Letters from Nigeria
It appears as if some unseen enemy is determined to keep me from doing any work on weekends. This weekend power supply has been very bad. Last weekend, it was a different problem. I had a computer I had been trying to sell off for some time. Over a week ago, in the thick of trying to raise money for the project as I mentioned, I got more aggressive about the sale and soon found a buyer. By the time the buyer paid I had already raised about 80% of my set target. So after giving the money to the publisher, I still had some money on hand to attend to the monitor problem I now faced since the people I borrowed money from would not expect payment till the third week of December. It happened that the monitor of my system had been bad for some time and I had been making use of the one for the system I just sold.
So on Saturday last weekend, I took the bad monitor and set off for Ikeja Computer Village where I had been directed to Oyibo, a technician. At the gate out of the complex I live, a constable who would be in his late-twenties stopped the okada conveying me. As he walked over to us, I disembarked from the motorbike and pulled the receipt out of my breast pocket – I had placed it there advisedly as I left home. But the policeman had his own order of precedence. His first demand, in his Hausa intonation, was to know what it was I was carrying. I told him it was a computer monitor. He then accepted the receipt I proffered and went through it carefully. When he was done he asked where I lived. I spoke the street and house number.
Sounding like a special agent who thinks his guest might be a terrorist, he said, “But it only states the name of this complex in this receipt. It does not mention your street.” I silently deplored Taiye’s negligence. For some reason I had not been present when he wrote the receipt. I had written down my name and address for him. It was either I had not noticed that he did not write a street address or I had noticed and ignored it, having no way of knowing it would bother a policeman, I could not recall which. I was lost for what to tell the policeman, but only for a moment. While leaving home I had also placed my office ID card in my breast pocket. I pulled it out and gave it to him. “This,” I explained in a clear, unhurried language, “is my name. And this is where I work.” That worked like magic. He handed both documents back to me and declared, “I no see any fault.” As I made to struggle aboard the okada with my load, he said, “You wo find me something now. You dey pass here every time you no dey find me anything.” As I had been cleared to go I did not consider it a bribe to give him something. If I walked away he would not stop me, but it could be nasty if a policeman who mans the gate of the complex you live marked your face. So I found him fifty naira and left.
After Oyibo had been fiddling with the thing for a few minutes I told him to assess the fault and let me know if he thought it would be wiser to purchase a new one. (I was going to purchase a new one from the outset, but Mike had suggested I took this one to Oyibo for repairs.) He asked me to wait as he was assessing it. He soon told me that it would cost me fifteen hundred naira. I half-heartedly began to haggle but he showed me something at the back of the monitor. That one was bad and needed to be replaced. I knew I would not get any cheap digital monitor for less than five thousand. An analogue could cost four or four-five hundred. For the next thirty minutes, Oyibo continued to fiddle with the VDU and test it at intervals, but the thing refused to display anything. Finally deciding that he could not save the whole fifteen hundred for his own pocket, he told me he was leaving to purchase the item from a shop. By the time he came back about thirty minutes later, NEPA had ceased power supply. There was a problem starting his generator, but it started after countless attempts. He sat down and began to fiddle with the monitor again but it would not display any signals. I asked him how far and he told me he had not found the item and had sent his brother to some farther away shop to find it.
At this time two guys came in with a monitor. They were obviously Oyibo’s close friends and spoke with him alternately in Pidgin English and in the Igbo language. One of them told Oyibo he needed to have his job done urgently. Oyibo replied that he had something he was busy at and so would the guy wait a bit.
“You throw away that monitor.” He spoke in pidgin, so I am reconstructing the speech. “Tell the owner to throw it away and go buy a fairly used. How can you be wasting your time repairing a new China monitor? These new monitors are not good. If you buy a monitor today, you will only use it for three months before it goes bad. It is foolish buying a new monitor. It is better to buy a fairly used one. These Chinese do mass production. What they ought to exhaust to manufacture one thing, they use for a hundred.”
The above statement sums up a major problem the Nigerian faces today. If you purchase a new product, usually imported from Asia, it could last you a few days and pack up. If you purchase a used product from Europe or the USA, it could serve you better. But what is the problem here? As I was thinking about it, the second guy, who had been regarding the heap of scrap monitors in front of the shop, said, “China no be hooman been. See! See! See!” The Chinese are no good people. Look at these! Look at these! Look at these!
Now, Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group, recently sent a team to Nigeria and subsequently wrote a report that obsolete electronic devices from America are being dumped on developing nations, particularly Nigeria. The report was highlighted by The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic News, and Baltimore Sun among others. The group says “more than 63 million computers in the U.S. would become obsolete by the end of this year.” These, the report continues, are donated or sold to developing nations by recycling firms in the US in order to dodge the huge cost of recycling them properly.
The problem of dumping in this country is entrenched. Take cars, for instance. The last time the Federal Government tried to bring sanity into that by directing that only cars not older than five years since their manufacture date are allowed into the country the protests were so loud you would think cars were bread. Now, the protests were loud because the bar was too high and people cannot afford cars less than five years old. And people need cars because rail transport is essentially nonexistent, and there is no good public bus system. So smugglers are smiling to the banks bringing in old cars.
