Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ajah: Temperature Rising

A week ago the first of what would turn out to be a trio of conflagrations erupted in the centre of Ajah, where I live. I better paint a clearer picture for those who are not in the know as far as physical maps are concerned. Ajah is close to the end of a narrow corridor that begins from Ikoyi on the Lagos Island, runs through Victoria Island and Lekki Peninsula before ending at Epe, via Ajah. For nearly a century it's been the bone of contention between the Monarch of the historical city of Lagos and a set of indigenes, with the former claiming, if not suzerainty then outright ownership of the rough-hewn patch of swampland Ajah is.
Up to twenty years ago this state of 'no-love-lost' had generally been limited to court cases and fist-shaking, no real menace worthy of the name. This was however before the continued expansion of Victoria Island led to an irrevocable strain in property availability, and before the boom in business experienced under Ibrahim Babangida when liberal rules allowed all sorts of banks, insurance companies and finance houses to be established in that era's version of smokes and mirrors voodoo national planning.
The need for offices and banking halls, guest houses and warehouses encouraged the householders who had bought property in the fifties and sixties to pull up, sell for huge profits and then leave in search of other accommodation that would still leave them with a considerable portion of their windfall intact for the rainy day.
For most of these people , Lagos Mainland was out of the question. With its disorderliness, street trading, high crime rate and noise pollution, it was usually left standing, a distant second in the race for the rent money of these newly rich ex-landlords. In addition, the population explosion brought about by the under-development of the Nigerian hinterland, had, ironically, stretched the mainland to spillage over the bounds of classical Lagos, until it was nudging those same hinterlands whose populations were being seduced by poverty into abandoning it. Rents and property prices had equally begun to rise.
For most of these people Ajah, Lekki, Epe and the host of suitcase towns straddling the corridor leading from Victoria Island to the Peninsula was the perfect option. It was the Petit bourgeois' perfect place of habitation. There was to it a genteel feeling without the cost associated with old Ikoyi and Victoria Island annex. It was close enough to merit a Victoria Island zip code but far enough for the old neighbors not to visit and and witness the ramshackle, run down roads and non-existent social services. It was the perfect place to be heard in and not be seen in.
The indigenes of the town however did not fail to notice this migration. In the beginning land which today can be purchased for about $200, 000.00 (2007 value) weighed in at about $500.00. 'In the beginning' was the early nineties. From disposing of land for as much, or as little, if you wish, as one would need to fund a three day drinking binge and maybe two nights of debauchery in a cat house, a veritable industry was built on a legacy that flew brazenly in the face of all known notions in Real Estate Economics. Only one road connected Ajah to the rest of Lagos. The last time that road was capped with a surface of coal tar was in the early nineties, when HFP, the huge construction giant built the Victoria Garden City which adjoins Ajah . And that road had become more notable for the presence of potholes than for any other thing. Yet prices kept rising, nourished for so many years by a myth that land and rent was affordable and amenities were aplenty.
It took the imperfections of NEPA or PHCN as it has now been disingenuously renamed(perhaps to alter the argument and start polemics afresh) to put the lie to those claims. But a little before then, it had already become too late for Ajah, because armed with a court judgment dating back (perhaps with radio-carbon isotopy) to 1899, representative of the Lagos Monarch arrived just in time to lay claim to what had in the previous decade, via foolishness and simple greed, become arguably the most juicy tract of real estate, taking costs vis-a-vis real value, social amenities, state of infrastructure and city planning, in west Africa.
Overnight town criers went to town and informed Landlords all over Ajah that they were squatters, that they had been duped for purchasing land from the former owners rather than the Monarch's representatives. And to make it all clear, in case there were any among the 'purported' Landlords who could not hear, another set of agents moved from house to house with stencils and red paint and published this news boldly for the whole world to see.
