A Journey to Republic De Benin in West Africa: My Personal Experiences and the Nigerian Situation

Not quite long this July, 2008 I set out on a journey to Republic De Benin to satisfy my curiosity because so many interesting things have been said about the country particularly on how organized that society is and how sweet roads in Benin are compared to what exists in our sleeping giant of Africa called Nigeria. I had been motivated by the saying by my father which that “if a child decides to remain in his farm he would think his father’s farm is the biggest of all farms in existence”.

By the way, Benin officially referred to, as “Republic De Benin” is a country in West Africa. This country is bordered to the west by Togo, to the east by Nigeria, to the north by Burkina Faso and Niger while the seat of government of this country is cotonou, its capital is Porto Novo. Until recently (in 1975) Benin was officially known as Dahomey. Part of the official history of Benin claims that the name ‘Benin’ has no proper connection to Benin City or Benin Empire now situated in modern day Nigeria, still certain aspects of the history of the old Benin Empire asserts or seeks to establish that the modern name of the country owes its origin to this once great empire because the influence of the empire extended to country (Benin).

Perhaps someday Historians may have to work towards this aspect of African history to establish the claim and counter claim to help us gain more insightful knowledge on how the people of these two countries related much beyond biases as each aspect of the history of these two countries are trying to justify its own. History can never be rewritten. Any attempt to do this will therefore amount to an attempt adjust the hand of clock either by trying to move it forward or backward. History remains history having been occasioned by either the activities of man or nature itself. We are told the name ‘Benin’ was picked as a neutral name in replacement of ‘Dahomey’ but where the origin of the name or word derives should also be of essence to historians who will now seek to establish whether a link exists with the Benin of Nigeria or not.

Anyway this article will work outside the history of Benin instead will dwell on the social organization of this very society. In other words, how the people of this country do things compared to other bigger countries such as Nigeria with all our revenues derived from our much-publicized oil will be discussed here. Oil may not be all that a country needs to better the lives of its citizens after all. This is what the present situation of Nigeria tells us judging from our experiences in the country today. Only a Nigerian living in the country and not a wealthy politician or government contractor will adequately understand the real situation of the country and what the common man is going through.

Once I set out to discover Republic De Benin like Mongo Park and Lander Brothers in July 2008, the road leading to this country from Nigeria was indeed a rough one with very serious traffic jam. At Okomaiko bus stop, passengers awaiting vehicle stood in the rain waiting with utmost patience to board a vehicle. Nothing would have deterred us not even the rain because we are all used to it. There was simply no cover at these bus stop. Buses attempting to stop and convey these teeming passengers were often scared away by the presence of the law enforcement engagements most of whom were also threateningly running in pursuit of these commercial vehicles even in the rain. Some of these vehicles could even render one’s ‘Christmas clothes’ torn. We soon managed to catch a bus after standing in the rain for about 45 minutes without any visible shades at the bus stop.

The journey though was a quiet and peaceful one with only the police occasionally stopping us to exchange the usual ‘Nigerian greetings’ with the driver of our bus whom seemed to understand every intricacy connected with driving to this country. He must be an experienced man indeed. We soon arrived Benin after about two hours drive. After the usual procedures at the Seme Border between these two countries, we caught another bus heading for Missebo. Much to my surprise, the people of this country working at the border could communicate in both French and English, and I thought it a deliberate action from the government of Benin to ensure that communication was readily available to the citizens of both countries. Even the commercial motor drivers, petty traders, and money exchangers were not left out.

This is a gain over their Nigerian counterparts whose citizens have never in any way been encouraged to understand or learn French by the Nigerian education system to become advantageously armed their citizens with the two international languages. It was also amazing to discover that road and notice boards in the country also existed in French and English languages, a development I very much admired because it gave us the English speakers unlimited knowledge of activities in that country. Excitingly too some of the citizens of this country could at least passably communicate in English and I started to wonder if the knowledge was gained from the education sector in that country or as result of the relationship with Nigerians in the country majority of whom were Ibo. There was really no time to ascertain from any of them how they are able to do this.

At first sight, you are complimented with ‘bonjour’ but when you respond with ‘good morning or good afternoon’ in English you have set off a conversation with them in English. One Nigerian was at business center to make a call, when she attempted to correct the telephone attendant grammatically the response of the attendant was that she should try and understand French too. We all reasoned with her.

If the education sector of this country achieved this then it’s so surprising because it is easier for camel to pass the eye of a needle than for a Nigerian student to speak French because he/she learnt it Nigerian school. Benin must have some wonderful schools too.  

