Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Review of Measuring Time

By my old college friend Hari Kunzru, in the New York Times three days ago.


More on rail privatisation

Good critical article by former Times journo Simon Jenkins (now writing for the Guardian). Read here. Maybe, just maybe, privatisation of the railways would have worked had the kept vertical operational control (instead of splitting track management from rolling stock operators). There would have been a full circle back to the time of the original regional railway operators: Great Western, GNER etc. But that didn't happen.


Vagina Monologues in Nigeria (again)

click to expand.

KIND invites you to a V-Day 2007 benefit performance of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play to raise money and awareness for local organizations that work to stop violence against women and girls.

This year’s performance includes top female actresses like Joke Silva, Kate Henshaw, Rita Dominic, Iretiola Doyle, Teniola Aiofiyebi, Omonor Imobio and a lot more. Performances would be from 6:30pm at the Agip Hall, Muson (14th & 21st Of March), and Planet One (17th March). Light refreshments will be provided

Proceeds from this performance would go to support a Rape Crisis Center in Lagos and a VVF Rehabilitation Centre in Kano. Tickets cost 3,000 naira each and can be procured from 5th March at Quintessence and Planet One. For Advance Group bookings and ticket delivery services call KIND on 08033652200, or 01-8902970, 8179398.

We look forward to seeing you at the V-Day event.


Amy Oyekunle
Programme Manager (KIND)
Organizer, V-Day Lagos 2007



My chunky old HP laptop died on me yesterday. I went into our home office to see the machine had rebooted, with the warning that the system had recovered from a 'serious error'. My mind was elsewhere, I surfed, then went to watch tv. By the time I came back to the laptop, the death rattle had gone and been. All attempts to boot resulted in a brief blue-screen flicker then the machine switching itself off. Nothing doing.

This was somewhat irritating. Although I have everything backed up on a Lacie external drive , with the last back-up at the weekend (including of course all my Northern Nigeria pics), i hadn't backed up the past two days of report writing (the official version of my trip to the North). So now I have to rewind and remember. Grrrr.

On telly, you often come across stories about paedophile's computers being seized, with the implicit warning that nothing can be erased forever on a computer (remember what happened to Pete Townsend?). Enough to stoke a little fear in any casual pornographer's soul. Don't believe it. I set a young tecchie to the task today. He tried to re-boot the hard drive, using an external hard-drive gadget. Nada. He then put the drive in the freezer for a few hours (this is apparently a last resort stage) and tried again. Zen like emptiness of being. Not a file remained.

Just as human beings can appear in the middle of the country, mud on shoes, without a clue who they are or where they have come from, with only a prodigious talent (say for the piano) to mark them out from anonymity, so too can computers lose the plot, and end up in erasure.


Web 2.0 comes to naija...



Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Oscars

Just finished watching the Oscars on tv. The Departed is on at the cinema here just now in Abuja - its quite nice to be able to go and see a film here that has just won so many awards - a sense of globalised connectivity emerges. The highlight of the show must be dwarfish Marty Scorsese picking up his gong and saying thank you forty times. Also interesting was to note what a force the Brits are in Hollywood these days. Two of the nominees for Best Director were Brits, of course Helen Mirren won best actress, but there were also a few other British nominees and winners in various categories, including best producer. The Brits were also much better dressed than the Americans on the red carpet outside, with Helen Mirren again looking the best of the bunch. Too many of the American women stars wore pastel colours that clashed with their skin.

The question is: why are the British playing such a comparatively strong role in Hollywood today? Is it because of the reservoirs of acting talent the British schools and theatre scene produces? Or is it because of the good old special relationship? Or something else?


Monday, February 26, 2007


The Nigerian Field Society visited the prehistoric village of Nok in June last year. As is widely known, Nok figures date from over two thousand years ago. Click here to see pix of the trip. There's another trip planned for this Saturday. If only the Tourist Development Corporation got its act in order (or private operators), this place would be a gold mine - its the equivalent of Stonehenge for Nigeria.


Baobab close-up

For BK, on request!


A trip to the North

I take the IRS flight to Maidugiri, capital of Borno State in the far north-east of the country. There are only three planes a week. The Monday noon flight I enter is full; demand may soon push the journey to daily flights. A man in an agbada sits down next to me with his female companion. They fall into an easy, relaxed exchange. The way she laughs indicates intimacy between them, but on another frequency, I can tell she is not his wife. As the stewardess goes through the safety ritual, I pick up the information sheet in the pouch in front of me. The alhaji glances at it. “I knew it was a Fokker” he declares with relish.