This was accomplished by large groups of people, with cutlass and gun wielding bodyguards embedded. Overnight the lucrative grip which the indigenes held on the neck of this gold-egg laying goose was being challenged in a very open manner liable to all sorts of interpretation. And the worst form of interpretation was given to it. A gauntlet had been thrown down, and there were to many hotbloods who would not let it lie there for long, not to talk of the businessmen ready to bankroll the war, in whose interest it was that somebody pick it up.
For the last one week the dogs of war have been straining at the terrible challenge of lifting that carelessly flung invitation to a bloodfest. It is a tradition now for both parties and in the way of measuring events, in Africa, with the birth and death of people, it can easily be said that children born in the first years of that conflict would probably be in the process of transiting from primary schooling to secondary education. And in all those years they would have known no peace because the fighting, though intermittent has been consistent, being practiced in season, like a ritualistic celebration of some one eyed god's feasting. And except for fools, the whole world knows that these spirits do not eat foofoo, nor do they lubricate the passage with soup, but with many sacrifices of flesh and the cold, numbing soporific that blood is. Especially blameless blood.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Delusions of a 'Corleone'?

Is it just me that it happens to or are there other guys out there who invariably are mistaken for a fence whenever they drive through the streets of Lagos? For those not conversant with the word's usage here, it generally means an individual who makes a living by obtaining stolen goods from a thief and then disappearing it into the legitimate market in which that good is normally sold, in a clean and untraceable manner.
This case of mistaken identity, for me, usually occurs around the Apombo area, at the end of the road draining traffic out of the Island of Lagos, into Surulere, Apapa, Ajegunle etc. For about a two hundred metre stretch of road lying beside the market for wholesale domestic consumables, the traffic usually grinds to a constipated crawl.
Hawkers of everything from children's toys to kitchen utensils and women's bras(are there men's?) pour through every crack in between like water finding its level. They challenge you to make purchases by proferring their wares, pushing them into your face. They all must have graduated summa cum laude from the School of aggressive marketing. Cars are lined up on either side, and because the road which was three lanes wide leaving the CMS overhead now begins to narrow to a claustrophobic two lane, a feeling of dread ensues in your head.
You begin to imagine the crush of mangled metal and flesh stewing together to make one huge mess except if you stood on your breaks and let the stream of madness on either side rush like legion into the swamp of Apombo.
That's when it usually happens. A rap on the windshield on your side. It's your only car so you treat it like a first son, the original bloom of you manly virility. You look up startled and before the 'rapper' withdraws it, you catch a glimpse of silver flashing. It could have been a metal or glass but instinctively you know it could only have been the former. A gold (coloured) chain, perhaps. A would-be Omega or Tag-Heur watch more likely.
But what catches your attention is the furtiveness or 'conspiratorialness' which the vendor contrives by withdrawing the article from the market no sooner that your eyes had begun to transmit a picture to your brain for further comparison with similar articles in your long term memory. That and the knowing dead-pan on the face of the man who might or might not be a real thief but desperately wants you to believe that he is, so that he can sell off his article which most likely is a fake for the vastly discounted value of an original, for it having been stolen. Except, if it was an original, then it would be most likely that you were dealing with an original thief and not fake one who most likely was selling some item that was part of a robbery in which case.....Confused already?
This is a trick schoolboys everywhere know. Whet their appetites for pete's sakes and then stretch a palm to collect their lunch monies in exchange for more! In school playgrounds, huddled in the group raconteur's corner after lights out, it is the same air with which the smarter boys had dispensed shady and cracked pictures of that moment's passing fancy, swaddled in nothing but her birthday clothes. Or even more intricate arrangements captured before lascivous photographic bulbs sweating to feed a worldwide hunger for smut.