Benin I must comment presents some of the finest roads in West Africa and Nigeria cannot in anyway rank with this country. Road signs were completely visible starting from Seme border. Streetlights were never missing. At my age I cannot remember the last time I saw the streets of Lagos lit up with streetlights much less other parts of the country like Aiyetoro, Ogun state, Ibusa, Delta state, Etinan, Akwa-Ibom state, Ihievbe, Edo state, Obiangwu, Imo state, Ihiala, Anambra state and indeed other parts of northern Nigeria. Nigeria’s stranger (traffic lights) were also on mounted in all parts of Benin instead of the regular traffic wardens usually accosting us on Nigerian roads. It is unnecessary to state here that motorists and cyclists diligently complied with the instructions of these traffic lights. The last time I saw a functional traffic lights in Nigeria was in 1981 in Festac town. Though I have been told that there are about two or so at Marina Road of Lagos Island, in Lagos.

Have you ever seen a kind of vehicles responsible for the cleaning of roads? If you are a Nigerian in Nigeria and have not, you need to take a quick trip to Republic De Benin and see one before it is too late to do so. I cannot tell how often these vehicles clean these fine roads but these roads present mats or sorts of beds to lie. If these kinds of vehicles exist in Nigeria, will Lagos and some other Nigerians have to carry out the monthly environmental sanitation exercise? Again which particular ministry in Nigeria is responsible for this exercise? Why will an oil rich Nigeria expect its citizens to come out en masse on monthly basis for cleaning exercise when certain vehicles can do it? The last time I saw these vehicles at work in Nigeria was also in Festac town, Lagos and in 1979. Again I bet that a Nigerian living in the rural Jesse, delta state would argue that no such vehicle exists.

My enquiry at the Immigration office of that country in Cotonou showed that the staff go on break at 11.30 am during which nobody is ever attended to not even the bigwig politicians only to resume around 3.00pm. Bribes (‘settlements’) are never obtained to encourage private attendance to anyone. We have a lot to learn from these people of Benin.

On our way back to Nigeria at about 5.15 pm, we had an easy ride all through the territory of Benin and received warmth farewell from the security operatives in that country with very easy passage made possible by good roads and free flow of traffic encouraged by the police who were always by the side of the roads observing developments on the roads with their whistles intact in their mouths with absolute readiness to carry out their duties. At Seme border, the Benin side of the border absolute orderliness allowed us free departure from this beautiful and well-organized country into our own very ‘Naija’ (Nigeria)

The first enquiry I received from my Nigerian security man at the border was whether I was a Nigerian which though was not a bad one because I assumed he actually wanted to determine my identity which he was ignorant of but when after every proof I presented to him failed to properly identify me as a Nigerian I knew there was much more to it than met the eyes. The Beninese cyclist trying to convey me across, a little inside Nigerian side of the border became enraged and in an emotional outburst told the security man that I was his brother. By the way I could not determine whether this man was a policeman, immigration officer, customs officer, road safety official or even Agbero (tout) because he was appeared in musty. I was soon angered when he responded to the Beninese cyclist that I was not his brother.

“So you would deny me, a Nigerian for no good reasons? I queried. “If you desire some money tell me and I will readily grant your request but not to deny me your Nigerian brother” After I tipped him with some money he became apologetic. I had told him that he had no reason to deny me completely in the presence of a foreigner. “What if I were in danger would you have readily denied me giving away to my predators just because of money? He pleaded more and more with me and I soon left him alone.

Back in Nigeria, I was woken from my sleep inside the vehicle I boarded by profuse heat occasioned by the heavy traffic jam that welcomed us back into the country but some for patriotic reasons I too would have denied the country as my own but I soon accepted it as a fate presented to me against my personal wishes and will by my leaders in the country. Amazingly, we counted up to 22 police, customs and immigration check points from the border to Badagry, not to mention many more existing after Badagry with stern looking security men armed to the teeth all of who frequently halted our vehicle and doing their usual Nigerian businesses much to our discomfort. One Cameroonian sitting by me inside the vehicle inquired from me if Nigeria was under war and I laughed aloud not knowing what to answer but another Nigerian passenger who all along had appeared more patriotic than the rest us but with occasional criticism of our leaders was to tell him that it was the culture in the country.

This impediment to our movement continued until I set down at Agboju and the mother of all battles being power failure welcomed us. The whole city was in darkness and no one recognized the other in darkness. As I hoped to hear children scream  ‘up NEPA’ I soon fell asleep still worried in my sleep as I wondered on when things will take shape in Nigeria and when the country will compare with other tinier countries in the same region.

 

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