Jerry and Solo are sitting at a table in silence in Pangolo Junction, a down-at-heel, somewhat disreputable drinking joint. As usual, the atmosphere is raucous and noisy, with loud background music, and arguments going off like firecrackers. But our duo’s minds is on other things; every now and then, one of them either looks towards the door or looks at their watch.
“He is usually here by now,” says Solo with a frown of concern. “It’s not like him to be late. And he’s not answering his phone.”
Jerry shrugs, pours himself some more kunu from a bottle on the table and takes a swig. “Perhaps his wife has become fed up of his evenings out and has decided to lay down the law.”
“Or maybe he forgot; sometimes he gets very absorbed in his work at the Ministry.”
“Or maybe he’s fed up of these get togethers; he’s always going on about how a responsible man like him should not be seen in these kinds of joints.”
Once more, they turn their attention to the door, and this time their expectations are rewarded as a visibly frazzled Zack stomps into the Junction and makes a beeline for their table. Without a word, he swipes Jerry’s half empty glass, tips up the bottle and sends the kunu inside gurgling into the glass, then downs the contents in a few deep gulps.
“That’s better!” he exclaims, plunking himself down on a chair at the table.
“So I take it that’s why you were delayed by unavoidable circumstances?” asks Solo, leaning forward.
Zack nods vigorously. “Yes o! I’m really fed up of having to deal with this public transport anarchy on a daily basis. I honestly wish that damn mechanic would hurry up and finish fixing my car!”
“My sympathies,” Jerry said, with a very unsympathetic grin. “Still, I think what happened today must have been extra special. We don’t usually hear you complain about public transport as loudly as you are doing today.”
“Well, there’s good reason for that.” Zack answers, reaching out again for the bottle. “Today was very different. After leaving work, I boarded the bus that takes me to this place. I usually pay about forty naira for the journey, but for some unknown reason, the bus conductor said he was going to collect sixty naira from us that evening.
“Needless to say, everyone protested, but the conductor was adamant that he was going to collect his sixty naira, and if we didn’t like it we should go and find another bus. That shut most of us up, but there was one fellow who said that he was going to pay not a kobo more than forty naira.
“Of course you can figure out what happened next. When the conductor started to collect his fares, the rebel handed him two twenty naira notes and gave him a look of defiance as if to say “do your worst”. Predictably enough, a war of words started up with the conductor saying “Sebi I don already tell you say na sixty naira I go collect!”, the rebel saying “How can you charge me sixty naira for a forty naira journey… I’m not paying!” and the rest of the passengers murmuring their support for the rebel.
“Eventually the driver stopped the bus and said he was going nowhere until the rebellious passenger paid the remaining amount. There was yet more shouting for another fifteen minutes, and it was looking like the argument might turn physical at any moment. I was thoroughly fed up of it all, so I decided to play the peacemaker by offering the conductor the extra twenty naira.”
Solo nods his head in a mixture of approval and admiration. “An excellent win-win-win solution! The conductor gets his money, the rebel doesn’t pay more than forty naira and everyone else avoids further delay to their destination!”
“Actually, I think it’s more of a lose-lose-lose situation,” says Jerry, shaking his head in disagreement. “The conductor’s exploitation is validated so he will try to exploit again the next time, the rebel’s response is also validated so he will pull his rebellious stunt next time thus delaying the rest of the passengers, and needless to say, poor Zachariah has had to part with a whole twenty naira.”
Solo waves Jerry’s rebuttal away and turns again to Zack. “Well, whatever the good or bad in your decision, at least you got here in the end.”
“No-o, that’s not all that happened,” replies Zack, shaking his head.
“What?” his friends chorus in surprise.
“Well, We had been travelling for another fifteen minutes after resuming our journey when for no reason, the bus broke down on a stretch of expressway. The passengers then proceeded to vent their collective anger and frustration upon the heads of the driver and conductor, especially because they had been forced to pay more than usual.”
Jerry is amused. “Let me guess – the loudest voice was that of the rebel, right? Even though he hadn’t had to pay any extra?”
“Actually, yes, you’re right,” Zack says, surprised. “To hear him shout, you’d have thought that he had chartered the bus himself.”
“I’m sure he’s one of those people who just thrive on aggression, disharmony and controversy,” Solo muses. “I foresee him dying of a high blood pressure related illness at the age of 46.”
Zack goes on. “Such people have their uses, but I got the sense that he was merely desperately seeking attention. Anyway, the conductor brazenly announced that the passengers had two options – they could either wait for the bus to be fixed, or they could hit the road. Of course the shouting got louder, but by this time I had decided that enough was enough and I was going to make my way through some other means. Two incidents in the same journey is very suspicious – perhaps God was trying to tell me something.”
“But didn’t the other passengers frown at you for your lack of solidarity as you walked away, then?” Jerry wonders.
Zack answers with a contemptuous snort. “Soli-wetin! Are you serious? As soon as I started to walk away, most of the rest of the passengers followed. I tell you, we’re a spineless lot, we Nigerians!”