Seventy minutes later, the plane touches down. Along with a clutch of others, I am directed to the right of the arrivals hall, while everyone else continues straight ahead. I follow the directions, not sure what and why. I walk through a door into an empty and dusty hall. A few people are hanging around outside a room, with Immigration written above the door. I wheedle my way in. A woman and a man in uniform are interviewing a middle-aged middle-eastern man, while a young white guy waits nearby, his passport at the ready. I ask the audience why we have to see anyone in immigration, it being a local flight. Someone to my right tells me that we have to be interviewed. I am the last in line. A couple of men are going to a medical conference, another man is on business.

After fifteen minutes, I sit down in front of the female official. With a hint of irritation, I ask her why there has to be an interview. She tells me it is because Borno has borders with other countries. I reply that the same is the case with Lagos and Cross River States, but there is no interview process there. She looks at me with a mixture of mild disdain, her eyebrows arching upwards with authority. I decide that politeness may be the better approach for the rest of our encounter. She says that some people land at the airport and then get in a car and race to the Cameroon border. She then asks if I would like to go to Cameroon. Discombobulated by her question for a few seconds, I say that I have no intention of going there. She asks me why not. I wonder: is she just making conversation, or testing my responses? Is this boredom at work, or an analytical response process? I say that I am not interested at the moment in getting lost in mountains and forests, or seeing gorillas, so Cameroon is not part of my plan. Her male colleague, who has been studying me, asks me if that is my only impression of Cameroon. I say, of course, it is similar, at least on the western edge, to the Nigerian state that shares the longest border with the country, Cross River. I wonder if he is upset that I am characterising Cameroon in this way. And so I add that I would like of course to go one day to Cameroon, to see the mountains. He retorts that one doesn’t need to go to Cameroon to see mountains, that there are mountains in Nigeria. I consider this for a while – I have never heard of there being a mountain in Nigeria. I ask him where there is a mountain in Nigeria, and suggest that Nigeria only has hills. He doesn’t answer. I think I have annoyed him. Meanwhile, time is passing and my car will be waiting. The man takes my passport, and writes down details in long hand in a ledger book. I change my tack and smile and effuse to the woman. A few minutes later, my passport is back in my pocket and I can go.

The road from the airport takes us on the outskirts of the town. I see a familiar face on a billboard near a t-junction. Then I realise it is the face of our downstairs neighbour. He is running for governor in the upcoming elections. The driver tells me he is well known in the state, and as he is backed by the PDP, has a good chance of winning. I wonder what will become of our compound if he wins. Already, senior politicians come to visit, with cars and armed police regularly filling the yard. To my disappointment, we do not drive through the town, but quickly find ourselves on a straight and increasingly empty road through the Sahel scrub. Every mile or so, we pass a traditional village, with thatch fences, pot-shaped mud buildings and architectural stacks of elephant grass drying nearby. The driver tells me the villages are a mixture of Hausa, Kanuri and Fulani, the three main ethnic groups in the North-East. I ask him where the baobabs are. He tells me that there are many. But we have yet to see one. Instead, we pass endless acacias and tamarind trees. And then, a little way off the road, I see my first baobab in years. And then I see another, and another, until the landscape is dotted with the trees, creating a delightfully strange and spiky landscape.

My fascination with baobabs began with reading Le Petit Prince as a boy. In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s magical story, a pilot crashes his plane in the desert, yet survives the crunch. Just before he gives up hope of finding help and dying of heat and thirst, a little boy appears, and teaches him the secrets of living by describing some of the planets he has visited. He describes a baobab tree on one planet. Every child should know the story of The Little Prince, just as every child should then be able to look upon baobabs with wonderment. Just after entering Yobe State, we stop so I can take pictures of a huge old specimen. Walking up to the tree, one sees that the trunk is hollow inside, the litres of water stored under the bark forming a tube shape. They are called kuka in hausa and are held in respect and awe. Spirits are said to dwell in kuka, so no one in the North will ever deliberately chop one down. We climb back into the car, and hundreds then thousands of the trees blur by. Fulani herders steer cows across the scrub. In this part of the country, the cows are dark brown, and sometimes have huge horns. There is a beautiful melancholy in the slow tread of the beasts.

An hour and a half later, we enter Damaturu and hit a wall of traffic. The Action Congress party are holding a political rally. The symbol of the party is the African broom. Hired unemployed youth spill out of brightly coloured lorries, shouting and punching the air. The driver takes a short cut to avoid losing time. After driving down some sandy back streets, we find the office where I will be based. Nearby, some youths play football in the sand between baobabs. Some men are building a structure with lumps of mud thrown between the hard dried mud bricks. Life in Damaturu drifts on, as it has done and will do.

