I was in Odo Awukam’s car a few hours into the New Year one frigid mid-morning in Calabar where I was attending the State’s annual Calabar carnival. Behind us sat Ubi, Ken Nsan and Isaac. I was almost dozing as we drove round town to no where in particular, the serenity and sheer ambience of one of Nigeria’s finest cities soothing my jangled Lagos nerves in the harmattan. Odo pulled out a few cans of Soda drinks from his glove compartment; tossed them around and inserted ‘Terry Tha Rapman’s’ ‘Boys are not smiling’ CD into the car player.
The vibes were just what we needed after completely exhausting the knotty issue of the Nigerian question. And none of us was smiling.
I would carry that particular track with me in my subconscious as I made the journey to Abuja and witnessed several non smiling faces along the way. I met Halima and Yusuf on the queue as they waited for their chance to register in order to be eligible to vote, a few days after a gubernatorial aspirant was gunned down in Borno. They were in their mid 20s-- two young persons yearning for change in the polity. The same change that would make them walk to the registration point everyday without being successfully registered. It was their sixth day on the queue with their registration numbers glued to their breast pockets. They had abandoned work to join a disgruntled crowd at Wuse II, anger and exasperation the theme of the day. Nobody was smiling.
Gbenga and Mohammed work at a mechanic shop near the legislative quarters. We had driven in to knock our car into shape. The road leading to the legislative quarters is all tarred and shimmering. On the other side of the road, dirt, dust and undulating topography ushers you to Mohammed’s shop. The contrast was so stark, I had nausea. This was like what South Africans experienced back in the apartheid era. One rule for the rich, another for the poor. On the other side of the legislative quarters, people live in dirt and squalor; homes are made of wood and mud and children run around scantily clad and ragged. ‘Most of the aborigines live here and there are no amenities’, Mohammed announces, the red dust laden air causing us to make for our handkerchiefs inside pockets. Across the legislative quarters, these guys are certainly not smiling.
A few days before President Jonathan made his now infamous ‘rascal’ speech, my brother in law, was attempting to register after six previous failed attempts. He watched, bemused as the police officers asked for tips to facilitate the process for anyone who could part with 500 Naira. With the scale now off his eyes, he got out his wallet and was duly registered to vote in April. So much for due process. Expect a repeat of votes being bought and ballot boxes coming at a price in April. The other Nigerians sweating it out in the sun on the queue and unregistered gave my in-law double takes. And they were not smiling.
Senator Victor Ndoma Egba represents the Cross River State central senatorial district comprising Ikom, Ugep and Obubra. He hails from a community called Akparabong. He walks away with millions of Naira worth of constituency allowance every month. I had a stop over at Akparabong to see an old friend. The NDDC projects the Senator tells the world have been completed in his community were no where to be found. Potable drinking water was not for the Akparabong people. Everyone I spoke to had nothing favourable to say about the Honourable Senator. But he represents this people. He may not win their votes in April, but expect to see him in parliament later in the year as one of the PDP’s duly anointed and handpicked candidates. The Ikom-- Calabar and Ikom-- Ogoja highways are as deplorable as ever. A drive through this road is like a drive through hell. This people do not feel they have a Federal representative anywhere. And as I spoke to a few natives, they were not smiling about it.
Barbie Onah, Michelle Samuels and Katie Obi are definitely cut from the same cloth. The three some have the world at their feet. They want to make a difference in the world. They do want to make people happy. They are imbued with dreams of their own but as Katie narrated to me on Valentine’s Day; Nigeria is gradually eating up their dreams. Almost everything they try to do is choked up by the peculiarity of the Nigerian climate. They too were not smiling. And they are millions of them in that unsmiling state right now across the length and breadth of the country.
And so, I return to Lagos unsmiling. ‘Terry Tha Rapman’ waxes lyrical about the injustice in the music business. How he should have been the King of Nigeria’s rap scene. How he is far from ‘so-so’ and all that. I manage a grimace as I recall how piracy is threatening to eat up Showbiz and the burgeoning music scene. I recall the creative talents that abound in Nigeria from MI to Sound Sultan, from Bouqui to Mocheda; I recall what these artistes go through to put their works together and how they have very little to show for it. And don’t be deceived by Desmond Elliot’s smiling face and chubby cheeks on TV as he makes a case for the DSTV PVR Decoder. Deep down, they all want change. They want a shake up in the polity. They want an environment that can provide for them. But here, like Katie Obi reminded me in that shrill sounding voice of hers, dreams die first and fast.
And apart from Obasanjo and his ilk whose fits of laughter are at a dissonance with the reality on the streets, at this moment, no Nigerian is really smiling.