#30. Memories of Nigeria and Nigerians

One of the least busy times of the year in a typical northern Ghanaian community is the end of the second part of the rainy season (that is about August/September). At this time, almost all the labour-intensive part of farm work is usually over and farmers wait for the ripening of their crops before they get into the harvesting season. One day during this season, I sat on the perimeter wall of the garden belonging to the Manga Agricultural Station looking after the two family bullocks I had brought out to graze. This wall no longer exists. I watched as they fed hungrily on the grass between the wall of the garden and the Bawku – Binduri main road that ran from the North to the south. A group of women numbering about 12 with heavy loads on their heads, and some of them with babies tied with clothes on their back, came walking briskly down the road towards Binduri. They were chatting loudly in a language I did not understand. Some of the babies were crying at the top of their voices but their cries were drowned by the laughter of their mothers. The group stopped by the deep ground well located outside the garden about 20 metres from where I sat. They helped each other to bring their loads down and quickly sat down on the stools they carried as part of their luggage. Those who did not have babies pulled out some food to eat. The mothers held their babies in between their thighs and force-fed them with porridge. The brief stop lasted less than 15 minutes and they were all up again with their heavy loads on their heads. They waded through the knee-deep waters of the Boko stream and disappeared from my sight. They were on their way to the Binduri market. They were going to be walking in the opposite direction at 5 p.m. that day. This was in 1964 and I had seen the same routine since 1960 and continued to see the same until 1970. These were the Yoruba traders of Bawku from where I had my first memories of Nigerians. This narrative documents my encounter with Nigerians throughout my childhood and adult life, in school in Ghana and during my Development career across the African continent. It is to show how perception about groups of people can change across generations. It also highlights how those perceptions are not always the reality and we should treat biases based on perception with caution.

During my childhood in the 1960s, it was common knowledge that a significant part of the business and religious life of the people of Bawku was controlled by Nigerians. Without any survey, one can easily say that over 80% of the business in the District who was controlled by the Nigerians. There was the general thinking that all the traders were from the Yoruba tribe and that they were from Lagos. In fact, the traders were called Lagosians or “Alatadim” (People from Alata – Alata was an adulterated form of Alaba, a suburb Lagos). People were not aware of the Igbos or any other Nigerian tribes, although they could have been among the traders. 

One could find anything that one wanted to buy in their shops and sheds in the Bawku market. They sold stationery, clothing, fishing gear, household utensils, groceries and everything one could think about that was needed in the market. Although they were based in Bawku, they walked to every market around the town that was within a 10-kilometre radius. Their men rode bicycles, loaded with goods, to markets that were too far to access by foot. It was just amazing to see them walk out of town and back into the town to these markets. Their major strength was their preparedness to make very little profits on the items they sold and taking advantage of the economies of scale. It was during their time that they would open a packet of sugar and arrange the cubes of sugar on a table for sale and then reduce the price as the day comes to an end. For example, they sold 6 cubes of sugar for one penny at the start fo the day and then change this to 7 cubes for one penny after 4:00 p.m. 

It is known that they were also actively involved in the wholesale of local farm products such as millet and beans. One would see Ghanaian women selling millet in small quantities but the wholesalers were actually the Nigerians. Interestingly they were known for their honesty. I’ve heard of stories from the village of women who purchased items and made part payments and went back to the same shop to complete the payment and collect their items without any written document to show that they had made such part payments. 

I encountered them in Middle School when some of them actually preferred to come all the way from town to attend the schools in the village instead of attending the schools in town. My encounter with Nigerians increased sharply in Secondary School. In fact, my first friend in Ghana College was called Lasisi. He said his parents came from Shaki and I learned of others whose parents came from Ogbomosho and other Nigerian cities. The two football goalkeepers in Ghana college were Yekini and Killarney, both Nigerians. In the first year in Secondary School, we heard about Nigerian students in the senior classes who made “minced meat” of Additional mathematics.

It is interesting to note that the storekeeper in Ghana College in 1968 was a Nigerian called Baba Tunde and the storekeeper in Navrongo Secondary school was also a Nigerian called Peter Alao. In the University of Cape Coast, my biochemistry research, was supervised by a Nigerian professor in biochemistry, Prof S O Osiyeme. I remember that Professor Osiyeme always came to the lecture hall with a chalk box and a duster and without any paper. He wrote notes on the board including complex biochemical structures without referring to any book. His memory was just phenomenal. His supervision of my research work was exceptional.