During the course of the day, I am taken to meet various senior ranking civil servants of the state. Inside one office (an auditor), papers and files are piled high on every available flat surface. There is an air of decay and dysfunction in the dimly lit room. It looks like electricity seldom graces the office with its favours. There framed photographs of the governor and an Emir. Next to these is an old schoolboy’s poster. I ask the civil servant about this. He tells me it was his college, in Kano. It has been there since the 1920’s and has given Nigeria Emir’s a men of high political office. He tells us he has worked in his ministry since the 1960’s, when Yobe State did not exist (the whole region was subsumed under Borno State). He has been in his current office for fifteen years. I try to imagine fifteen years surrounded by slowly decaying paper, and cannot. His office is so full of files that he works sitting on the sofa near his desk. In my travels around other state governments, I have found that auditing is yet to be taken seriously, for obvious reasons.

Later, we eat dinner at Lizzie’s – the best restaurant in town. We are led to an inner room, which is done up in Nigerian posh: luridly fake flowers, gilded chairs, and the television with Channel O on in one corner. Lizzie is summoned. She is an imposing woman dressed in expensive looking red fabric. Within two minutes my new colleagues have rice and meat, confirming that African fast food need not be an oxymoron. My rice and vegetable stew takes longer. I find out that there are no aubergines or courgettes in Yobe.

I am later taken to my hotel, the Classic Motel. I have been booked into the Executive suite, which has an ante-room with its own bathroom. Two channels are available on the small television, beneath heavy layers of snow. My colleague asks if there is water in the room. “Plenty sah!” answers the porter. “It is running well well.” NTA has a station for Damaturu on Channel 7. Earlier in the day, in various offices, the TV was tuned to the English language Al-Jazeerah channel. Here, the satellite service is not DSTV. Once the satellite is installed, there is no subscription cost. Most of the channels are from the Arab world. In my host’s house a little later, we hop through channels from almost every Arab country, before finding BBC World. There is a strong sense of allegiance to Arabia, rather than to the Nigerian south.

My companion for the night is an upended cockroach in the bathroom. I leave it wiggling its tiny legs helplessly, meaning I don’t have to face killing it before sleep, but also ensuring it cannot crawl about while hypnos descends. I call for the porter and ask him if he can procure a beer. Yobe being a Sharia state, this involves him leaving the hotel and going somewhere. He says it is possible, and leaves with two hundred naira. A few minutes later, I sup my semi-cool Star while typing up my work notes from the day. I consider statistics I’d read earlier about Yobe’s greatest asset: its livestock. There are more cows in the state than people. And unless I misread the figures, there are 880,000 camels in the state. That must be 88,000 surely? Speaking of statistics, Yobe State is the least literate in the Federation. For example, only one in five adult women in the State is literate.

Up early the next day, I pulp the still wiggling cockroach, and clear up the remains before entering the shower. I turn on the tap, only to find water streaming unenthusiastically out of the base of the shower pipe, at about hip height. Fortunately, there is a bucket nearby which I use to slowly gather enough water. So much for the water being well well.

After another day of meetings, I return to the Classic Motel to find there is no space at the inn. They had forgotten I had booked for two nights. I am directed to the Oasis hotel a short walk down a nearby street. When I arrive in the compound, there are men loitering around in the yard. They look like drivers. The receptionist is among them. He shows me to a dimly lit room with a dirty red carpet and a dirty looking bed. How much? I ask him. One thousand naira he replies. Having no other option, I take it. I silently praise my wife for insisting I take a duvet cover with me. It will ensure some level of protection against bed lice and skin infection. I unpack my wash bag and go to the bathroom. There is a strong smell of urine in the bathroom. I turn on the sink tap but nothing happens. Fantastic: no water for the night. Returning to the bedroom, the smell of urine has infused the room. I had anticipated a moment like this and so took out a joss stick from my suitcase and lit it. A few moments later, the electricity went, and stayed off for the rest of the night.

At six fifteen the next morning, the driver picks me to begin my journey to Jigawa. My mind feels fresh and alive with possibility. I decide to think about the relationship between chance and necessity. I arrive at the thesis that although contradictory, any metaphysical account of the world must somehow accommodate both chance and necessity. Chance refers to the initial conditions: oxygenation occurs on a planet’s ecosystem. Carbon-based life-forms cede to oxygen-based organisms. Humans and societies emerge. It is within the terms set by these initial conditions that necessity dictates the way. One has a certain character, therefore one will respond to the world through the ways of the character. As Sartre said, man is condemned to be free. I smile as the theory emerges, and select pathways into the metaphysical jungle to clear for the journey ahead.

