January 19, 2020.
There was a motorcade ahead of us preventing us from overtaking. One of the vehicles was a police pick-up while the others were black SUVs. The SUVs were full of men in military fatigue wielding guns. They menacingly waived down anybody that tried to overtake them. But their speed was not bad – 100-130 km per hour. And which kidnapper would dare attack a convoy like this? I gladly tailed them, o jare, accelerating and decelerating with them as we negotiated potholes and overtook slower-moving vehicles on the road.
These guys, they must be carrying some very important person. Or, very likely, they had dropped off the big shot at the Rigasa Train Station to take the 2 o’clock train to Abuja. They would go and pick the oga at the Kubwa or Idu Station in Abuja. The rich and powerful are also afraid of kidnappers. Imagine. Are we not in trouble in this country? In the past two years, I had seen several top military officers and senior government functionaries engaging in this shamelessly cowardly arrangement. The first time I noticed this practice I knew that the kidnappings would go on unchecked for a long time. With all these armed escorts, why should they still be afraid?
We were in the stretch between Rijana and Jere, the hotspot for kidnappings along this road, approaching the Jere end. Sometimes, I wonder why the government cannot comb the bush along this length of a major national highway and smoke out the kidnappers. It feels like a country under siege from mere bandits.
You are asking what I was doing driving on that kidnapper-infested road instead of using the train, abi? But isn’t it better for you to keep quiet and listen to my story? OK, let me quickly explain. Being careful to avoid being kidnapped, I had not driven along this road for about a year. I had been using the Abuja-Kaduna train for my shuttles between Zaria and Abuja. This time, I had to bring my car back to Abuja. I promise not to do so again until the route is safe enough.
There was a bad patch of the road ahead. The brake lights of the three cars lit up. I slowed down too. I heard an ominous screech of tires. Then I felt an impact on my side of the car. I had been hit from behind. The car immediately flew off the road in only-God-knows-which direction. I held on to the steering wheel. I expected an impact. I had been in this kind of situation before. I stepped on the brake pedal and the car stopped. I was calm. No panic. No palpitations. Sangfroid.
The gear was still in the drive position, the engine running. On the car stereo, Homer continued to narrate one of the many gory battle scenes from the Trojan war. Stop, please. I was surrounded by a thick bush of dry, dusty and wiry Siam weed. In the split second that everything happened, the car had gone through a semi-circle and landed facing the direction of Kaduna. I was just a few inches from the concrete median.
I looked through the window. I saw the car that hit me from behind on the road shoulder. It was a dark brown Opel. Those suicidal Opel drivers! Apparently, nobody had been injured. Somebody was asking whether the car could move. For the first time, I was scared. I irrationally thought that the car would jet off the moment I lifted my foot from the brake pedal. I pushed the gear to the parking position, applied the parking brake lever and got out of the car.
The car was covered in the greyish-brown dust of harmattan and many flecks of burnt leaves and ash that had been caught by the bush from the bush burning common during the dry season. I saw the dent in the rear fender on the driver’s side and the crack in the bumper. Nothing more. Or so I thought.
I got back in the car and drove it out of the bush onto the road and also parked by the roadside. One of the guys following us had also stopped to see if help was needed. The armed escorts were long gone. He suggested that we move on to where it was safe to discuss how to sort out the damage. I didn’t have the energy to pursue anything. I was too profoundly thankful to be alive and unscathed. What if I had crashed into the median? What if the car had gone in the opposite direction into a roadside ravine? What if I hadn’t been strapped to the seat and had been flung at the dashboard or through the windscreen? What if it was on a bridge and I had been thrown into one of the mostly rocky rivers crossed by the road? What if… The smiling face of Muhammad, my youngest child, flashed in my mind’s eye.
I only hoped that the guy would be more careful in his driving.
I got back on the road only to find that the car was terribly out of alignment. The steering wheel was almost 45 degrees away from its resting straight-on position. I had to constantly hold the car in line all the way to Abuja as it constantly wanted to veer off to the right.
At Jere, to avoid the bottleneck around the Suleja part of the road due to the road rehabilitation, I did a U-turn to take the Bwari-Dutsen Alhaji route. The road was full of a thousand and one potholes, craters and gullies.
By the time I got to Abuja and had another look at the car, two tires were flat. For how long have they been like that? The damage to the tires and rims. My fingers and arm were aching from keeping the misaligned car in line.
What a day.