The extent of entrenchment of Nigerians in the Ghanaian community was evident in the presence of Ghanaian of Nigerian descent in several systems in the country. For example, in the national and local football teams, one can remember players such us Baba Yara, Salisu, the Kayode brothers etc. Another Ghanaian of Nigerian descent, rose through the ranks in the Ghanaian Civil Service to become the Director-General of Education in the Ministry of Education. Another became the Chief of Defence Staff in the Ghana Armed Forces. I am still to find one Ghanaian who has risen through the ranks like this in any African country. I am, however, aware that some Ghanaians have been headhunted to occupy high-level judicial positions in other African countries. 

The other group of Nigerians where people of the Hausa ethnic group. The Hausas were the custodians of Islam as well as traditional medicine and they still remain as such in Ghana. The Hausa language remains the predominantly spoken language in Muslim communities all over Ghana. The current Chief Imam of Ghana is a Hausa and this is likely to remain so for a very long time. 

In my opinion, Nigerians literally controlled the retail and wholesale business in Ghana in the late 1950s all the way to 1970. They had a strong influence on business in Ghana. In the second Republic of Ghana, that was started in 1969, the Aliens Compliance Order was introduced. This order insisted that all non-Ghanaians in Ghana must have resident permits and requisite licences in order to do business in the country. Almost all the Nigerians in Ghana at the time did not have such detailed documentation. This resulted in a massive exit of the Nigerian traders at very short notice. Many markets suddenly experienced shortages of goods as the Nigerian traders packed and left the country. It was in 1970 that I heard the word “hoard” for the first time. Many students in Secondary Schools had to leave with their parents who were forced to leave the country. My friend Lasisi left Ghana College with many others. For the first time in the history of Ghana, we experienced shortages of goods in the market. 

In trying to find out why the retail and wholesale market was predominantly occupied by Nigerians I found two reasons. In the Upper Regions of Ghana, in particular, trading was thought of as a menial job. There was the perception that a strong and healthy person should go out into the field and farm to produce large quantities of food to eat and to sell. The perception was that it is only a lazy person who will go and sit in the market to sell goods. The second reason could be that indigenous Ghanaians were busy concentrating on land ownership and chieftaincy matters therefore leaving the retail and wholesale business to foreign traders. 

If the trading business was controlled and influenced by Nigerians it became clear that their departure in 1970 had a negative impact on the economy and on the retail business. The positive aspect of their departure is that the departure opened up the retail and wholesale business to Ghanaians. The negative aspect of that is the inability of Ghanaian business people to quickly acquire the business skills of their Nigerian counterparts. Ghanaian traders were not prepared to accept the small profit margins that Nigerian traders were prepared to accept. They were also very good at persuading customers to purchase their goods.

It was after 1970 that the new term “Kalabule” arrived in the Ghanaian business society. I am not sure of the origin of the word but it came to mean “I am cheating you but you cannot do anything about it “. And this term grew to a crescendo and was attacked and became obsolete after the June 4th uprising led by Flight Lieutenant JJ Rawlings. The oil boom in Nigeria in the 1970s resulted in massive economic growth in that country. This led to several Ghanaians of different professions and others without any professions travelling to Nigeria to do all types of jobs. I know colleagues who qualified for post-graduate studies but preferred to go to Nigeria to work. In 1983 the Nigerian government deported about 1.5 million Ghanaians. This has sometimes been seen as a retaliation for what happened to Nigerians in Ghana in 1970. 

Throughout my career, I have worked directly with at least seven Nigerians across the African continent. While in Burundi I was supported by a Nigerian based in Nairobi, Kenya. At the same time, I worked with two Nigerians based in Abuja, Nigeria. I also worked with a Nigerian auditor based in Johannesburg and South Africa. While working in Niger as a Country Director for Oxfam, I worked with a Nigerian hydrogeologist and water engineer. Finally, I reported directly to a Nigerian evaluation expert based in Abuja. Of all the seven people I have worked with six of them exhibited very high levels of integrity, transparency and professionalism and have actually gone on to higher levels of professional work. The single one who was not like the others ended up by his appointment being terminated by the board of the organisation that engaged him. 

