The sky is never fully clear in Ibadan. A haze of pollution hangs above Nigeria’s third city. It is most visible in the morning, when the sun lights it from the side; lit from above, the sky simply becomes murky, like soup. It was early morning when my American colleague and I left Ibadan, after six suffocating days. Our taxi nosed its way through crowded streets, as the faithful made their way to Mass. Everyone was wearing their Sunday best: lavishly embroidered trousers and tunics matched with head-wraps of the same cloth, or shoes with stripes. Even the boy who ran alongside the car motioning to his mouth pleadingly was dressed in a beautiful yellow two-piece, embellished with what looked like gold thread. He eventually left with our bottle of water and a nervous backward glance.

As the car joined the motorway, I wound down the window and took gulps of fresh air. It didn’t last long. The day began to warm up, and soon diesel fumes from trucks and buses poured through the open window. I didn’t breathe easily again until we reached Awka, in the far south-east of the country, a few hundred miles from the border with Cameroon.

Nigerians go to the polls on 14 April to elect new state governments and on 21 April to elect a new president and House of Representatives. These are the third elections since the end of military rule in 1999; President Olusegun Obasanjo is stepping down after two terms. Despite Obasanjo’s high international profile, it is hard to find any Nigerian not in the ruling party who has a good word to say about him. Poverty and corruption are now more widespread than they were under military rule, and public services have seen little or no improvement despite the soaring oil revenues flowing into the treasury. In 2006, Obasanjo tried to amend the constitution to allow himself to stand for a third term; the senate united to stop him and so this will be the first time since Nigeria gained independence in 1960 that power has passed from one civilian head of state to another.

The last set of elections took place in 2003; according to one local group of observers they were less elections than low-intensity armed struggles. Gangs of armed thugs mobilised by rival politicians clashed in the streets and even in polling stations as they tried to gain the upper hand in what has come to be known as ‘competitive rigging’. Along with representatives of the United States and the European Union, Britain’s diplomats are unforthcoming about what they might do if the same thing happened this time, and indeed about how they will be able to tell if it has. It is difficult to describe the chaos of elections in Nigeria: 120,000 polling stations, 140 million people (a sixth of the Africans on the continent) and thousands of candidates prepared to do almost anything to get elected. But no Western oil-importing country is willing to risk losing oil concessions to the Chinese for the sake of a few harsh words about a fraudulent election. Most Nigerians I spoke to were cynical about voting and about anybody’s ability to rein in their politicians. They were also nervous. The bell-boy in the Premier Hotel in Ibadan laughed: ‘I’m not going to vote. I don’t want to die.’

He has much to be nervous about. Ibadan’s ancient and more modern walls are awash with political posters. Prominent among them are posters of Rashid Ladoja, the sitting governor of Oyo State, and of his deputy, Christopher Alao-Akala, who is also running for governor. A little over a year ago Ladoja was impeached on trumped-up charges by a handful of members of the state assembly backed by a gang of armed militia; Akala assumed his place while Ladoja’s appeal wound its way through the courts. The High Court in Ibadan reinstated Ladoja, declaring his impeachment invalid on the grounds that not enough assembly members had voted for it. Meanwhile, in his brief time in office, Akala looted public funds on a major scale and distributed them to his supporters. He was announced as the candidate of the ruling party – the People’s Democratic Party – the weekend before we arrived in Ibadan; at his election rally, supporters of Ladoja left three dead and many others in hospital.

Like disaster tourists, we had heard of trouble elsewhere and were now heading south to Anambra State, an eight-hour drive. Along the motorway political billboards showed the faces of men, all of them smiling; there were hundreds of them, mile after mile, as though the only requirement for campaigning in Nigeria is to display a photograph of yourself in a suit and a cowboy hat.

Many of the posters were monuments to the failed ambitions of the Nigerian elite: the ruling party had already chosen its candidates. I almost felt sorry for the smiling face of Peter Odili. British audiences may remember him as the governor of Rivers State in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s richest state: last year he entertained a Channel 4 film crew in his throne room with Cristal champagne, which costs more per bottle than the large majority of his subjects earn in a year. He had campaigned hard to be Obasanjo’s anointed successor on the PDP ticket, but was dropped at the last minute. A flurry of long overdue corruption charges followed; as a sitting governor he enjoys immunity from prosecution, and he is busy currying favour with Obasanjo’s successor to gain protection for later. ‘I believe Nigeria’s wealth lies in its people,’ his poster read, ‘not in its oil.’ Our driver smiled to himself. I asked why. ‘That’s because he believes Nigeria’s oil belongs to him!’ he replied. The governor’s transport and travel budget alone is $65,000 a day; during the last two years the health budget has declined rapidly but his office still found the money for private jets.