The potential environmental impact of the importation of useless cars and electronics from Europe and America can only be conjectured. According to Basel Action Network, “an average computer monitor, contains as much as eight pounds of lead, along with plastic laden flame retardant and cadmium, all of which can be harmful to the environment and humans.” The group maintains that at least half of the used computers, televisions and other electronic equipments that arrive in Lagos by the ton (five hundred containers monthly!) is unusable and ends up in landfills. The BAN found that much of the junked equipment is adding to the considerable hazardous waste problems of a country that lacks facilities to properly handle it. The Federal Government of Nigeria has reportedly issued policy statements on the importation of used computers into the country. An article in The Guardian of Lagos says, “Curiously, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reportedly conceded that there were indeed inappropriate practices in the industry but did not think that the immediate solution was to stop the export of the equipment.” So what is the immediate solution? They don’t know.
Yet, just listening to these technicians, it is these pestilential items that we have been reduced to preferring over new products! This is a tragedy. I have long believed that Asians make good things and ship them to the West, and make bad things and ship them here. This problem, too, goes beyond computers. In my apartment, I am constantly buying electric sockets that don’t size or work for a few days and get burnt. Remember when you mailed the flash disk earlier this year? Well, while I waited for your mail to arrive it was decided that I needed one to work. So my marketing partner gave me N2,000 to buy a 128MB disk. It was already performing badly before the mail from you arrived and I had to pack it up as soon as I received the one you sent.
But the problem also goes beyond Asians. The reason the Chinese ship substandard electronics here is us. It is not because they dislike the spelling of Nigeria or they despise our faces. Last Monday, as I was discussing the problem with a friend, he put his finger on it. He said earlier this year he got in touch with a firm in Asia to send him some USB phones and they asked him to give them specifications. Lost, he asked them what they meant. He then told them to send him the best ones. He was later to learn that Nigerian businessmen tell the Asian firms to make these cheap things. When they are brought here, we buy them happily because we can afford them. That is why the middlemen ask for cheap specifications – because people can afford them and they want to reap good profits. But most of them don’t work well. Of course, these cut throat businessmen and their Asian partners-in-crime ought to be stopped. Unfortunately, the federal standards agency, the SON, justifies its existence entirely by paying salary to its staff every month. No other area is the official lethargy that is pervasive in governance at all levels in Nigeria felt more than the enforcement of standards. My friend’s customers complained about the prices of his USB phones but they all spoke highly of the products.
When Oyibo’s brother came back Oyibo told me the item could not be located because it was Saturday. Could I come back Monday? That is how I came to be without my computer throughout last weekend. On Monday afternoon Oyibo told me the item was not in the market. The problem, he said, is that once these electronics companies come out with new products they stop producing parts for the older ones. As I cannot do without my computer, I purchased a digital 14” China monitor for five thousand naira.
It is expected that my book will be ready for collection shortly. But it has been firmly made clear to us by the printers that we will not collect a single copy without paying the balance of thirty-three thousand naira. My publisher has been trying to raise money but those who owe him won’t pay up. I exhausted my credit lines last time and I am just now bothering about repayment. People are saying there is no money anywhere. Someone has suggested it all has something to do with the recent rash of stock trading. Maybe I will tell you about that next week.
I was disappointed to hear that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did not grant Stanley Williams’ request for Clemency. For a man who no longer posed any threat to the society, has carried out so much anti-crime activities, and was likely to do more, to be killed like that leaves you speechless. For Williams was no ordinary death row inmate. This man was nominated six times for the Nobel in Peace and Literature. One issue raised by his execution is what those who insisted on killing him wanted – justice or revenge? It also makes one wonder why many continue to insist on the maximum sentence when it is clear to everyone that the court system – in any country – is not to be trusted to get it right all the time. Legal experts will always admit this. Someone in America said juries are right ninety percent of the time. We can deduce from this that if ten are sentenced to death, one would be innocent. If a thousand people are executed, are the one hundred innocents we would have killed good communal sacrifice for us to be rid of the remaining nine hundred? And this is the second issue – innocent men and women getting killed by the state in China, Iran, Sudan, the USA and Nigeria. This is the premise on which many oppose the death penalty. They know Timothy McVay was mean and many of them believe he as a person deserved what he got. But they then reason that a policy of killing people like him gets innocent men killed from time to time. Schwarzenegger’s reason for withholding clemency helps us to bring this point home. He asks, “Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.” Williams apologised for starting the Crips gang but insisted that he would not apologise for a crime he did not commit even if that apology could save him from the gallows. Whether he was lying or the system got it wrong, we may never be sure. I was not present at the scene of the crime, neither was Schwarzenegger, nor the judges and jurors. They saw evidence, which I did not. But what do we know about evidence in criminal procedure? That they are always reliable? It was one man’s word against another. The jury convicted Williams because, having considered the evidence presented to them, they did not believe William’s assertion that he did not carry out “these senseless and brutal killings”. They passed the death sentence because that is the law. The appeal courts confirmed the death sentence because they did not believe William’s assertion that he did not carry out the killings. Governor Schwarzenegger confirmed the death sentence because he did not believe William’s claim that he did not carry out the killings.
How was your week?