A few minutes after passing through the gates to the city, we come across a tree trunk blocking the road. A few meters ahead of it, an orange broken-down lorry sits motionless, both cabin doors wide open, creating metal ears. Through the fug of early morning fatigue, a quiet bell of alarm softly chimes. Seconds later, about twenty men race in from the bush to the right of the road. They have bottles with yellowish liquid in their hands. The driver quickly reverses at speed, the Land Rover’s engine screaming in pain. Ahead of us in the direction we are now travelling, more men are emerging from the bush, aiming bottles at us. I expected the windows to crack at any moment. Seconds later, and we’ve cleared enough ground for the driver to turn and put the car into a forward gear, leaving the marauders behind. We park about half a mile down the road. A few minutes later, a car appears, coming from Damaturu. My driver flags it down and explains the situation ahead. The passenger is a Yoruba guy with a pot belly. Minutes later, more cars arrive and a lorry, each one parking behind, with men clambering out and listening to explanations. Everyone speaks in excited hausa, pointing ahead at the orange lorry in the middle of the road in the distance. Villagers appear from the settlement just off the road and join in the discussion. Then a lorry appears from the direction of Damaturu, and slows down while passing us. The driver ignores various pleas to stop, and carries on in the direction of the ambush. A few minutes later, we can see his lorry had stopped, just before the orange lorry. Ant like figures drag him from the cabin. He puts up strong resistance; I can see more and more ants joining in to drag him away. I ask an elegant looking man in sunglasses whether incidents like this were common. They are not uncommon on these roads, he replies, a little ominously. I worry for the poor guy in the truck ahead of us. Why had he ignored our advice?

About twenty minutes later, a man on a motorbike approaches from the direction of the ambush. He drives at speed through the crowd on the road. Everyone had expected him to stop. Someone says that he must be one of the robbers, going to see if the police are coming, phoning ahead if he sees them. I am momentarily overcome by panic: what if he has brought reinforcements from Damaturu, and we will be trapped on both sides? Seconds later, a BMW 4x4 with blackened windows appears from Damaturu, with Peugeot escorts in front and back. The convoy slows slightly while passing us, and then speeds up. Someone says it must be a local politician. My driver gestures for me to get in the car. All the parked vehicles roar into life, as we follow the BMW back to the scene of the ambush. I conclude that either the BMW or the escorts have weapons. A lorry drives ahead of us, while to our left, a car overtakes us at speed. I feel nervous about whether the marauders are still ahead, and whether there would be some kind of skirmish. I try to ask the driver whether everything is now okay, but he has no English. He understands the intent of the question however and responds with a soothing gesture with his hands. He then tries to overtake the lorry. There are about ten cars and lorries in our convoy, charging towards the scene. I took a deep breath, and swallow as much hope as I can find.

We come to the tree trunk. An estate car is passing the trunk in the opposite direction, full of passengers. I look left and right rapidly. There is only bushes and scrub. It doen’t seem possible that everyone who tried to attack us could have disappeared, the landscape is surely too sparse of flora. Our car slows to a few miles an hour as we pass the tree trunk. A few metres later, we drive to the right of the orange lorry. Inside the cabin, the driver’s seat has been ripped apart with signs of what must have been a vicious struggle. Then I realise that we have still not passed the lorry that had been stopped, that was before the orange lorry a few minutes earlier. Meanwhile, the driver has speeded up, and we are now on our way Westwards at one hundred and forty kph. Baobab after baobab whizz by, and a sense of alarm and panic slowly lifts. I try to work out what had happened earlier. The following hypotheses come to me:

1. The ambush, the driver on the motorbike and the blackened out BMW are disconnected events. The ambushers must have escaped in the second hijacked lorry.

2. The motorbike rider was part of the gang. He phoned ahead as soon as he saw the politician.

3. The politician was in on the ambush. The motorbike rider’s appearance was the cue for the ambushers to leave the scene and for the politician to begin his journey.

I also wonder about the motives of the ambushers. Why did they not have guns? Were they just poor villagers? Had they wandered into the state from Niger? Or from Chad? Or from Sudan? I thought for a moment about Darfur, not so far from where we were. I thought about the landscape there, which must resemble that of Yobe. I imagine the extreme fear of being raided by the Janjaweed. I think about the complicit helplessness of the West in Darfur, and the extractive evil behind the benign Chinese mask in the region. Then another question occurs to me: what did they want? Did they want the lorry? But why did they leave the orange lorry abandoned? Did they want the goods from the lorry? But how would they carry them away? Then, a final black thought occurred: perhaps they are bori cultists, who need skulls and body parts…

My mind grows heavy with these thoughts that do not resolve themselves, and I fall asleep.

When I awake, we are in Bauchi State. I see a sign with Yankari on it – we must be near the reserve. We pass beautiful mud buildings, long smooth dark brown walls emanating cool. We drive over emerald rivers, with cows and goats lapping up the water. We cross a metal bridge, with boys swimming near its piers. And every so often, we pass a quarry, with men deep inside crafting mud bricks from the raw earth.

After three or fours hours on the road, we come to a rocky escarpment, with kuka seeming to puncture through boulders. We have finally arrived at Dutse, the State capital of Jigawa. Dutse means stone in hausa, and Jigawa means sand dune. I learn later that there are several large dunes in the north of the state. I imagine a tourist industry springing up around the dunes as in Dubai. Australians and Brits coming to dune-surf. Perhaps in fifty years, perhaps never.