Solo is more philosophical. “I think you’re being too harsh. Perhaps they were as completely fed up as you were of the situation, or like you they viewed it as a sign from God. But tell me,” he continues, “did the rebel follow the rest of you?”
“That one?” Zack waves as though brushing off something inconsequential. “At first he was going to do his rebel act, but when he noticed that he would be only performing for the stray goats chewing grass by the expressway, he too slunk away.”
“So you finally got another bus and made it here, right?” Solo asks.
Again, Zack shakes his head. “No-o, that’s not all that happened.”
“You’re joking!” his friends chorus again in surprise. There is a moment of stunned silence, then the questions come fast and thick.
“Did you get held up by the state governor’s convoy?”
“Were you involved in a motor vehicle accident?”
“Were you accosted by area boys, armed robbers or (worse still) policemen?”
“Did the driver of the bus you boarded take you to a wrong destination?”
“Did you sleep off on the bus and wake up in the bus garage?”
“Or were you abducted by terrorists who recruited you into their cell and got you to launch high profile attacks against several Western governments?”
This question from Jerry gets bemused stares from Zack and Solo. “No need to look at me like that,” he continues. “I’m just considering all the possible options here.”
Zack continues staring at him with a mixture of suspicion and puzzlement, then he continues. “None of these happened. You see, all the buses that passed by where I was standing were filled up, so they weren’t stopping. In the end, I decided to take an okada.”
Solo reacts to this with horror. “An okada on an expressway! What were you thinking?
Sighing, Zack responds, “With hindsight, I don’t think I was thinking at all! I should have taken a hint when I saw the rider swerve across three lanes of the expressway to pull over. But I was really tired by then.
“As soon as the guy took off, I knew I had made a mistake. My brothers, during that ride, I saw my whole life flash in front of me several times. The man was reckless – absolutely reckless! I lost count of the number of times he would swerve in and out of traffic with inches to spare. After seeing that screaming, cursing, begging and pleading for him to stop his daredevil antics had no effect, I resigned myself to God’s protection.”
“I don’t understand,” a confused Solo asks. “Why didn’t you ask him to stop so you could get off?”
“Of course I ordered him to stop several times – but I don’t think he could hear me over the noise of his motorcycle revs. Besides, I dreaded to think what kind of manoeuvre he would have pulled off to try and stop – assuming he would have wanted to stop. I think he was actually enjoying himself – throughout the ride, his mouth was permanently set in one kind of crazy smile. Every now and then, he would make a whooping noise that sounded like “Shakarakama!”
“I think the Holy Spirit of Motorcycling must have descended on him,” comments Jerry, leaning back in his chair with an amused smile.
Solo shakes his head slowly from side to side to clear away an unpleasant vision in which pieces of Zack, motorcyclist and motorcycle are strewn across the road. “Anyway, please tell me you had no further adventures and you got here safely!”
“Thankfully, yes,” replies Zack. “The foolish rider was expecting me to pay him, but when he felt the red heat of the anger blazing from my eyes, he knew that this would be a most foolish thing to do.”
There is a moment’s silence, as the three digest and contemplate the manic twists and turns of Zack’s journey towards the Junction.
“OK, so you obviously had a bad day,” Jerry says. “But this is just how things are in Nigerian towns and cities,” he adds, shrugging.
“But it doesn’t have to be this way!” Zack exclaims, banging on the table in frustration. “The problem is that there is a complete lack of absence of regulation of the public transport! You have buses that are one breakdown away from the scrapheap driven by drivers who shouldn’t be allowed within a hundred metres of a steering wheel and managed by conductors who charge arbitrarily high fares.
“If I was in charge, I would ensure that the bus owners took them to garages for regular checks to ensure they were roadworthy. I’d ensure that the drivers were certified as fit to drive by making them sit special tests. And I’d set strict guidelines as to how much the drivers could charge so everyone knew what to expect.”
Solo is nodding in agreement, but Jerry frowns instead. “Sounds good in theory, but look at what will happen in practice. Regular checkups cost money… fixing faults found during checkups costs more money… certification costs even more money. I wonder how the bus owners are going to find this extra money… Hmm… let me see… oh yes! The passengers! They can pay more! Why didn’t I think of that before? Not that I care anyway, since I have my Lexus,” he concludes smugly.
Zack gives him evil grin. “Did I forget to add that if I was in charge, I would also levy a car tax to pay for all this? I would also make sure that the tax was triple for people who owned Lexuses and were named Jerry.”
“Empty words, my friend. You too own a car, so your rants will be forgotten by the time you are able to break it free from the grip of your mechanic.” Jerry stretches his arms and yawns. “By the way, it’s getting late… how are you planning to get back?” An equally malicious smile appears on his face as he cups his hand to his ear and adds, “I think I hear a cry of ‘Shakarakama’ outside… it looks like your personal transport is waiting for you!”