A Lagos street scene. POV BY PORSH

Nigerian taxi rides I have known

BY SYLVIA CHILD
Special to the Voice

Traveling long distances by road can be difficult in any country, Canada included, but Nigeria has its own set of unique challenges. Probably the most popular mode of transportation there is by taxi—usually privately owned. It’s quite a simple process actually. You just go to a taxi park where taxis wait for potential customers, walk around the sea of taxis, and choose the one that looks most reliable.

Having found a Peugeot with pretty good tires and seats that had most of the covering intact, I negotiated a price and waited for the taxi to fill with other travelers. Because my trip was a long one—from Jos in the northern part of Nigeria (Hausaland) to Calabar in the southern coastal town in Igboland—the journey was punctuated by the need to change taxis a few times before eventually reaching my destination.

We set off from Jos with two men in the front seat, the driver and a passenger. Three others and myself were to sit in the back, and we’re talking Peugeot here. But this was Nigeria, so four in the back of a Peugeot was no big deal. Three passengers would sit back in the seat and the fourth passenger—me—would sit “up”. I suppose that I was chosen to sit up because although I’m quite tall, my girth is relatively small.

So we finally set off. All was well except our driver was driving really slowly and overly cautiously. Complaints started coming from my new traveling companions but to no avail. No amount of commentary produced any change in our seemingly nervous driver. But to his credit, three hours later, we arrived safely at our next taxi park ready to repeat the process of trying to find a reliable looking taxi. Having negotiated the price of the next stretch of my journey south with the new taxi driver, we all piled into another Peugeot, three sitting back and one (me again) sitting up. This meant that I was squeezed between a male passenger, an Igbo man, on the passenger-door side and a woman sitting on my left. These details are important for what was about to unfold.

Unlike the previous nervous and slow driver, our new driver drove like a maniac. He passed cars on curves and hills and at a really high speed. Everyone started shouting at him to slow down but once again this taxi driver had his own way of getting from point A to point B—and then we reached the roadblock.

Nigeria was under military rule so it wasn’t unusual to encounter roadblocks set up by soldiers, but there was always the possibility of receiving bad treatment from the military.

The roadblock consisted of a two-by-four plank with lots of long nails hammered into it. The plank was set on the road with the nails pointed up and manned by a soldier at either end of the plank. At this point we were just outside a small village, with vegetation on both sides of the road. Several other soldiers hovered around our vehicle. One of these soldiers, presumably in charge, put his head in the front window of our taxi , shouted at all of us and demanded to see our tax receipts. Except I thought be said “taxi” receipts. I was already unnerved by encountering the military at a roadblock and now I can’t produce a taxi receipt because taxi drivers don’t give receipts!

All I could hope for was that by some miracle, the only non-Nigerian in the taxi would not be asked to show identification

Panic didn’t set in until I realized that I was traveling without my passport. I hadn’t forgotten it, in fact I knew exactly where it was: sitting in a drawer of an official’s office in Jos. He had renewed my visa but refused to give it to me unless I paid a premium to get it back. I refused to bribe so I paid the price of roaming about Nigeria, governed by military rule, with no legal documents. All I could hope for was that by some miracle, the only non-Nigerian in the taxi would not be asked to show identification. While my heart pounded and my thoughts were running wild, the soldier in charge kept shouting for everyone to provide him with a tax receipt.

Nobody moved or showed any sign of cooperating. The soldier became really angry and kept shouting at us, and then focused particularly on my travel buddy on my right, who was next to the door. For some reason he refused to answer any questions from the soldier. In fact, he didn’t even look at the soldier but kept looking forward.

The soldier yelled at his men to come to his aid and instructed them to take my buddy out of the car and “make him talk by force if you have to.” What happened next took all of two minutes. Soldiers opened the back door. One took my travel buddy’s right leg, the other took a hold of his right arm and tried to pull him out of the car. Somehow he managed to stay at least half way in the car but there was no doubt in my mind that it was just a matter of time before he would be pulled out of the taxi completely.

Our driver, who had given us all grief up until that point, sized up the situation quickly and put his foot on the gas pedal. The car lunged forward and to the right, heading for one of the soldiers manning the roadblock. The soldier threw himself off the road into the bushes to avoid being hit as the driver swerved around the roadblock. My buddy managed to stay in the car and was somehow able to shut the wildly swinging door.

Everyone except our courageous driver seemed seemed to be screaming. It occurred to me that the soldiers were armed and could easily fire at us as we sped away. Because I was sitting up it was impossible for me to lower my head! But no shots were fired and I began to calm down and thank God for our crazy taxi driver for keeping us all alive. I am absolutely positive that the outcome would have been very different if our timid driver had encountered the road block instead of our crazy, risk-taking cabbie.

The remainder of my journey was thankfully uneventful and I arrived in Calabar in one piece. This is one of my hair-raising experiences I had in Nigeria, but to this day, Nigeria holds a very special place in my heart.

 

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