Petrol Pains, Wilderness Wanderings

Petrol Pains, Wilderness Wanderings

By Lasisi Olagunju

A young taxi driver sat on the bonnet of his car some years ago thoroughly frustrated by Nigeria’s unending petrol mess. A television reporter asked him to speak on his experience in that filling station where he sat, stranded. He looked straight into the camera and said he wanted “the world to come to an end, this moment. I want all of us to die – all.” He thought Nigeria was a wilderness with a succession of fake Moses leading the country from Egypt to Egypt. To the taxi driver, mass death of victims and their victimisers would be the neat, equitable way to end all suffering. I watched the video and heard more than what the gentleman said. People who think and say what he said are persons who have run and got to the end of running. They are people who have shifted and shifted and have hit the wall.

Over the course of life, suffering, one way or the other, is inevitable. We do not need a priest to convince us of that. But, why is it that here, in this country, time and change give no relief to the poor?

As I write this, everyone is at the petrol station – exactly as they were 30 years ago when they thought democracy was the messiah that would dry their tears. In petrol stations where there are no queues, the price there is killing; where the price smiles a little, bedlam reigns. If matters remain as they are, driving a car anywhere in Nigeria will soon be a mark of the beast, the ultimate evil. Very soon (and I am so scared to say this), having money to buy petrol will be an exposure to marks of the dragon – the kind that is in the Christian Bible: ten horns, seven heads, “with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.” Why is this democracy this ugly and so unprofitable to the people?

There is a joke about a man from Israel who demanded to know why Moses promised his ancestors good life, took them out to wander in the wilderness for forty years only to deposit them in a land that has no oil. I won’t be shocked to hear this said about our democracy. What is the worth of that struggle and that vote that birthed this suffering?

Our dog boasted in the last election that there was no danger in Tiger’s forest. That boast appears to have killed it. A saying in Yoruba approximates this: Ajá kì í dán’nu kò séwu lóko ẹkùn. Stealthy, strong Tiger is an ambush, apex predator; dog is one of its preys. The wisdom here eluded many who refused to trust the truth. They are now left behind, stranded by their faith in man born of woman. In their bowl of gaari, they now have water in destructive excess.

You are a very senior professor. Your monthly salary is N700,000, pre-tax. This past weekend, you and other petrol users bought a litre for N1,000. Your car uses 10 litres of petrol per working day. There are five working days in a week. That gives your car 50 litres of petrol per week, the cost is N50,000. There are four weeks in a month. Fifty thousand naira in four places makes it N200,000 – just to fuel your car. Because your residence is allocated Band E by NEPA, your ‘I-better-pass-my-neighbour’ generator will use 10 litres of petrol per day. In 30 days, that gives you 300 litres of fuel. At N1,000 per litre, the cost is N300,000. Do the maths. Petrol alone takes N500,000 from your pre-tax N700,000 salary. Tax takes about N120,000. Do the maths again. What is the way out? The Yoruba will join you to ask: Kí ni ònà àbáyo? Kí ni?

With ‘Darkness Falls’ as its title, the second part of Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s Weep Not, Child is about a country in distress, about a village where light is morbid and darkness is saviour. It is about a home that is no longer a place for telling good stories. It is here that we are asked to “turn to the Gospel according to St Matthew, Chapter 24.” Here we are told that we “shall hear of wars and rumours of wars” and that “nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places.” We are told that as horrible as these occurrences are, “they are (just) the beginning of sorrows…And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”

Could this moment be Nigeria’s hour of that prophecy? The havoc wreaked in town today is worse than the experience of the ill-starred, anecdotal sentry of Apomu whose oracle (ifa) got stolen and his wife snatched. He reached for his divining chain (òpẹ̀lẹ̀) and saw it in the mouth of an audacious dog. He pursued the dog to retrieve his last hope but the dog ran and jumped into a deep well. While panting, the distraught man was asked what next? “It is time to leave this town,” was his response – (Ìlọ yá Oníbodè Àpòmù, wón kó o ní’fá, wón gbà á l’óbìnrin, òpẹ̀lẹ̀ tí yíò tún fi tọ ẹsẹ̀ e rè, ajá tún gbé e lọ. Ó lé ajá, ajá kó sí kànga. Wón ní, ‘Ilọ yá àbí kò yá?’ Ó ní, ìlọ yáá…).” Today is worse than that hopeless situation. I have never been as afraid for Nigeria as I have been in the last one week.