After twenty minutes on the motorway, we saw two policemen dressed in black standing in the middle of the road, one waving a stick, the other an automatic weapon. Our driver hit the brakes and we came to a halt under the fierce gaze of Atiku Abubakar, the vice-president, who is now running for president and heads one of two major opposition parties, the Action Congress.* Two more policemen circled the car while one laid his hand gently on the roof. Where were we going? What was in the boot? He couldn’t be bothered to check our luggage so sent us on our way. Others were not so lucky: a large Mercedes was parked on the hard shoulder while policemen rifled through bags, throwing clothes and other things all over the concrete.

A short while later we came to another roadblock. On this occasion the police had pulled two logs across the highway and were guarding the space in-between, letting one vehicle through at a time. There was a large truck in front of us and our driver stayed glued to its tailgate; the policemen vaguely waved his arm at us and we drove on.

The third time we were stopped, five minutes later, it was not by the police but by a more animated group, dressed in green with a flag stitched to one shoulder beside the words ‘Highway Crime Prevention Force’. A man thrust his face into the passenger window and demanded to know where we were going, where we had come from and where were our papers? We explained that we had a visa and were in the country legally. Had we been invited by someone? If so, where was our invitation letter? We had had to exchange the invitation letter for a visa, we explained. ‘Show me the visa,’ he barked at my companion. ‘And show me your identity card,’ he shouted at me. I gave him my driving licence. My colleague pulled out his passport. ‘You are from where, the US? OK, welcome to Nigeria.’

Our driver was fuming: ‘These people are licensed armed robbers. They just want money, it’s disgusting.’ He swore that next time he would simply drive through the roadblock. ‘If you go through fast enough they won’t have time to shoot at you.’ It wasn’t long before his theory was put to the test.

On the crest of the next hill a policeman standing in the middle of the road waved a stick up and down, signalling for us to slow down. We slowed down. Another man behind him waved an AK47 from side to side. Our driver headed straight for him. He started to trace circles in the air with his weapon as he thought about what to do with it. The driver feinted to the right, then pulled round the man and accelerated away. Another policeman began waving his arms and shouting. He reached down to pick up a rock. I turned as we passed to see him hurl it, not at us but at the bus behind, which had also raced through the roadblock without stopping. The rock bounced off the side of the bus, which continued on its way, overtaking us as it went.

That was the pattern for the rest of the journey. We would slow down as indicated by the policemen, but instead of pulling over our driver would just accelerate away again. The policemen didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes they would scowl as we passed: sometimes they would just look at the next vehicle as though our behaviour was perfectly normal. A couple of times a finger was wagged or a fist shaken in our direction, but no one shot at us. Perhaps Nigeria’s finest were in a good mood that day, perhaps they didn’t have any ammunition.

Wherever the potholes on the motorway forced the traffic to slow to a crawl there would be hawkers selling water, peanuts, bananas and phone cards. At one place there was a group of disabled people waving red flags, shuffling around in the middle of the road, hands outstretched, trying to prevent the traffic from moving so they could exact a small tax. The cars and lorries drove round them, as with the policemen.

On into Delta State, where the roadblocks became fewer and the billboards more frequent. One urged Nigerians to ‘refrain from buying pirate products, stamp out piracy’; another to vote for the ‘wind of good governance in Delta State’. The candidate with the most posters was Peter Okocha: he had spent millions of dollars of his own money to win the PDP nomination for governor, but he hadn’t succeeded. There were also pictures of Governor James Ibori, even though he is not standing again: he probably wanted to remind everyone of the progress he has made here during his two terms as governor. He has appointed his cousin as his successor, much to the annoyance of Okocha and others who showed a touching faith in the ruling party’s commitment to free and fair elections in their own primaries. Okocha jumped ship to run for the Action Congress but was disqualified in the government’s corruption witch-hunt. A candidate called Goodwill Obielum, along with several others who feel they’ve been maligned, have been taking full-page advertisements in national newspapers calling on the president to intervene. But Ibori and the president have other things on their minds.

Ibori is one of the richest governors, thanks to the recent hike in oil prices that has swelled the coffers of Delta State. Facing civilian life once more, and possible allegations of corruption, he is now assisting Obasanjo’s chosen candidate for president, his fellow governor from the north of the country, Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua was not one of the front-runners during the primaries, emerging as Obasanjo’s favourite only during the final week, when the president forced all the other candidates to withdraw. Yar’Adua owes his rapid rise to Obasanjo’s patronage; he was the candidate considered most unlikely to stray far from the path of his mentor.