Jigawa is a pleasant surprise. There is a general air of efficiency and purpose in the state government, in contrast to Yobe. I meet permanent secretaries who are knee-deep in detailed knowledge about their IT requirements and fully focused on reform. Jigawa has five emirates, four of which report to the Dutse Emirate. The state government is decentralised in accordance with the emirate structure. We take a trip to a Local Government Area. I had wanted to visit Hadeja where the wetlands are (one of the main stop-offs for migratory birds in Europe on their way to southern Africa), but it was a little too far to do in a day. We pass by the band of river and water that becomes the wetlands a little further to the East. Apparently, the wetlands are receding, thanks to a transplanted crop that is wreaking havoc with the local ecosystem. Again, there are emerald rivers and quarry pits and animals drinking. We pass by a caravan of camels with Tuareg looking men standing around. The government official I am with explains that they are probably from deep inside Niger, or even from Algeria. He tells me that they will be taking dates and sugar and other commodities to eastern Nigeria. I ask him if they will have passports. They will not even know what a passport is, he chuckles. How fascinating that camel caravans are still in existence in Nigeria, centuries if not millennia after they began. As we move further north, the trees become increasingly scarce, sometimes hundreds of metres apart. We pass by dried up river beds. My fellow passenger explains that this is a sure sign of desertification. The process is not helped by the fact that villagers continue to cut trees down for firewood. I wonder where all the money from carbon-offsetting schemes is being spent. Certainly, it is not spent planting trees against the encroaching Sahara in Northern Nigeria.

Later, I read about the animal statistics in Jigawa. There are apparently 125,000 cattle, 1,171 camels, 5,502 donkeys. This confirms my suspicion about the camel count in neighbouring Yobe. Near the border with Niger, there is a huge cattle market at Magaturi. Apparently it draws half a million people each time it holds. There are efforts by the donors to sanitise the market – there is not enough accommodation or services for the people that deluge the town.

When we arrive in the LGA, we are shown the local government secretariat. A telecoms mast lies unerected and rusting in the yard. Nearby, a generator lies housed in a corrugated shack, unconnected. I ask why the mast was not constructed, and why the generator is not used. About thirty men are standing around me in gleaming agbadas. I do not get a conclusive answer. Later, we drive to a school in the town. Here, a mast has been erected, but there is no antenna. A nearby generator has again not been wired. Just by the gen set, a classroom with thirty computers lies unused. The computers have plastic sheets over them. There is no power to use the facility, as no one has connected the generator and there is no NEPA here. What happened to the antenna? I ask an official why the easily-solvable problem has not been addressed. He considers for a minute and then answers. The computers need the internet to work, and because there is no internet, no one has thought to install the generator. Yes, he repeats, that must be the reason. I politely inform him that computers do not need an internet connection to work, and that e-learning cd-roms on maths and English could easily be bought in nearby Kano. He looks at me with surprise. Perhaps it is genuine: no one has explained to him that cd-roms work without the internet. Or perhaps it is a response he likes to cling to, like a captive deciding against the worst possible of fates.

Later that day, I complain about what I have seen to senior functionaries. They have just told stories about late middle-aged colleagues who are happy to retire early and volunteer back in their villages. I suggest that Civil Society Organisations tap into this informal volunteer passion, and solve simple problems like that at the school. They dismiss my suggestion, for no obvious reason. The gap of trust between the public and the government opens up, and occupies the silences between our words. Later that evening, I go for drinks with a British development worker. The ‘bar’ is at the edge of town along a dusty road. It is where the police go to drink and have a smoke. After three Stars, I am not fully capable of walking in a straight line (I am not a drinker). I go for a piss outside. The night sky is velvet black. I suddenly long to be in the bush five hundred metres away, to gaze at the stars unadulterated by lights from the town. My hotel has water and almost constant power, I discover with gratitude a little later on.

The drive into Kano the next day is uneventful along smooth roads, apart from the arresting sight of a pick-up van stuffed full of the largest squashes I have ever seen as we enter the city. I don’t have time to take out my camera. Later, in a series of meetings, I discover high stakes and complex institutional arrangements within the state government. It will take time to unpick an intervention solution in this case. I stay at the Tahir guest house, which is perhaps 3 stars by international standards, scoffing homous, pitta and chips as if it has been a year from civilisation. I watch Al-Jazeerah, then go an eat at Spice Foods restaurant. The food is excellent – the best ‘Indian’-style food I have eaten in Nigeria. I talk to the Pakistani owner, Siddiqi. He mentions with pride that the restaurant is in the Bradt guide and has just appeared in the new Lonely Planet West Africa. He has a real passion for slow-cooked food. He tells me Kano is slowly dying. I ask him why. He tells me the riots three years ago were the catalyst, with many people being killed, and businesses burnt to the ground. Since then, rival markets have opened up in nearby states, taking trade away from the city. The only major industry left is the leather-export industry. He is looking to move to Abuja and open up there. I suggest that this is a good idea, with Wakkis being full every night of the week with mostly ex-pats and Thai Chi persisting with an unadventurous menu and a certain lack of atmosphere, there is definitely room for lovingly prepared Asian cuisine. Back at the hotel, a party finishes, and men in elegant agbadas spill out. Handsome, colourfully dressed women with henna’d hands talk excitedly. I study the earrings of one woman – gold rings extending along the rim of her ear. The next morning, I fly Virgin Nigeria back to Abuja. My trip to the north has come to a close, but the yearning to return again opens ever wider.


