Friday, 16 March 2007

Port Harcourt

On arrival I realised that Port Harcourt is a deal wetter than Lagos. As the aircraft bumped its way down through low cloud, I had glimpses of lush forest interspersed with myriad water channels and the occasional eerie glow from massive gas flare offs. So much for the environment. We landed amidst a jet wash induced shroud of spray on a runway that looked like more like the Kiel canal than anything reassuringly solid like a two mile strip of 30 cm thick concrete. Now I understand the other definition of aquaplane.

Leaving the airport the first thing that struck me was that every fifty yards or so there was a church. God's Peace Church, The Loving Revelation Church, The Church of the Gospel Brother's (presumably sisters went next door) and Church of the Risen Anew (they must be born again zombies. Come to think of it, they do have voodoo here) to name a few quaint examples. Oh, and the dirt. Great steaming heaps of refuse of all kinds joined by a thick lumpy mess compacted by a thousand pairs of feet. If you think Luandan Bairros after a downpour are disgusting, try the quagmire and litter coagulation they call sidewalks here. Everything is wet, sodden or dripping. Once white painted walls are smeared with the black growth of some tropical fungi. Even the more respectable residences look neglected, as if they have been lifted straight from the set of Papillon. As for what in Angola they called ‘Construção Anarchica’ (anarchic construction), the pathetic collections of everyday scrap somehow transformed into impossibly tiny homes, illegally sited on any available piece of unclaimed land and housing families, in-laws, aunts, uncles and cousins, well, the hardships these unfortunates must be enduring is unthinkable. Just recently in a place called Warri, another Godforsaken patch of many on this continent, situated halfway between Port Harcourt and Lagos they have been fighting again. Of the hundred or so ethnic groups in this artificial nation, three of them living amongst each other in the mosquito infested swamps of the Niger delta happen to hate each other with a vengeance. And of course, the client operates there. I say Godforsaken but the region is not totally forsaken. Millions of years ago the Niger geological structure, the climate at the time, the resultant animal and vegetable growth and subsequent decay created the ideal conditions to trap the hydrocarbons produced by the complex chemistry and physics of decomposition under pressure in an anaerobic environment. Basically, the whole sodden mess is floating on oil and after decades of development (or exploitation depending on whether you know how to knit yoghurt or not), there’s still loads left. And the amount that is ‘left’ is increasing all the time as the multi nationals become even more skilled at finding and extracting the stuff and certain countries do anything to have sources of oil that they don’t have to buy off someone with a tea towel on their head. Quite simply, everyone, the multi-nationals, the government, the population, they all want their fair share. Trouble is, everyone has a different idea of what’s ‘fair’ and if a few heads get bashed in debating the issue, well, that’s business.

Let’s go back to the driving. I have driven just about everywhere, Houston, Bratislava, Tripoli, Jo’burg, Mexico City, once even foolish enough to race a motorcycle against a Frenchman with zero grey matter inside his helmet around the Periferique of Paris, but only now do I fully appreciate what 'no rules' means. The traffic is horrendous. A dual carriageway full on one side gives licence for what the German’s call Geist Fahrers, ghost drivers, the rather careless practice of launching vehicles onto the opposite carriageway and driving into oncoming traffic with reckless disregard for anyone’s life never mind their own. As an aside, having seen it on numerous occasions now and never once, not once having personally witnessed a head on collision, I am going to take a close look at the headlights fitted to Nigerian cars as these projectors must have the power of the Starship Enterprise force field. And don’t forget, Nigerian drivers are much meaner than Klingons, ‘nuff said.

I have also not yet had the opportunity to study the Nigerian equivalent of European vehicle type approval regulations but I imagine that extracts would go something like this: Brakes, optional (especially on heavy goods vehicles); horns, mandatory (the horn is a device used to alert other road users that your engine is running); Bumpers, not necessary (you have headlights, what the hell do you need bumpers for?); Wing Mirrors, mandatory (for knocking beggars, cripples, street urchins and hawkers into the ditch, glass in them, optional); three foot length of chain, mandatory (for swinging menacingly out of the driver’s side window to intimidate oncoming road users when driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway. I kid you not). And the definitions section: Tyre canvas, a wear indicator device which, when visible means that the vehicle may only be used for a further 10,000kms at maximum cargo overload before the tyre explodes (another wear indicator meaning ‘time to steal another tyre’); accelerator, the car’s on/off switch; exhaust, a one foot piece of corroded pipe from which issues alternate bouts of thick, black belching partially combusted diesel fumes or four foot flames; gearbox, a device the primary function of which is to decelerate the vehicle (there are usually five or six retardation rates to choose from e.g.: 4th gear, gradual deceleration through to 1st, rapid deceleration and Reverse gear, emergency braking); sidewalk, a muddy area either side of the road to use in an emergency if the gearbox fails (it is usually filled with soft objects which bring the vehicle safely to rest with the minimum of structural damage); soft objects, pedestrians.

My office is about 6 kms from the accommodation. I have heard horror stories of personnel being trapped for seven hours on this particularly awful bit of dual carriageway. Seven hours! Imagine sitting at Primeiro do Maio in Luanda in the boiling sun, the paint being eroded from the car by the constant tapping of beggars, cripples, street urchins and hawkers all trying to sell you the very latest in Chinese/Lebanese plastic technology, weevil infested biscuits, cashew nuts partially roasted in dubious conditions, walnuts resembling partially decomposed genitalia, religious icons, anything that the Lebanese traders have brought in from China. The worst that I have endured so far is two hours, but then again, I am a Nigerian virgin.