Delta is the second richest oil-producing state in Nigeria, and yet for mile after mile we passed filling stations that were either abandoned or closed. Since 1999 more than a billion dollars from the federal budget has been allocated to regenerating Nigeria’s three oil refineries, but neglect has slowly killed them off; only one is now functioning, at only 40 per cent capacity. The sweet crude that comes out of the Niger Delta, some of the highest quality crude oil in the world, requires only a minimal amount of refining to turn into petrol. It mostly goes to North America and Europe; Nigeria currently imports nearly all of its fuel.

Suddenly our driver slammed on the brakes and turned off the highway. He had spotted a line of vehicles queuing at a petrol station. We joined the queue. As usual there was an argument about the cost. It seems to be impossible to buy petrol in Nigeria without someone trying to swindle someone else in an obscure transaction understood only by the participants.

Once back on the road we were caught behind a lorry that was swaying badly and looked in danger of jack-knifing. As we pulled closer to overtake, there was a strong smell of petrol. Diesel was pouring out of a tank under the cab, slicking one set of wheels with fuel and causing the vehicle to slide. The driver powered on, leaving the trailer swaying behind him. One stray match and the whole lot would have ended up in flames.

In Delta State the potholes were so bad that from time to time traffic switched to the other side of the motorway. But no one thought to drive any more slowly. Several times our driver pulled out to try and overtake the lorry in front, only to be met by a bus barrelling towards us, blaring its horn mercilessly. For a while on the last stretch traffic was going in both directions on both sides of the motorway.

At Onitsha, a spectacular bridge carries the road across the Niger river. Smart Mercedes roar along high above the water; down below, shacks creep down to the river’s edge and canoes are pulled up on the mud. The town, turned to rubble during the Biafran war, is now, like many other cities in Nigeria, a collection of dirty concrete blocks and tin shacks. Onitsha is, apparently, the dirtiest city in Nigeria, though it’s hard to know how such judgments are made. On the road leading out of the city, burned-out cars and buses were scattered on both sides of the highway, but these carcasses were nothing compared to the graveyard of bulldozers we passed, more than fifty machines dumped, rusting and cannibalised, by the roadside.

I saw a large number of disabled people sitting in a row by the side of the road under a small straw shelter. Our driver said they were Biafran war veterans; people stopped to give them money as they passed. We didn’t. These days conflict takes place further down the river in the Niger Delta. Militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), many of them armed by politicians during the 2003 elections, run a successful kidnapping business and routinely blow up pipelines and oil platforms. The strikes, though, seem designed mostly to demonstrate the militants’ muscle and increase their bargaining power, since much of their money is derived from oil smuggling. MEND’s activities have reduced oil production by 25 per cent and ensured their own importance: anyone now seeking election in the oil-producing states of the Niger Delta needs to keep them happy.

We knew we had crossed from Delta to Anambra when we passed a huge poster of a smiling man wearing glasses. The caption read ‘Andy Uba: Governor of Anambra State 2007’, as though the election were a done deal. In his case, it could well be. Uba has been Obasanjo’s special adviser on domestic affairs for seven years, the man, according to one politician I spoke to, who runs the country. The rumour is that Anambra State is the president’s leaving gift to his right-hand man. It’s a gift worth having: roughly half of government spending is dispersed through the offices of Nigeria’s 36 governors; governors are supposed to forward the money to state and local government in line with locally agreed budgets, but they face little pressure to do so responsibly – budgets are rarely even published.

We had heard that people in Anambra were apprehensive about the elections because of the amount of money being spent. Apparently you could earn thirty dollars simply for turning up at a PDP rally. We had also heard that the ruling party was hiring thugs to make sure things went their way, and that the thugs were fighting among themselves for the chance to work for the PDP. ‘It smells of desperation,’ one journalist said hopefully. That desperation has been echoed by Obasanjo himself, who announced in February that these elections would be a ‘do or die affair’ for the PDP. Most people take him at his word. And that means they expect the ruling party to impose its will wherever it can, with PDP governors in most states, except for Lagos, the AC stronghold, and a few states in the north. Yar’Adua is expected to become president. Nigerians have seen little benefit in their communities from eight years of PDP rule, and they do not expect much from four more.

As we entered Anambra State, the sun was going down. The people we drove past and the bicycles that teetered on the edge of the motorway threw long shadows across the asphalt. There were hills and fields in Anambra, and for the first time all day the view was nearly beautiful. Our driver pulled into the right-hand lane, having spotted something in the road ahead of us. As we sped by he sucked his teeth; I turned to see a small body face down in the middle of the road. The clothes were torn. It was dirty and mangled in a way that suggested it may have been run over more than once. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.

Our driver refused to go back and move the body on the grounds that we could be held responsible and lynched or possibly accused of harvesting human organs. We drove on in silence past oversize politicians’ faces and advertisements for shampoo. A little further on a battered metal sign read, in a tall outmoded script: ‘Welcome to Awka.’

12 April

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