The train crash

Having travelled many times on the North-Western line out of Euston, and quite a few times on Virgin's Pendolino trains, as with many others, I can imagine all too easily what it would be like to be on the train as it derails unexpectedly at speed and slides and rolls down a steep embankment, as with the train crash a few days ago in Cumbria.

Just as with the Potter's Bar tragedy, one sees how the arrangements of privatisation have made the railways less safe, offering a poorer and more expensive service than when they were owned and run by British Rail, all those years ago. All the while that the train service in Britain has declined and become unsafe, trains in continental Europe (which are publicly owned and subsidised), run on time, are value for money, and hardly ever have accidents (can you remember the last train crash in Europe?)

Separating the ownership and management of the track from the rolling stock at the time of privatisation was always going to risk creating an accountability gap, and this is what has happened. Network Rail, the publicly owned organisation that took over from Railtrack (which was privately owned), uses the same outsourced contracting arrangements for maintenance, and perhaps alarmingly, uses the same contractor involved in the Potter's Bar crash, Jarvis. Worse still, Jarvis are using the same pathetic excuse as last time: it was perhaps sabotage.

Although I am pro-privatisation for the energy and telecoms sectors, I remain pro-public ownership for transport networks, based on European experience. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the outsourced contractor model in the public sector context (for roads and rail), but regulation needs to play a far stronger role. One would have thought there could be a technology made available (with sensors and gsm-signal devices) that reduce the dependence on manual inspection of points on the track. Beyond the speculation, I suspect that no one's head will roll after the Cumbria accident; the accountability gap being conveniently wide.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pop Idol Ghana

Oh dear - the Ghana leg of Pop Idol West Africa is awful. The quality of the 'talent' is way lower than Nigeria. Wetin dey happen? I would be embarrassed to be Ghanaian judging by the crap that walked into the studio.. Is it just that Nigeria has a much bigger population (and therefore more mathematical opportunity for talent to emerge), or the Ghana leg was not well advertised, or is it simply that Ghana lacks a youth culture as vital and energetic as Nigeria's?


Fespaco 2007

Fespaco, the biennial African film festival in Ouaga, opened yesterday. Sadly, the Fespaco website is hideously uninformative. There is no list of films competing for the Etalon d'Or. I do know that Mak Kusare's 90 degrees (see a post from a couple or so months ago about the young Nigerian director) is being shown, which will mark a change for the francophone-dominated event. In time, quality Anglophone West African film should come to challenge the French-speaking film hegemony. Meanwhile, can any film other than Bamako win (assuming its in the running)? Click here for something on the Beeb's site about this year's event.


Compound gist

I'm still typing up my trip to the North notes - should post today if I get round to it (recovering from a great party last night). Meanwhile, Bibi and I went for a neighbourhood walk yesterday evening - you can do these kind of things in Abuja, unlike those poor souls who suffer so in Lagos. On coming back into the compound, gateman number two (he always looks miserable and insists on wearing a woolly ski hat in all weathers) started moaning in sub-Yoruba to Bibi, complete with gestures re-enacting some scene. A mixture of my still ashamedly poor Yoruba comprehension and his poor diction meant I couldn't follow the story. He worked himself up and Bibi started remonstrating. It was only after we left him that she explained:

Our house-help Frederika had taken a pee too close to comfort to a yam of his, round the back of the BQ. This had upset him, so he had threatened to beat her up, in full view of the compound. Bibi had then turned tables and asked him what kind of man he is that he would consider beating a woman, which had frustrated his attempt to express his full complaint..

Compound life is seldom dull.


