The week I arrived Aba, a bus driver had been killed, allegedly for stubbornness in dispensing with money at a checkpoint on the Port Harcourt highway. My driver, as circumspect and suspicious as ever, assured me the police regularly incriminated the innocent. If all the vehicle and personal documents were in order, they found some fault with the fire extinguisher or requested to see certification for re-spraying the car, knowing fully well no such thing exists. A regular picture encountered on my trip was of a policeman standing in the middle of the road, gun in the right hand. The left fist into which currency notes were pumped by drivers remained half-open. How this effective strategy for “revenue collection” could identify kidnappers or the kidnapped can only be properly explained by Nigeria’s Inspector-General of Police and the Federal Minister for Interior, both natives of the South-East.
Within Aba there is a dangerous variation - the pedestrian checkpoint! People passing through this contraption on the major streets must raise both arms above their heads in surrender to the occupation forces. A humiliation of citizens within their own country could not be more perfect! Finally, in drumming rainfall I made it in to our tenants who had never met me. For obvious reasons I gave no prior notice of my visit. It took a while for someone to answer my knock on the massive steel gate. I had begun to wonder if it was the right place. Since my last visit, the fruit trees in the garden had grown into a lush green forest; the cottage was hardly visible from outside. Someone unbolted the gate, smiling. “From your face I know you must be Madam’s son,” Mr. Nwachukwu said. “We were watching you from our hideout upstairs. No one opens doors for a stranger these days in Aba. My friend, have you seen the rain?” he greeted warmly. There is consternation here at the sudden interest in their city. Hear Mr. Nwachukwu: “For more than 30 years now we’ve been living with abductions and summary executions by Bakassi Boys, other criminal militia and vigilante groups. Local governments now openly kidnap family members of tenants and landlords for defaulting on payment of various infrastructure levies. Every month property certificates must be re-certified. They shot the son of our neighbour, right here! Come and see blood!” he exclaimed. Reality overtakes preconception in this place.
To add insult to misery, billboards welcome travellers to Abia with the blasphemous slogan, “God’s Own State!” Posters eulogize South-east governors and their spouses as “rare gems!” Despite the hallucinatory language, Aba roadsides remain a rotten salad of hungry-looking artisans, aggressive beggars, disease, garbage, junk vehicles and mechanics, stagnant gutters, vendors and vultures. There is brisk business in manufacture of steel gates and wooden coffins, perhaps to remind the visitor that death could just be round the corner. None of the South-eastern governors has any deep, visceral commitment to institutionalized democracy or understanding of economic planning. Yet one of these states produced a recent Central Bank governor.
Notices outside Aba night clubs typify the restrictive nature of life: no shorts and sleeveless shirts; no walking sticks; no handbags; no slippers or sandals; no smoking or drinking on the dance floor; no hats or caps; no dancing with same sex; no fighting; no smoking of marijuana! Before the road journey to Abuja, passengers leaving Aba were thoroughly searched. A cameraman then took mugshots of each of us, as though we were going to jail. But in fact, it was an exit from hell.