The strategy is also to appeal to a sense of sleaze which modern civilization erects in all of us. We go to school to pick up every nuance possible between good and evil, and then are forced to agree with Socrates that good is better except we have also examined evil and know what 'goods 'it can proffer. So because we are also enamoured of finding the easier, more travelled path and following it to enlarge our coasts, we are confused to learn that the road to evil is paved with stones shaped exactly like that. Knuckles rapping against our windshields, a gold watch momentarily proffered then quickly concealed - all these things clear the confusion by suggesting to us that a possession of ease will quickly follow, if we can but negotiate the risks shared between them, once the seller has gained the buyer's attention.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Death, Recreation and the working man - Part 2

I think the question remains: If there was an attitude change then why did it manifest? Or is 'manifest' the wrong word there? Since it points to a clear exhibition of a trend or behaviour whose prior aetiology might have been ongoing for a time, but perhaps subliminally.
So what caused this shift in the first place. Taking further the argument of the Third generation Corporate bosses becoming more 'profit attuned', renders perhaps a further history lesson. The Nigerian economy began to unravel in the early eighties, in the tailwind of the old Shehu Shagari government. This was when these bosses were wetting their feet as far as corporate baptisms of fire were concerned. Prior to these years were the years of illusory denial, of somnolence; hitherto unheard of profits arising from the disturbances in the middle east and then the Arab Oil boycott of the Americans and their allies for support of Isreal. The fame of the Nigerian government that was in power for most of the decade prior to that was built on the wrongly mismanaged wealth accumulated from that imbroglio. For me that era is largely memorialised by the phrase often attributed to that leader Jack Gowon, though I now, to be safe, believe it a largely apocryphal one, of being asked on a visit to the states to elaborate for a group of journalists the problems he foresaw in managing such abundant wealth. His reply, historically has been, "In Nigeria we do not really have a problem with the money, our problem if any has been how to spend it", or something to that effect.
The years immediately following the first transition to democratic rule were therefore years of discovery, realisation of our near parlous state, and then after the remains of the patrimony bequeathed the civilians had been embezzled through and through, the attempt to begin making amends. A body of policies, famously for that period in our national history, called The Austerity Measures, was what the government of the day instituted to try and curb the slow creep that was already becoming manifest(that word again).
The main ethic in the measures represented an attempt to reduce expenditure, but expectedly this failed. I mainly think this was because of the dual nature of all government expenditure in Nigeria. There is the stream that is devoted to the formal projects which ministers dutifully present at budget formulation times at the National Assembly, and which are clearly monitored and contribute to drawing up of all the statistics used for projection. Then there is the informal part of it given as kickbacks, stolen directly from the coffers or that is wrongly ascribed in order to satisfy some primordial loyalty or the other. Both streams finally end up in circulation in the open markets and I believe the later is larger and thus more eventful than the first.
So the measures targeted the first while the second just grew and grew as the avarice and egos of the members of the day became more unbridled finding outlets in accumulation of wealth, planning and throwing of the most lavish parties, buying up choice property in the most exotic of places and having the best wineries all over France mint and bottle the finest champagnes, branded in their names.
Of course conservative economies nearly always see workers as the first casualty whenever the need for cost-cutting arises. They are the most easily replaced elements in the chain of production. A conventional wisdom has always arisen to firm up weak hands whenever questions of redundancy have arisen. No it is not always voiced but it is nonetheless not going to go away, and it is that 'better technology should replace even the best of workers'. This argument has never failed to be thrown up since the industrial revolution. And for a mantra that has never really quite delivered on all its promises, the surprise, for me has always been with how come it has been around this long and not become discredited along with things like Copernican physics etc. I suspect that there is something of politics skunking in there, but let me leave well alone for now. That fight is for another day.
Going forward, these workers became the first victims of the austerity measures. retrenchments(down-sizing or right-sizing, depending on how you like your eggs) followed, companies shut down, and why? Because the National Planners in the seventies got carried away and failed to read that the oil boom of the time carried in its center the secret poison that would do in all who fed from it.
This poison I think was in the fact that the American economy soon went into recession meaning that their hunger for the oil which was driving the boon would soon plateau off, as their own manufacturers who couldn't sustain the pressure shut down. They got used to a certain low consumption level of oil, and then I guess the North Sea projects of the U.K government came on stream, and the Saudi's broke the Arab Anti-American solidarity leading to oil prices plumetting.
