Friday, October 13, 2006

Under the politician's whimsy

Abeokuta is reached from Lagos via a new access road complete with streetlights, rare in this corner of the world. Newly built homes, terracotta like the ground beneath them, cluster between road and verdant country.

Turning onto the road from the main highway you are greeted by a giant billboard projecting the beaming smile of Ogun state Governor Gbenga Daniel, standing for reelection, next to President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose farm the road passes on its way to Abeokuta, his home town.

Daniel looks set to win a second term as governor in April's elections. He is part of the president's People's Democratic Party (PDP) and during his governorship so far Abeokuta has witnessed a construction boom, with new roads, the redevelopment of its stadium in anticipation of the National Sports Festival earlier this year and projects designed to boost tourism.

Abeokuta, 60km north of Lagos in the country's south-west, is an attractive town and the birthplace of many famous Nigerians, including Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, Nobel prize-winning author Wole Soyinka and Obasanjo. Many buildings date back to the colonial era, though they are now in a state of disrepair. Through its obas' palace, where chiefs and elders gather to resolve arguments, it retains links with Yoruba tradition. It is a town of crowded marketplaces, heavy traffic and mountains of rubbish. But the hustle is more laid back and less menacing than it is in Lagos, while brightly decorated beaten up taxis and its people dressed in colourfully patterned clothes give the place a positively funkadelic atmosphere.

The town's name, which means “under the rock”, derives from the Olumo rock that provided a refuge for those fleeing from slave traders in the early 1800s. The granite rock is sacred in local tradition and looms large above the town surrounding it.

It used to be that people had to climb the rock to get to its top, but a giant elevator – built by Daniel’s companies – now allows easy access to the top. The clamped-on concrete structure dominates the rock, even from a distance. Critics point out that in a town lacking adequate healthcare facilities and other basic infrastructure, the N750 million (3.1 million pounds) spent on its construction could have been used address people's needs more directly.

I asked my guide's for her thoughts on this. Without any conviction, she pointed out how good it was that old people were now able to reach the top of Olumo rock without having to climb it. I pressed further, and this time elicited a resigned shrug: “He's the governor, he does what he wants.”

Photos, Marcus Bensasson. Top: one of Abeokuta's busy street markets. Above: The giant elevator at Olumo rock. You can find more photographs of Abeokuta on my Flickr photostream.