So, I had just arrived back from a visit to Kano. It was about 9 pm on a muggy Lagos evening at the domestic terminal of Murtala Mohammed Airport and to spare my travelling colleagues the frustration of a detour into the Friday Victoria Island traffic I agreed with their suggestion that they just called me an Uber.
Now, believe me, though it is easy to moan and say ‘nothing has changed’ a few things have and one of them is the availability of transport from the airport. Arriving at either the International or one of the domestic terminals is still likely to produce that frisson in the bottom of the gut. Even several of my most experienced travelling Nigerians agree that after all those years arriving at the airport still produces a particular kind of tension. ‘Back in the day’ the aggression of the touts and the stories of armed robbers targeting travellers near the airport meant it was highly stressful if you did not have a driver arranged to meet you. To enter the ‘landside’ space was to walk into a forest of signs, printed or hand written with the names of companies and individuals. Countless hands would grab your bags shouting ‘taxi taxi’ and strong elbows were mandatory. These days, a modicum of discipline and organisation and the arrival of Uber and some structured car hire firms make life much easier. Nevertheless, standing in the dark pick up zone being blinded by head lights while waiting for a silver Corolla (they all seem to be bloody Corollas) driven by a man apparently called Lateef, who was actually called Kingsley, keeps you on your toes.
Once we had established this was my Uber, it did have air-conditioning (it was still 32 degrees which was better than the 40 in Kano) and it looked like it might last the potentially hour plus journey, I climbed in the back and ‘we entered the go-slow’. Kingsley, it turned out was a young man of 32 from a place called Agbor. Just in Delta State near where it meets Edo off the main road from Asaba/Onitsha to Benin, I had actually visited the town where I once visited the Promasidor Sales Manager Chimezie’s mother when we were making market visits locally. I find little connections like this break down barriers and help develop a conversation as the car inches tediously along the traffic through Mobilaji Bank Anthony towards Maryland junction. I learnt Kingsley had trained as a motor electrician and had been married but lack of opportunity had meant his wife left him with their daughter who, now ten years old, was in the care of his Mother while he was working. Clearly, he had made genuine efforts to find work but as Lagosians will tell you ‘Oga, its not easy o’. After all, the streets are littered with badly written signs for ‘vulcaniser’ or ‘moto mecanic’ (sic) as youth unemployment soars. As we chatted about the economics of being a Lagos Uber driver and how he could make reasonable money but only after long hours he dropped his bombshell. He had only been doing it for a few weeks since he got back from Libya.
It turns out that, desperate to step out of his poverty trap Kingsley had paid good money to become one of those young men pictured every day by the growing right wing in Europe and our own Brexit party as an example of the immigrant hoard ready to besmirch our pristine white race. Here I was happily sitting in the back of a car with someone determined to wipe out civilisation as we know it or…….. well, as Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage and Poxley-Lennon know it. Or maybe it was I, the representative of a foreign hoard that destroyed his culture that was the foreign immigrant here. Me? No because I am an expatriate not an immigrant.
Back to the story. Kingsley had saved from his meagre income to pay to join a convoy of assorted vehicles that drive across the Sahara to get to Libya. Once there he had paid his last 150,000 Naira to Nigerian traffickers who promised to get him a boat to Italy. His final destination of hope was Belgium where his father was living with his sister, working as a car mechanic. Needless to say the boat was not forthcoming and the Nigerian traffickers disappeared into the faces of the townships that have apparently sprung up along the coast. As an enterprising you man our Kingsley made some money as an electrical mechanic until he had saved another 150,000. As you probably expect, the outcome was the same. He claimed that some of his travelling companions had sent him messages to say they were safe in Italy. Some he had heard nothing from. Deciding it was god’s will he should not make it to Europe he worked again to save for a local flight to Niger and then, by bus back to Lagos. The whole escapade took him eighteen months.
Before I could ask more details of the trip our rather jerky Corolla began making some rather ominous noises. As we were on Third Mainland Bridge, not an ideal place to be breaking down, the topic of our conversation changed. It sounded like his suspension to me but he assured me it was just a mud flap rubbing on a tyre but he slowed down and we limped the rest of the way to my mate Richard’s place on V I where I was staying. I tipped him a few quid on top of his meagre Uber fare and shook hands and heard the rasp of the mud flat blend into the sound of a million generators. Kingsley expended all that effort and a good couple of year’s wages and didn’t even make it onto the EU statistics. The numbers that made it across the Mediterranean peaked in 2016 at just over 350,000 but last year the numbers fell to circa 115,000. The number of known drownings hovers around 3,000. All numbers from UNHCR. Kingsley maybe was one of the lucky ones. He returned with a new sense of purpose and I hope he makes a better living in his new livelihood. It is doubtful that in the current political climate, had he reached his goal, he would have found it any easier than eking out a living in Lagos. However, when I hear on the BBC news of increased drowning off our own south coast I will conjure up the image of the back of Kingsley’s head and his eyes in his mirror has he told me his tale as if it had been just another thing he had to do to survive in Lagos’ urban desolation.