The scenes in those days must have been harrowing as families in Nigeria had to readjust to the new regime of parsimony. I often heard my lecturers at UNN, who for the most part themselves were students in the seventies tell of the sheer pleasure they experienced as students in their time. To hear them tell it, they were pampered and fed like pigs, and were surrounded by the most startling(to our ears) ease. The government picked up every tab they cared to drop, and HR people from the leading companies of the day came into school in their penultimate year to contest for their hands in employment. They lived two students to a room and played squash all evening, that most English of all bourgeois pastimes. They drank tea and had siestas recognised even by the Vice-chancellor, and said 'Please sir, may I do this and that' etc etc
Is there the possibility that the shock of losing this life of privilege was all too profound for this generation to bear? It is not inconceivable that their reaction to it all was to work harder and longer and to eschew all pleasure and outdo all rivals in whatever it was rivals all do to make more money. So jack went ahead and became a very dull boy, not to talk of unhealthy one too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Death, Recreation and the working man

Was there ever a time in Nigeria when it was the rule for people to practice a healthy social or recreational activity with honest dedication? When people couldn't wait for the long clock hand to slowly nose its way and lock on to the twelfth digit and make the short hand raise both arms in exultation at the fifth, where it had been impatiently waiting for so long? Well some of the guys at the office claim there was such a time. Mosh who was a campus brat remembers the dars when it was de rigeur for virtually everyone he knew to belong, actively to the University of Lagos Staff club. His dad lectured there. He said "everyone he knew" with such inclusive disdain that if you were not included in it then you were maybe deader than a doornail. Such snobbery!
But then some of the other guys at the office back it up with statistics that would have been very refreshing indeed if they had be a relation of current affairs. Regular parties at Ikoyi Club, swimming and squash racket competitions whose outcomes graced newspaper sport pages, affairs at the Soroptimist and Island Tennis Club, People whose parents were of the Lions Club and Rotary Clubs etc. etc. Alas they were a recounting of a golden age, an era well dead. It seemed so strangely tragic to be speaking of happiness in the past participle. Participle because he didn't really participate in it, having been too young to really remember much, other than what he had been told after the era had been declared both clinically and really dead.
I felt doubly sad for him, the first time for what we all were missing, and again for him having been there and still not having much to show for it other that a hand me down story.
So how did we get to this impasse? Everyone seemed to lay the blame at the doorsteps of the generation who in the past four or five years have been wresting the steering wheels of the national economy away from the generation who had been in the Universities during the Biafran Civil War and who are now in their fifties and somewhat well into their sixties. To focus on a clear picture imagine the banking Industry for example and then its most well-known drivers to date - the Chief Joseph Sannusis, though he is an older version of the type, then Paschal Dozie etc. And for the generation that came of age after the civil war, think of Tayo Aderinokun, Herbert Wigwe, Aig-imokhuode and also Jim Ovia.
Well not draw so much of a wide gulf between both generations, into which the argument I am presenting might fall, the second group for whatever reasons history might adduce one day, created a work ethic that was narrow, demanding and unforgiving of even the barest minute spent away from the work desk.
Assessments were drawn up to include evaluations of how long you worked and whether you left the premises while there was still light outside. To better squeeze deposits off the streets banking hours were extended from about 1.30 pm to 3, 4 and even 5 pm meaning that cashiers and the establishment didn't start closing their books until the evening hours and this would usually drag on till 8 or 9 pm, after which it might be termed an act of irresponsibility to be found heading off anywhere but home, especially with a full day of work ahead the next day. This denial of time for social or recreational activities of course was done in an attempt to mop up more profit from whatever industry the organisation found itself in, though it did appear, in my jocular view, that is, to have had one upside which is that it intensified the hunger with which friday nights were enjoyed. Meaning of course that it had given the word 'enjoyment' and 'Friday Night' a sweeping toga of banality. The admixture of both words had resulted in a product which when viewed at full speed was of the most thoughtless desperation. It measured its satisfaction in terms of quantities rather than quality and was therefore empty outside of what one stuffed the mouth and by extension the belly with, to experience, and additionally it was meaningless since the incremental accumulation of it did not actually cause a discernible increase in the awareness of state of any kind.