The people are hopeless and helpless but they are quiet. And that is dangerous. There is a passage in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which warns about silence and its potent danger: “Mother Kite once sent her daughter to bring food. She went and brought back a duckling. ‘You have done very well,’ said Mother Kite to her daughter, ‘but tell me, what did the mother of this duckling say when you swooped and carried its child away?’ ‘It said nothing,’ replied the young kite. ‘It just walked away.’ ‘You must return the duckling,’ said Mother Kite. ‘There is something ominous behind the silence.’ And so Daughter Kite returned the duckling and took a chick instead. ‘What did the mother of this chick do?’ asked the old kite. ‘It cried and raved and cursed me,’ said the young kite. ‘Then we can eat the chick,’ said her mother. ‘There is nothing to fear from someone who shouts.’ Nigeria’s streets are scanty and sad; neighbourhoods are dank and dark. Where the ice of fuel scarcity appears to be thawing, the price has remained prohibitively high. In food markets, traders’ looks are forlorn; buyers’ heartbeats are irregular. There is darkness in every home where light used to shine. Yet, there is quiet, silence, midnight, graveyard chill where prophets used to warn.

In Matt Lorenz’s ‘The Meaning of life in the Wilderness’, we are told that “the wilderness is a space where human beings can go morally astray.” True, many and more have gone astray here. Henry Bugbee, in his The Inward Morning, says that “our true home is (the) wilderness.” I read this and wanted to disagree. I wanted to ask how our home could be the wildness -uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable wild. But, then, I remember William Butler Yeats’s thoughtful line: “…the world is more full of weeping than you can understand.”

As long as we breathe, we keep hoping (and praying) for deliverance from evil. There is a line of divine promise in Ngugi’s ‘Darkness Falls’: “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved…” He was quoting the Bible.

We will endure this to the end because we’ve been promised salvation. But, when is the end and where is the saviour? Or, when is the saviour coming? The government is quiet and silent. It acts the perfect I-don’t-care way of lords who have climbed the hills and have seen the very end of the world. But its defenders are not quiet. They blame the past and point at similar acts of official betrayal. What is in uniformity is no longer a shame. There is no new thing under the sun. They open history books of countries outside Africa, the first world. They say “even America once suffered what we suffer. We will be out of the problem one day.” They say the media of that and other countries still reminisce about their own era of anomie. One of such reflections is Reis Thebault’s “Long lines, high prices and fisticuffs”, a Washington Post’s 2023 video on the 1970s petrol shortage bedlam in America. “The line of cars stretches for blocks. Pumps run dry. Newspapers warn of a great ‘gas crunch.’ President urges calm. Panicked motorists turn on one another.” Thebault wrote, mimicking headlines from Nigeria’s future. If the abobaku of this regime come to see this Washington Post content, they will grab it with eureka; they will use it as a justification for the criminal betrayal that professed this suffering. What a country!

The elephant’s hunger is the shame of the forest. America would have remained where it was in 1970 if what it had were bumbling leaders like ours. To the US, the owner would rather starve than for the thief to be without food. We have that proverb, the United States appropriated it long ago to solve its “pumps run dry” problem. I always wonder why the elephant of oil-rich Nigeria keeps rumbling in the forest and goes to bed hungry. Imagine the Eskimo queueing for ice. But here, children of butchers fight over bones.

What really is the cause of this fuel scarcity? There is neither cohesion nor coherence in the little we’ve heard from persons who sit atop our welfare. All we’ve seen (and we are seeing) are quick-and-slow marches of crass confusion. What are they doing apart from fixing themselves up in vaults? The sheep of Nigerians won’t forget if they do well and provide it just bran. But they are behaving like àgbà òsìkà sowing suffering in people’s lives. They soil their breast pockets with red oil of impunity and keep a straight face. Is it true that this is all about jacking up the price of petrol as instructed by the holders of the Nigerian yam and knife? It is like land grabbers setting fire to a whole market because they covet the land. They are killing us without drawing a sword (apanimáyodà). But, they can eat their excess without scorching the city. Unfortunately, that is what they are doing with their take-it-or-leave it disposition to the petrol wickedness they put on the table. It is dangerous.

I borrow again from Yeats. In his ‘The Wind Among the Reeds’, the poet tells the powerful that he, “being poor” has only his dreams to nurture and keep. Then he begs them: “I have spread my dreams under your feet;/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” The people are the eye of the earth. If this government must tread on them, it should do so gently.

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 6 May, 2024)

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