In my quest to find out how the positive perception about Nigerians during my childhood suddenly changed to a negative perception. I talked to several people from different generations. These are the following opinions that came up. 

The generation that I knew of in my childhood in the 1960s/70s is a completely different generation as compared to the generation now, fifty years later. The values that underpinned behaviour and made people rate integrity and honesty very high have changed. In the current generation acquisition of wealth seems to be rated higher than integrity. I believe there are still many people who still rate integrity and honesty very high.

The decline of the economies of both Nigeria and Ghana leading to increased poverty among the lower class and the increase in the wealth and poverty gap must have pushed people in the across the economic spectrum to throw integrity away and seek wealth by using any means possible both legal and illegal. 

The advent of the internet and sophistication of Information Communication Technology (ICT) has also contributed significantly to the increase of crime and criminals in both Ghana and Nigeria. In the last two and a half decades people have learnt how to engage in crime without showing their faces. A situation which was impossible before 1970. 

My encounter with Nigerians in Nigeria actually started in 1996. Before then I had never been into Nigeria. 

In February 1997 I drove into Nigeria from the Republic of Niger to explore the possibility of sending my children to a school in Jos, Plateau State. As we entered the city of Kano in northern Nigeria, I became aware that I had no clue about how to drive through the city and get on the road to Jos. In order to enhance my learning of the French language, I was travelling with my French teacher. He was literally scared of travelling around in Nigeria. I pulled up into the first petrol filling station we found in the city. A young man came over to the car and I asked him how to get out of the city towards our destination. After nearly one full minute of giving me directions, it became evident that I would not be able to follow oral directions. I needed a map or somebody to sit in the car and tell me where to go. We opted for the latter and the young man got into the car and directed me through the city to the last filling station on the Kano-Kaduna road. This was really very kind and helpful and I offered him 50 Naira equivalent to 25 US dollars at the time to help him get transport back to where he came from. He insisted that he did not need more than the equivalent of 10 US dollars but I refused and insisted that he should take the money. This was in Nigeria where the perception is that people will try to take more money from you than they should. 

During this trip we passed the night in Zaria. We had dinner in the hotel and when the waiter brought our bill we noticed that the figure on the bill was higher than the price that was on the menu. This started an argument between me and the waiter. The argument drew the attention of the hotel manager who came over to find out what the problem was. I explained what was happening and the waiter denied ever bringing a bill to us to pay. Every effort to find the bill that he had brought earlier failed. That bill simply vanished. The manager searched the waiter’s pockets looked everywhere and even asked him to open his mouth for inspection and the bill we had been talking about a minute earlier was nowhere to be found. This was Nigeria and an experience completely different from what we had earlier that day. 

In September 1997 I was driving my children to their school in Jos when we were stopped at a police checkpoint. Slowly and deliberately the police asked for a whole list of things I was supposed to have. These included the immigration documents given to us by the Nigerian immigration at the border, our identification cards which were actually our passports, our vaccination certificate, the first-aid kit, the fire extinguisher and even the children’s admission letter to their school. The list went on and on but I was able to produce all the items mentioned. This took nearly half an hour at the end of which they asked for kola nuts (a euphemism for bribe money). I angrily told them that if they had asked for kola nuts in the beginning, I would have obliged and wanted to know why they wasted my time for 30 minutes. The policeman told his colleagues that I was “blowing grammar”(using a lot of English words that ordinary person may not understand) on them. And with that remark they let me go. I was experiencing the other side of Nigeria. 

In one incident I came from the Republic of Niger into Kano to take a flight to Accra via Lagos. Unfortunately, I missed all the flights and was stuck in the offices of the travel agency. The manager of the travel agency asked me to find a place to pass the night and meet him at the airport at 4:30 a.m. This started another new experience. I got a taxi to a hotel that was as close to the airport as possible. I asked the taxi driver to come over and pick me up at 4:00 a.m. to the airport. He looked at me ridiculously and asked whether I was new in town and I said I was. He agreed to pick me up and send me to the airport at 4 a.m. but he said he would have to park his car outside the hotel and sleep in it because he did not feel safe driving through the city at that time of the morning. I wanted him to share my room with me but the hotel will not agree. Finally, the gentleman spent the night in his car and took me to the airport at 4:00 a.m. I was very impressed when the manager of the travel agency turned up at the airport at 4:30 well dressed and ready for business. He took my passport went into the check-in counter for Nigeria Airways came up to me and said he was going to get me into business class on the flight. I reminded him that I had paid only for economic class but he said that did not matter. 