Back in the office, we did, all of us agree that we in Nigeria had all become mere shiftless work buttons with only the off and on modes, no in betweens. Can there be a relationship between the way we manage our out of work lives and the social aetiology of heart attacks and diseases, cancer, liver and kidney ailments and all the other so called diseases of affluence. Even though I am one of the people who refuse to believe that the trend has assumed epidemic proportions, I must really confess that I have noticed the increase in younger people, by this I mean people under forty-five who keel over and die from these ailments. I think better access to the media for people who want to publicise an obit might be an issue here(though the obverse of that argument is that if this population who are finding new access is extrapolated to our entire population of which the overweening majority are illiterate, without media access and who are subjected to the same economy as the 'obited' deceased and might not merit an autopsy upon his/her demise, it might suggest that these deaths are actually higher than imagined).
Whatever conclusions one might draw, I think the situation really does bear watching, and closely too.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


SHAME! Let me ask you, what picture comes to your mind the moment you hear that word. I don't mean when you hear it in a ceremonial, within William Shakespeare's "Mark Anthonyish" moment. Really, I am talking about when the word jumps you surprisingly, out of the dark. It might be the first time you are experiencing it, then again it might be the hundredth. What I want to know is what picture comes to mind when out of the dark castles of your lack of preparation, the word sidles up to you and against all your remonstrations pretends it has not embarrassed you and seriously attempts to strike up conversation with you!
Personally for me, the classic reaction is to go into analysis. No I do not mean endless meaningless trips to some shrink, which in and of itself soon becomes the object. What I do with my shame is a vice no less, not a virtue. For in shifting the elements of the experience around a room like an interior decorator who finds the best chemistry for a set of disparate, unrelated furniture pieces by continually shifting them together, I peer at the effects that the word elucidates against certain experiences until they encourage a meaning which then begins to seem meaningful and in no time becomes a suitable explanation for the word having jumped me at that particular point in time. Since no two points in time can mathematically and existentially be the same, the word, like the conditions that brought them into play in the first place only last as long as this point remains in time and can never exist again beyond this point. So I can confidently move forward, make progress if you will, by recognising that once it has passed, it can no longer be as harmful as it started off being unless by some contrivance I can be made to return to experience a point in time now past.
Therefore any lasting reading can only be made immediately, for once an important aspect of this vision has passed, namely, the point in time, all interpretations must needfully change and the interpretation of shame continue to be never-ending. I believe this is not unlike the science, if you can call it that which the old Roman seers used to interpret the auguries from amongst the remains of the stomachs of animals slaughtered for sacrifice or Gypsies with the remains of tea leaves after patrons at the cafe have had their pleasure. The tea leaves must meet up at the bottom of the tea-cup with a particular subject who obviously needs one interpretation or the other, and on a certain day and not another in which the seer might be suffering or not from a tooth-ache and was too hard up to afford his dentist's fees and therefore must tell the patron anything, but quickly, so that he might get paid quickly for the trip uptown to the blasted gnasher-doctor and.....
That in a few long lines is my vice. We all have one. Now back to what gives me great shame today, and what picture comes to mind when I think of the word SHAME! First the picture. Nakedness. That's what I see when the word comes to mind. Not my nakedness. Far be it from me, and I would be lying anyway if I owned up to such an embarrassing squeamishness. I mean I am a man, and what kind of man hides from his own nakedness! In any case I am too used to it for any shame that might have been hidden within it over time to still remain in place. The nakedness that comes to mind is that of old women, glazed along the eyelashes and brows by the grey of age and bent over crooked walking sticks with their armpits unshaven, and in their straining to see me through eyes long dead, parting their lips in a toothless grin. And what paints this ludicrous picture for me? The fact that on a blog I kicked off in April 2003, I have been tardy enough to generate only one post!