The other day, for the first time, I took a cruise around the town centre. We are about thirty minutes/four hours/two millennia (I did mention that the traffic was unpredictable, didn’t I?) from the center of Port Harcourt, an area grandly referred to as the GRA, the Government Residential Area. It is here that one will find the hotels (Meridien at $300 per night, of course) and the clubs. The Blues Club is currently the most popular with expatriates and the one, therefore, to avoid for the time being. I say the time being because it will only hold ‘most favoured expat club’ status for a determined period. What is a ‘determined period’? The time it takes for the gangsters/muggers/hoodlums/hi-jackers to realise where the crop has ripened and is ready for harvest. A few quick, lucrative hits and after that, the frightened sheep will disperse widely before the flock once more coalesces like moths to a street light (not a good metaphor that, the street lights do not work here) and they all herd off to a new club and away we go again. Having said that, Nigerian club owners do at least make an attempt to secure the outside areas of their clubs by providing both their own security and bribing police officers to forget the rest of their beats and concentrate themselves there. I once saw a dark blue pick-up parked in the shadows with a bunch of very earnest young men in the back (alright, they looked like hardened criminals but they were in uniform), armed to the teeth and all wearing obligatory sunglasses (in case the street lights actually came on and blinded them). Down the side of the vehicle was written, ‘Operation FIRE for FIRE’. Well, at least they’re honest, shoot and us and we’ll shoot back (or spray the whole neighbourhood with automatic fire, who cares? At least the client gets value for money, one way or another).

That attitude actually typifies the standard official response to security incidents. Invasion of expatriate office facilities by ethnic groups is common, especially in oil producing areas. It usually starts with a couple of individuals gaining access by whatever means and then throwing open all the doors and windows whereupon the rest of the village emerge from the rocks beneath which they had concealed themselves and pile in. Most companies and all multi-nationals have Community Relations Managers whose unfortunate duty it is to negotiate with the baying mob that has just abducted the general manager, given the security manager a good hiding and ‘liberated’ the canteen fridge/freezer, the janitor’s bicycle and all the bog-roll and toilet seats that could be found in the building. Negotiation usually goes something like this:

Community Leader (holding machete in one hand, partially masticated roll liberated from kitchen in the other): ‘You have not met your obligations to the community, we want jobs for all these boys!’ This at a volume and intensity of a Kardmann rock concert speaker.

Community Liaison Officer (CLO): ‘But 80% of our employees come from your community, we have no more vacancies, there are no more jobs to be filled…..’ The rest is drowned by a chorus of threats and tribal chanting, the security manager is biffed again and machetes are scraped across the floor with a high pitched grating noise that sets everyone’s teeth on edge (except for the security manager’s, he is still looking for his).

CL: ‘Well in that case you must pay us 200 million Naira!!!’, the machete now dangerously close to the perspiring CLO’s throat.

CLO: ‘That is impossible’, and with the bravery for which he is woefully underpaid, ‘I am authorised only to make a payment of 20,000 Naira.’

Knowing what is coming, the security manager beats his own face against the wall and subsides gratefully into peaceful oblivion.

CL, eyes popping and enormous veins springing out of his neck: ‘That is an insult, you are insulting me, how DARE you insult me?!!’ and the assembled masses cluck their disapproval and edge forward to get the best possible view of what surely must be the inevitable and soon to be administered death blow.

CLO: (balls the size of planets, this guy), ‘Well, YOU insulted ME! 200 Million Naira indeed. So, now that we have traded insults, maybe we can talk sensibly?’

And, generally, so the exchange continues until finally, the General Manager is returned, the security manager is allowed to wake up and stay awake, an appropriate amount of liberated goods are returned (to save face all round) and a box containing 200,000 Naira, ten jars of coffee, a few cartons of milk and what's left of the bog roll are handed over to the community leader. I say generally because sometimes things do not go as well and that brings me to my point. The one about the ‘Standard Official Response’.

If things are going badly and, don’t forget, even though there is security on the building, if they actually took any of the intruders on (God forbid, shot one - no - that thought is too scary) the whole place would be trashed by the intruders. They would then go away and come back with the rest of the community and trash the place again. So, if things are not going that well and it is decided that a little official help from the police is required, then the form is as follows. All expats try and hide as best they can (the A3 paper draw of the photocopier is a good place if you are still reasonably elastic, after all there aren’t that many places left to hide in a modern, open plan office). Then the police burst in with guns, leather whips and lengths of rubber hose and beat everyone up in sight. Everyone. Utter mayhem ensues. Furniture is tossed about and used either for defence or offence depending on which of the many scuffling groups has the upper hand. Office desks are thrown over revealing the less elastic expats who immediately scuttle frantically into fresh cover like cockroaches in a suddenly illuminated kitchen. In the end the building is cleared, the police agree a suitable ‘call out fee’ and everyone starts to pick up the pieces. The security manager sends out his CV to all corners again and wonders why, if they went to all the trouble to return the fridge, they kept the door?

1 comment:

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