Flapjacks recipe

Someone in a comment asked for my flapjack recipe. This is the basic recipe I follow. They are so easy to make I actually enjoy not being able to buy them here. I often grind cashews or peanuts into the mix, as well as sultanas or apricots. The ultimate is to melt a bar of chocolate on top, but I'm always in too much of a hurry to bother. For special occasions, use maple syrup instead of bog standard syrup.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pop Idol West Africa

I come home from my Northern trek to two tv addicts - Bibi and sis-in-law Yetunde are official Pop Idol West Africa addicts. The show (broadcast on South African channel M-Net Series through DSTV) started last week. Having just watched an hour of it, I can see why. The three judges are Lagos based Cool FM Christian DJ Dan Foster, a Ghanaian singer named Abrewa Nana, and ex-Fela muso Dede Mabiaku. What's interesting is that a lot of the contestants (who have to sing acapella) are from the evangelical Christian gospel tradition, singing 'I believe I can fly' with warbly voices. Dan Foster goes along with this format, but Dede and Nana don't like the style at all. Dede (who plays the Simon Cowell grumpy critic role) knows his music and often has insightful critical comments, but more than anything, he's a theatrical joy to watch, with his husky baritone voice and dramatic hand-to-forehead gestures. So we have secular critique on Nigerian tv. Some of the singers are genuinely talented, but the evangelical-gospel style quickly becomes tedious.


End of the line, Kano

The railway line from the East arrives in Kano. Apparently, there is one train a day, and the journey takes 4 1/2 hours. A photojournalistic trip for somebody?


Billboard in Kano

Enigmatic, to say the least..


Traditional hausa huts, Kano State


Political graffiti, Dutse

Its not what you're thinking. The controversial Hindhu mystic (suspected paedophile and golden egg vomiter in chief Sai Baba) has not decamped to fight for a senatorial position in Jigawa State. Sai Baba is a local politico and owner of a newish hotel. I was grateful that water came out of the tap, after my experience in the Oasis motel in Damaturu..


Radio Station, Dutse


By the quarry, Jigawa State


Hommage to Salgado

Quarry, Jigawa State


By the quarry, Jigawa State


The Maidugiri - Kano line, Jigawa State


Classroom, Jigawa State


Unused computers, school in Jigawa State

There is a classroom next door, but these computers have never been used. No one has connected the generator that lies just outside the computer room. The school kids suffer, because of a mixture of stupidity and corruption..


More unfinished business

A Jigawa State LGA. This time, the mast was erected, but the antenna that will bring bandwidth to the local school was not fitted, creating a useless sculpture on the landscape, and denying the school kids access to the www. No doubt some bastard took his 15% egunje to create this typically dysfunctional scenario.


Unfinished business, Jigawa State

We visited a Local Government Area in Jigawa State to see for ourselves what development work is being done. This is the scene at one of the local government secretariats. Someone was paid to erect a mast for internet access. This is how far they got..


Near Dutse town, Jigawa State

Dutse means 'stone' in hausa. Meanwhile, 'Jigawa' means sand dune (there are several big dunes in the state, near the border with Niger).


Baobabs, Bauchi State


On the road to Dutse, Jigawa State


Near the scene of the ambush

The local villagers gathered to watch. You can see the vehicles banking up behind them. A few moments later, we all charged down the road towards the scene of the ambush..


Coffin maker's shack, Damaturu


Friends, Damaturu


Mosque in Damaturu


Public health advertising in Damaturu town

Yobe has one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in the country, at 1.1%. This is a good example of a localised information campaign, in Damaturu town.


Yobe State's tagline

One is tempted to put 'poor' after grow, but let's not tempt providence..


The civil servant's office


Friends, Damaturu


Building a house, Damaturu


Half time, Damaturu football match


Damaturu friends


Damaturu friends


Political rally in Damaturu town

For the Action Congress party (presidential candidate Atiku). The symbol of the party is the African broom. Note that Premier League affiliation at the bottom of the lorry.


Baobab on the road to Damaturu from Maidugiri


Wednesday, February 21, 2007


I've been travelling around the North on assignment for the EU -from Maidugiri to Kano (currently somewhere between). This morning, leaving Damaturu early in the morning in a Land Rover with a driver who spoke no English, we came across a tree trunk across the road, with a broken down lorry in the middle of the road ahead. As we drove around the trunk, about twenty men raced towards us from the bush, threatening to throw bottles filled with a yellowish liquid. My first thought was that they were petrol bombs. Luckily, the driver reacted quickly and we reversed at speed, the engine screaming. As we reversed, more men appeared from behind us. At one point, I thought we were done for, but we managed to manouver away. The marauders accosted a lorry that ignored our signs to stop. In the distance, I saw them drag him from the car, like ants attacking fallen fruit. Eventually, enough lorries and cars ganged up behind us for us to make a charge. The robbers melted away before we approached.

More on my Northern trip in a few days (including some fab pictures of baobab landscapes)...


Sunday, February 18, 2007

How to ruin your Sunday

Why do we do this to ourselves? Bibi asks me to go and buy the papers (we still have the UK Sunday ritual hard-wired into our habits), so I dutifully trudge off to buy Dis Day and Gaydian. After 45 mins, I am utterly depressed at the neanderthal attitudes and crappy production values. I know this is perhaps the twentieth time I have moaned about the diabolical state of the print media in Nigeria, but each time one opens the newspapers here one is shocked by the pathetic lack of standards and the stone age mentality.

