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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 March 2006, 12:25 GMT
Ringing in changes in Nigeria
By Elizabeth Blunt
Former BBC West Africa correspondent

In 1979 Elizabeth Blunt was sent to Nigeria by the BBC to cover the country's elections, as the then military head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, prepared to hand over to an elected civilian government. She recently returned to the country to revisit some of the people and places she had known all those years ago.

Mobile phone sellers in Lagos
Business is booming for Nigeria's mobile phone sellers
I was back in Nigeria recently, and trying to find a woman called Dada who I had met on my first visit to the country, 27 years ago.

I peered at my faded notebook. "She used to live in Lamido Crescent. Off Korauo Road, it says, near Hadeija Jamahare..."

My colleague was getting impatient. "Don't you have her cell phone number?"

Cell phone number. How quickly people forget.

Of course she did not have a cell phone number. There were no cell phones in 1979, not even those great big things the size of a house brick that we used to carry around.

Nigeria in those days was a country almost entirely without working telephones, a communications black hole
More to the point, she would not have had an ordinary telephone number in 1979 either.

Or at least it would have been purely theoretical.

There probably was a telephone somewhere in her house in Kano, but the chances of it working were so slim that I had never bothered writing the number down.

Nigeria in those days was a country almost entirely without working telephones, a communications black hole.

A nightly pre-booked call to London came through only twice in six weeks.

My reports on the elections had to be sent by telex, and read aloud by a colleague in London. I spent an awful lot of my time in the Breadfruit Street telex office.

'Gobbledygook'

Breadfruit Street was in the old part of Lagos island.

One day on my way to the telex office I was swept aside by a group of men in white Ku Klux Klan style hoods, with buckets on their heads. Night soil men still emptied the latrines of the capital.

The telex office was cramped and noisy. I sat there in the afternoons, as a generator throbbed outside the window and the sweat trickled down the backs of my knees, banging out my reports on a blind punch.

This produced a ribbon of punched paper tape. Unless you could read holes you had no idea what you were typing.

One false move with the shift key and you produced a string of gobbledygook.

After years of struggling with their moribund telephone system Nigerians are still entranced by their mobiles
On the day the election result was announced I stormed into the telex office to find two oil company staff ahead of me in the queue. Their office lines were down and they each had two carrier bags full of punched tape to send.

I made them an offer. If I told them the name of their new president, would they let me jump the queue and send a quick newsflash to London?

The deal was done, the message was sent, and then it was back to the punch, to bang out the details.

Costly conversations

I went back to Breadfruit Street, but the telex office had vanished.

No-one I asked even knew what a telex office was. Many of them had shiny new cell phones pressed to their ears. After years of struggling with their moribund telephone system Nigerians are still entranced by their mobiles.

The mobile phone companies have done more to tackle youth unemployment than any government project
Everyone seems to have a mobile phone. Many have two or three, each tuned to a different network.

It must be swallowing huge amounts of their disposable income, because even making brief business calls I used up $10 (7) worth of credit every couple of days. And all around me Nigerians were engaged in long and animated conversations.

But their money is at least supporting a whole new sector of employment.

Telephone entrepreneurs

A map of Nigeria showing Lagos and Abuja
In any big town you just have to look around and there will be a boy within hailing distance ready to sell you a top-up card.

Girls are less likely to be scampering about in traffic jams with strings of cards. But give them a picnic table, a red, yellow or green umbrella, and a "make your calls here" sign, and they are set up in the telecommunications business.

The mobile phone companies have done more to tackle youth unemployment than any government project.

Being able to make phone calls has transformed working life in Nigeria.

I am used to thinking of it as a place where getting one thing done a day is an achievement. On my last trip I allowed so much time that I finished three days early.

And it is the mobile phones which have finally banished the traffic jams.

In the days when you could not call anyone, you just had to get on the road and go to their office.

After two hours stuck in the traffic the chances were that you would find the office empty. They were in another jam somewhere, going to see someone else.

But for a journalist it was not all bad.

Nigerians are very polite, and when you finally turned up on their doorstep, hot and bothered and unannounced, they could hardly refuse to see you.

Now you have to call ahead and give them the chance to say no.

Quick communications

And for better or for worse, news travels faster.

In the past, details of a religious riot in the far north might take days to reach the south of the country.

Internet cafes are sprouting like mushrooms
It would only be when the bodies finally started arriving in their home towns that the tit-for-tat killings would begin.

At least that gave the authorities some time to prepare. But now, however hard they try to sit on the news, the cell phones start buzzing immediately.

For a visiting journalist, life is certainly easier, but I did get the odd flashback, especially when trying to get into my e-mail.

Thanks to an oppressive military government which restricted development of the internet, Nigeria still lags behind other countries in the region.

The aspiration is certainly there. Internet cafes are sprouting like mushrooms, every one promising a fast broadband line. And perhaps their claims are true, but you are sharing that one line with a packed roomful of fellow surfers.

I sat there waiting for the e-mail to open, the generator was throbbing outside the window and the sweat was trickling down the back of my knees.

And I never found my friend from Kano.

Dada, if you hear this, brave the rigours of the internet cafe, and send me an e-mail.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Nigeria
10 Jan 06 |  Country profiles


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