Today is really my first day in Abuja, after a 2-year ‘break’ studying in Malmö, Sweden. Not having a car, I take taxis around and today I took one to one of the many gated communities in the city. I had been warned not to take a “painted” taxi but to find an “unpainted” one. To the uninitiated, painted taxis are of course painted, they are deep green in colour and usually bear something that looks like a logo or a crest as well as some numbers inscribed on the body of the car. The unpainted taxis are also painted; but in any way different to the painted ones I just described.
Abuja is full of gated communities with very funny names. They are usually enclaves which, drawing from classical political science are fast becoming states in and of themselves. A thing to be called a ‘state’ must meet most of the following preconditions: it must have its own government and laws – obviously; it should have control over its territory and have boundaries that are externally recognised and respected; it should have a stable population and assert control over immigration and emigration; and finally it is to have control over the legitimate use of force on its territory. If such an entity can generate its own electricity, water and determine commodity prices for its ‘citizens’ then it is an added extra in its claim to statehood. Next time you approach one of the Abuja ‘estates’ please keep these attributes of statehood in mind and check.
You know, the FCTA, the administrators of Abuja, Nigeria’s hot capital are really not decided on what taxis should be or look like in the city. In the past, any (every) car in the city could be (is) a taxi – from children ‘stealing’ parents cars for a quick foray into the city, to the thousands of ‘Directors’ taking passengers while heading to, or returning to work in the city. And then it was decreed that all taxis of Abuja must be painted – remember, to paint in the context of Abuja’s taxis means to make green and have numbers and crests stamped on the vehicle. In this era, unpainted taxis were hunted down like fleas. And then, again, it was decided that taxis should not necessarily be painted – this is the current situation. I am yet to find out if we are back to the age of Directors running taxis if they wished, or if the unpainted taxis still require some sort of formal registration. Next paragraph is titled One Chance.
The concept of “one chance” originates from Lagos. On a good day in the old Lagos (I hear a lot has since changed), commuters are enticed with shouts of “one chance” to give the impression that the bus is needing only one more passenger before proceeding on its journey. The first ‘victim’ would usually sit in the bus and listen to the ‘conductors’ screaming “one chance” a million more times until about 20 other passengers are seated (or standing) before the bus would budge an inch. But that is not what One Chance means, on a serious note. One Chance now refers to a criminal system in which unsuspecting passengers are whisked away and drugged and robbed and raped either while the taxi/bus is speeding on carefully chosen routes, or after the vehicle has been rerouted to a criminal hang out. Many victims live to tell their tales of hell, but sometimes they do not.
In Abuja, the citizens’ response is simple and two-pronged. First, one must have a long list of trusted drivers to call. The trick is to call all of them at once (for they are always never far away from you) and then wait for the first to arrive; thereafter you disengage all the others after you have commenced your trip with the first. ‘New arrivals’ like me have found ourselves relying on old friends to kindly call up taxis for us from their own list until we get added into the elite clientele of our friends’ drivers or until we build our own list – which ever happens first. The second prong of the strategy is simply to find a painted taxi, inspect the boot and search the face of the driver [for the signatures of One Chance] and proceed. The logic is simple, painted taxis are registered by the government (surely the government trusts them to taxi its citizens), just to be safe, we check the boot for hidden would-be assailant(s) and we probe drivers’ faces the same way mothers search the faces of their children’s boyfriends and girlfriends. Oh, I almost forgot, the last strategy is to sms the serial number of the taxi to your cousin(s); this comes in handy if you fail to arrive.
Well, the second prong of the strategy does not work if your destination is a gated community. You see, painted taxis are banned from virtually all gated communities. You must remember this if you want to avoid arriving at the gates and taking a long march to your destination. So today, 15th July I waited patiently for an unpainted taxi. When I got one who charged me a crazy amount, we proceeded to one of the gated communities where I have business. I thought about asking to search the boot of the car – but you see unpainted taxis were hard to come by and I didn’t want to risk offending this one and having to wait for another quarter of an hour. So I kept myself on alert and questioned every turn the driver took and you can imagine how happy I was when I finally saw the gates. Before giving me my change, the driver asked if I was new to the city. Ashamed, I said yes. Although I had lived in the city for almost 3 years previously, I guess I had new stamped all over me like a fake i-phone.
So here is the lawlessness. Whereas the government has on one hand previously ordered taxis to be registered, painted, and numbered to work in Abuja. The same government has granted permits to developers to build and gate communities to house residents of the capital. So far so good – residents have taxis, and they have accommodation, ceteris paribus. But the problem is that the Governments of the Gated Communities have decreed that the painted taxis which are certified by the [rival?] Government of the FCTA should not and would not under any circumstances be permitted access into the gated community. Of course it does not matter if the painted taxis are carrying residents or others with legitimate business within the gated community.
Perhaps it is only me, but I doubt it, who feels relatively safer when the taxi is painted. But I am astounded that gates could be allowed to be erected in this city that would bar publicly registered taxi. It looks to me like we have a nasty version of the Vatican-Italy situation cooking on low-heat in Abuja. And I suspect that it is the same in other parts of Nigeria as well. On the one hand we have the public governance system (FCTA) which regulates public transport as well as the grants and revokes building permits – it sort of generally calls the shots on what goes on in Abuja. Unfortunately it does not seem able to determine where taxis it has registered (for a fee) can go to. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a crucial tenet in the laws of lawlessness.
Nengak Daniel Gondyi is presently a post-graduate student in International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö Högskola in Sweden. He is also a Senior Programme Officer of the Abuja based Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD. He holds a Bachelors’ in International Studies from the Ahmadu Bello University. Read his full profile here.
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