I begin Sunday in a dark cloud of disgust. What to do? Go and make flapjacks!


African Cinema

There's an article on African cinema in this month's Sight and Sound (the British Film Institute's film magazine), based around the mini-season they are organising this month in London in partnership with Curzon cinemas and the Ritzy. The highlight of the season will be the launch of Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako's film Bamako, where the World Bank and the IMF are put on trial by villagers. I watched his earlier film Life on Earth last night, and watched again Joseph Gai Ramaka's Karmen Gei the night before (a polysexual Senegalese re-telling of Carmen). The Francophone West African film tradition is much derided by the Africa Magic/Nollywood posse as "African film for Westerners", which they reject on the basis of the overwhelming popularity of the Nigerian video market across the continent. I have two responses to this argument: the first is that the idea that African cinema that is as nuanced and subtle as the Francophone tradition is only the preserve of a Western audience is enormously patronising to the many Africans/Nigerians who find Nollywood an utter embarrassment. Two: the idea that popularity is an index of quality is just a little stupid, to say the least.

One sometimes despairs that while the rest of Africa is producing fresh and innovative painting, photography and film in the face of enormous existential challenges, Nigeria languishes in the laziest and most unsubtle forms of creative expression.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Competition in the energy sector

In conversation with an energy lawyer a couple of days ago, a picture of the privatised NEPA/PHCN world to come started to emerge. Although PHCN has been broken up, with bids for the various aspects of the existing business and tenders for new Independent Power Plants ongoing, it looks like the overall strategy for power generation has not been fully thought through. It seems that there has been no strategy for giving consumer choice in the consumption of electricity, so Nigerians will move from dealing with a huge dysfunctional national monopoly to area-specific monopolies. Quite why the new energy matrix was not designed with competition in mind from the outset is a puzzle. Just as with the telecoms sector, a whole raft of interconnect agreements will have to be implemented before consumers have access to an alternative provider. Let's hope the new regulating agency plays a strong role in opening up competition in the next few years.


Friday, February 16, 2007

The play and Abuja violence

Our house was a train station today: one person after another coming and going. I like living in a place where there's constant circulation of people with thoughts and projects and stuff happening to them, but my work suffers from all the juicy distractions. In the evening we went to see the Odia play (see the flyer below). I wish I could say we enjoyed it, but alas, there were multiple issues. I found myself coming up with ideas for better plays while watching it. There's something dramatically uncontemporary about the Nigerian theatre I've seen while living here - its out of touch with present-day experience. Maybe I'll sit down with someone and write out the idea I had...

At the play, I caught up with a doctor friend. There had been a shooting last night - an Abuja uni student took an unintended bullet and died, her boyfriend's chest was ripped open by a pump-action shotgun (I think it was 'cult' activity, whatever that might really mean). Dr _ usually looks exhausted, but this evening, he looked as tired as a man still standing can look. I'm worried he's going to burn out. He was counting his blessings: although he could save neither of the people shot yesterday, he undertook a successful bone graft (from leg to face) recently - without ever having witnessed this procedure before.

Thinking of gun crime: what on earth is going on in South London these days?


Thursday, February 15, 2007

The indefatigable Mo Abudu

If there was a vote for the number one superwoman in the corporate world in Nigeria, I reckon Mo Abudu would win hands down. Not content with setting up Vic Lawrence, a leading HR consultancy, and bringing the upscale Protea Oakwood Park to reality along the Lekki axis in Lagos, she has now launched the Inspire Africa project: part talk show, part publishing business, part business centre network for Africans in the diaspora. Does this woman ever run out of ideas or energy? I'm lucky to know Mo, and besides the stellar corporate career, there's much else to admire about her. A devout Christian married to a Muslim man is one key thing to celebrate, in these intolerant times. Go check out the site and be inspired by this one-woman roller coaster...


Spread the lurve this Sunday

If you're in London and want to bathe in love and positivity this weekend, here's what you should do on Sunday (click the flyer for full image)...


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Vals Day

Valentines Day seems to be a big thing in Nigeria. People don't just buy cards/flowers to those they admire, sisters buy brothers and brothers buy sisters cards, and everyone says Happy Valentines Day (our pa bought Bibi and I a joint card this morning). Its all a bit strange - it was never that big a deal when I was growing up. I sent one card once when I was 11, but I can't remember ever receiving one. It seems that it has become a globalised phenomenon, celebrated from Timbuktu to Tipton. The only way to explain it is in terms of capitalism requiring a little energising of the system in the long interval between Christmas and Easter..


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Article on Abuja slum life

On today's BBC site. Thanks PK for the link.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Jos Theatre festival

please pass on accordingly..


Odia Ofeimun play showing in Abuja this week..

Feel free to circulate this flyer wherever.. (click on the banner to download the full size version)


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