The Nigeria Airways flight from London arrived, the manager grabbed my hand took me to the diplomatic section of the waiting room and introduced me as a Ghanaian diplomat with me trying to protest that I was not. The flight took off from Kano to Lagos with me sitting in business class as a “Ghanaian diplomat”. Unbelievable! This was Nigeria. On several occasions, I have sat in that travel agency office with my wife and children waiting to go to the airport and fly to Lagos and been surprised by lunch organised for us by the manager. He paid for our lunch! This was Nigeria. 

While on my way to visit my children in Kent academy I stopped by the travel agency in Kano and a woman who was at the office was also travelling to Jos. She asked for a lift and I obliged. We drove off with my wife and daughter in the front of the car, and our passenger in the backseat. When we arrived in Jos she wanted to be left at the lorry station but I insisted on driving her home. She invited us to come back for lunch if I could find my way back. I assured her I could and at 1:00 pm I found my way back to the house with my wife and three children. We were pleasantly surprised by a very elaborate lunch that was beyond our imagination. This was hospitality at its most extreme and this was Nigeria.

Sometime in 1997, I parked near a shop to purchase an electronic keyboard to facilitate my practice of music in the house. After concluding on the price of the keyboard my wife who was sitting on the front passenger side of the car was busy counting money on her lap for me to go and pay for the keyboard when a huge hand suddenly appeared through the window and headed for the money. Reacting instinctively she covered the money on her lap and screamed. The guy pulled back his hand and with a smile on his face walked away casually. Nobody made a move and it looked like “this is normal”. This was Nigeria. 

On my way to visit my children, I stopped at a shop in Kano that dealt with video cassettes. This was during the World Cup in France. I approached one of the salesboys and told him I wanted a recording of one of the matches that was going to be played that evening because I would not be able to watch it as I was driving at the time. I agreed to pay for the recording and on my way back to Niger the following day I would collect the videocassette. The following day, I drove to the shop when I got into Kano and the young man handed me an envelope with the videocassette. I arrived in Zinder, took my position in front of my television, and slotted in the cassette prepared to enjoy a World Cup match. I was disappointed, shocked and indeed embarrassed. What was recorded on the videocassette was a pornographic movie. The following week I was back in the city of Kano and I went straight to the shop and asked for the manager. I handed over the video cassette with the writing on it indicating that it was a World Cup match and asked him to put it in his video cassette player and watch it. He was also embarrassed, shocked and disappointed. He asked me who sold it to me and I pointed the young man out. 

The manager was up on his feet, grabbed the young man by the neck and was beating the living demons out of him. Several people intervened before the beating stopped. He told the guy he was dismissed and did not want to see him in his shop again. He wanted to know whether I wanted my money back or a correct recording of the match and I indicated that I just wanted a correct recording of the match. I went away into the town and came back after 2 hours and had a videocassette of the match I wanted to watch. This was Nigeria for me. 

Sometime in 1998, I was on my way from Accra to Kano via Lagos. The flight from Accra to Lagos delayed so much that I ended up arriving after 7 p.m. and it was impossible for me to get a connecting flight from Lagos to Kano. I decided to find a hotel near the local airport terminal that will facilitate my travel the following morning. Anybody who knows Lagos airport knows that the international and local terminals are at opposite sides of the runway. I walked out of the airport with my suitcase and my laptop. A tall lady approached me and asked whether I needed help and I said yes. She got hold of my suitcase and I followed her meekly like a lamb. She opened the boot of a Peugeot 504 saloon car and placed my suitcase inside. She then opened the front passenger door for me to get into the car. At that moment I realise that the car was grey and did not have the colouring of taxis in Lagos. She got into the driver’s seat and asked where I was going and I said I did not really know but I wanted to get a hotel as close to the local airport terminal as possible. The alarm bells started ringing in my head. Panic! Panic! 

