ of the police and Customs men. They didn’t want to be delayed for hours.
In Benin area, it was observed that the Bye Pass stretch was gradually becoming deplorable. A little before the bridge across the Benin-Auchi Road, it was also observed that articulated vehicles had turned the area into one huge park. They had taken over the entire space; they blocked the roads at will and wholly contributed to the woes of many travelling to the South East and South-South regions.
The Benin-Asaba axis of the road, it was noted was in fairly near good condition. But the headache remained the motorists, who dashed onto the ever-busy expressway without caring a hoot. Every now and then, screeching tyres announced near accidents, with the offenders, quarreling and cursing their perceived offenders.
For anyone who had not fared to the East for a while, there was palpable fear as we pressed for the Asaba end of the majestic Niger Bridge. Easily, stories of the Operation Python Dance operators assailed the our minds. For the first timers, curiosity took the centre stage as vehicles climbed onto the bridge, crawling in slow-moving traffic caused by officers and men of the FRSC, police, Customs and the army.
However, the delay offered on-the-spot opportunities to see the iconic Niger Bridge, the gateway to the East in full. For the kids, it was such an exhilarating experience, as they had their whole eyes transfixed on those gigantic iron bars which make the bridge an endearing masterpiece.
As traffic moved on the facility, it seemed to bounce and vibrate, leaving everyone scared and momentarily breathless. And that brought to the fore the imperative that the bridge has outlived its lifespan.
Exiting the bridge, one was welcome to a ‘new world.’ The Onitsha that was once wedded to dirt and filth had changed. Everyone was excited to lurch unto this massive dual-carriage way, reaching up the popular and every-busy Upper Iweka and beyond.
In the fullness of the festive season, the area was simply breath-taking, leaving every visitor and returnee blazing with excitement. The area has been heavily transformed. It was unbelievable not to feel deafening commercial music blaring forth from various shops, food vendors, street urchins and motorcycles, weaving through the traffic. It was unbelievable that the infamous years of Upper Iweka, passing off as a trailer park and hub of ruthless motor park touts fighting for passengers, thieves, drug addicts and commercial sex workers, were over.
Even our driver who had not been to Onitsha for a while was quick to notice the new garb of the city. “This place has changed ooo,” he echoed, with elements of great surprise in his voice. “Who will believe that Onitsha can ever be like this? This is unbelievable,” he screamed.
Driving through the undulating Nkisi hills that run behind the Onitsha Government Reserved Area (GRA) to the College of Education, Nsugbe, one was greeted by this soothing spectacle. So much had really changed; the terrifying gorges in the area and their dizzying depths had all metamorphosed into thriving real estate haven.
Till this moment, the sights and sounds of the trip from Lagos to Onitsha still echoes in the mind. The experience is one worth revisiting and reliving. For the kids, perhaps, it will last for long time to come.