I think this water on the right hand side of the road runs into the Mediterranean Sea. I am not quite sure. But walking along the concrete shores of the ancient city of Thessaloniki in Greece, watching a big orange sun lap the evening waters, I realized how imprisoning Lagos had been. A man holds his toddler daughter’s hand. She licks ice cream from the other hand happily. The bell of a bicycle rings behind; space in the pavement there for foot and wheels.
We walk past bars, restaurants and cafes – all seats occupied and frappé, (Greek cold coffee) flows and foams beyond the golden rims of lipstick-stained glasses. “We are facing tough times, the country is falling to pieces”, my guide says. Inside of me, I actually laugh out loud. I would love to tell her that, “Your austerity stricken country is actually more livable than my oil-rich nation.” But, I do not wash my country’s dirty linen outside. “What a shame, but I am sure it will be fixed soon.” I mean what I say. In the news, their Prime Minister is frantically negotiating with bailout creditors. Soon, Greek government will bend over and trim the salaries of their inefficient civil service. I am contemplating if I should tell her that we have workers in Nigeria’s civil service whose job is to mope at the clock from 9a.m. to 2.30p.m., hide and find files at will, sell recharge cards and suck teeth at anybody that dare ask them to do any work. While some collect wages at the end of the month for coming to office to eat cooked or roasted groundnuts.
I am told not to go to the square, there will be demonstration later. “For what?” I asked. “We need to let our politicians know we are suffering and the economy is bad”. But there is little the politician can do, I say meekly. “That does not mean we should keep quite. We voted them to solve our problems.” Oh wow, that is why they vote here. Breaking news for me. Are you going? “Of course I am going. I will walk to the square. That is why you have police everywhere.”
Date, September 8th 2012. The streets are filled with fully geared police. Their pistols like children’s toy tucked in holsters. Only shields with the inscription POLICE (in English and Greek) are prominent in their hands. I am not used to this calmness in the face of a brewing storm. I am used to AK47s. Kalashnikovs. Tear gas. Sellouts. TUC. NLC. Etc.
Smacked right in the middle of Thessaloniki is Aristotle University. I don’t know if Plato would have been jealous if he knew a university was not named after him. I tell my guide, we too have a university in the middle of our city. It is called University of Lagos. Or Moshood Abiola University. She looks confused. I am confused myself. Where were we in that matter or has it turned to ashes? I make a mental note to check when I get back home. A presidential pronouncement couldn’t have just been ignored. Such will make General Mohamadu Buhari, General Ibrahim Badamosi Banbangida, General Olusegun Obasanjo snicker at our civilian Commander-in-Chief. When a man throws a cutlass, he must hold its handle firmly, my father used to say. I really think our living generals have an inside joke every night – “Can you imagine us changing the name of an ordinary university and any bloody civilian would dare say no, who burn the bagger- I just dey laugh” and one of the generals would guffaw – hahahaha or kiakiakiakia – “I even annulled an election and it remained annulled till tomorrow ” Kiakiakiakia. And not to be outdone, one of the generals would rave, “Nobody dared peepee or cough when I was the C-in-C, War Against Indiscipline!” A general hahahaha-kiakiakia.
Not too far from Aristotle University is the Museum of Byzantine Culture. An exhibition of the origin of Christianity is on. I am shocked Christianity did not originate from Gbagada, Lagos. Inside this museum, yesterday is presented today for tomorrow’s understanding. Manuscripts, hand written hymnal songs, original public speeches of AD and BC gone glare at me. Back then, no private jets. No Mercedes G-Wagons, bullet proofed, just ideas and ideologies pushed beyond oceans and mountains. Nobles and plebiscites are represented.” Do you have Museums in Lagos?” my guide asked. Of course! I answer. But “of course” is a double-edged sword. I once visited a museum in the heart of Benin City with culture so rich Thessaloniki would take silver in a Cultural Olympics, and the only prominent exhibition were portrait photographs of all the directors/curators who have worked in the place. And donors.
National Museum Lagos, the bullet ridden Mercedes of General Murtala Mohamed is a national pride of our bloody past. And present. There are also garishly framed posters of our past leaders, mostly military men. Now our president has promised to build us a brand new museum to honour our past leaders and heroes. Or has that promise also gone to a Saudi Arabia hospital to wither? If she asks what will be shown in the proposed political museum, I will play deaf and point to the marble sculpture of the beheaded John The Baptist, staring at me with blank eyes in this Thessaloniki museum. Wives and children of rulers have always demanded for the head of the ruled. And in the inner chambers of power, the ruler is always ruled and overruled so he can misrule the ordinary citizens.
What is your first lady’s name? I ask my Greek guide, randomly.” Who cares!” Not the response I expected. I don’t know what to make of a citizen who cares less about her First Lady. In Africa, the First Lady is the peacock of the palace; she can in some cases be a Permanent Secretary.
We are at the Archeological Museum now, where dead gods are resurrected, shrines and alters re-erected. In Nigeria, we burn such things to ashes. We do not charge people Eight Euros to gawk at carved marbles. We only serve a living God and pay offerings and tithe in churches not museums. In my country, we let the dead be, same way we don’t bother our politicians even when we are dying. I don’t voice these out to my guide. I do not wash our national dirty linen with Mediterranean waters.