I had agreed to follow a lady I did not know. Of course, not that I would know anybody in Lagos. I noticed the car was not a taxi and yet I got in. And now I am telling the lady that I did not know exactly any specific hotel I wanted to go to. But before I could recover from my train of thoughts my “a kidnapper” was out of the parking lot and joined the Lagos night traffic. Everybody on the road seemed to be blowing their horn and the lady joined the chorus of horn-tooting Lagos drivers. After taking a few times she entered the gate of a huge building and I saw the sign “hotel “. I breathed a sigh of relief. Looks as if my “kidnapper “was actually my rescuer. She parked the car and opened the boot and the “boys “in the compound picked up my suitcase. We got to the reception and she spoke a language I did not understand to the receptionist who asked me to give him my passport. I opened the front pocket of my computer bag to pull out my passport and found that it was entangled with my vaccination card. Getting the passport out without the vaccination card took a few seconds. The receptionist handed me a form to complete but I suddenly became aware that I had not paid my rescuer. I turned to look for her and she was gone. I rushed to the door of the reception and she had gone out of the gate of the hotel. I shouted for the security to stop the car but she turned into the busy traffic a melted away into the night of the most populated city in West Africa. She was gone. I scratched my head and wondered what on earth had I just happened to me. Was this an angel sent by God? This was Nigeria. 

The following morning I took breakfast and was at the local terminal of the Lagos International Airport to fly to Kano. The scenario at the local terminal was very interesting. At this time in Nigeria, there were over 10 domestic airlines. Each of them had a ticket selling counter and the prices of their tickets we displayed on blackboards and written in chalk. So the prices of tickets from Lagos to Kano were not necessarily the same. Once a while, an airline will clean off the price for their tickets to a particular destination and replace it with a lower price and this action will see people just drift from one airline to the other. It was amazing. I was not interested in different prices. I had made up my mind that the only airline I would always take between Lagos and Kano will always be Kabo Air. so I got hold of my cabin air ticket to Kano and waited for my flight to be called. When my flight was called I joined the running crowd to the aircraft. When the call to board a domestic flight in Lagos is made the passengers run to the aircraft. We queued up in front of the aircraft presented our boarding passes and boarded. I remember I was in seat 9 by the window. After several minutes the aircraft was full and there were about five passengers on the tarmac with their boarding passes and no seats for them to come too. I do not know how it happened but there was a young man inside the aircraft who did not have a seat. He was told to disembark and he swore heaven and earth( in English and other languages I did not understand) that he was not going to get out of the aircraft today or tomorrow. 

When you step on the toe of a Nigerian, the meekest and most humble Nigerian will always fight back and this man was definitely fighting back. One of the pilots intervened after nearly five minutes of disagreement. It was finally agreed that all passengers should get down and stand on the tarmac and the manifest for the flight will be brought and names of passengers on the manifest will be called one after the other until the aircraft was full. The over 200 passengers on the aircraft trooped down and the recall of passengers started. The gentleman who had been left out earlier was number five on the flight manifest. We got back into the aircraft and when all the seats were occupied one gorgeously dressed gentleman who was in when the flight was declared full was now on the tarmac. 

The gentleman who caused all this commotion was on his feet and at the door of the aircraft shouting at this man who was now on the tarmac. He was calling him all kinds of names and saying these were the people responsible for all the corruption in Nigeria. It took the cabin crew some time to calm him down and let him get back to his seat. The aircraft door closed, the flight took off and we were on our way to Kano. As the flight climbed up and levelled off, and we were served breakfast I scratched my head shrugged my shoulders and told myself that this is Nigeria. 

The first part of this narrative is historical documentation of what many young Ghanaians do not know. It is my hope that the narrative of history will be learnt in this generation and will become history and topics for discussion and debate in generations to come. 

There are several lessons I have learnt from my experiences of Nigerians and Nigeria. In the first place I have learnt that my decision making should not be guided by public perception although such perceptions should not be forgotten when making decisions. I have come to rely more on the guidance of the Almighty God in decision-making and objectively laid down parameters and criteria. The second big lesson is that crime has no nationality. 

My next blog is subtitled “The Rest of the Story”. I really appreciate the personal messages and telephone calls that have helped me improve on the blogs.


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