For five consecutive weekdays Nigeria was draped in green, white and red, the colours of the major workers’ union, NLC. The central government had removed subsidies on petroleum products imported into the country and that had sparked a nation-wide strike which literarily brought Nigeria to a pause. Streets which where normally boisterous with the hustle and bustle of commerce were silent except when an occasional convoy of union activists drove past chanting ‘Solidarity for ever!’ Usually, their vehicles where adorned in green figs and the banner of NLC.
On the fifth day of the strike I had volunteered to work since my house was close to the psychiatric hospital where I intern as a pharmacist. I had to walk down there considering the commercial bus drivers had joined in the strike protest. What struck me, however, was how lifeless a city like Lagos can become when the citizenry decide to revolt against the Federal government. It brought floods of written memory from articles I had read about the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Respective authors, with free-flowing lines, had painted pictures of boulevards, streets, and parks quiet for fear of stray bullets, snipers and assailants alike. That fear was palpable, crisp like loaf bread. Death had been in the air, obligatorily breathed in like oxygen. That admixture of corporeal fear and oxygenated death summoned a feeling which no writer could aptly describe with words…
When I managed to get to the clinic I was astounded to find a bevy of patients waiting in line to see the only physician on duty. The doctor was obviously very weary and I was pretty sure she could not be delivering her best as she attended to them. At the pharmacy, there was a long queue of patients with prescriptions to be filled. I was going to be working with a fellow intern. Normally, at least 10 pharmacists would be on ground to attend to the prescriptions. Today was different! So, even as I settled into my swivel chair I knew I had to be different too. I had to skip through details, make necessary compromises, and work as fast as I could.
Eventually, we rounded up for the day. I had done my part in the service to humanity but the grief was there. To see hundreds of patients flock to the hospital – some via foot, some from remote places – to consult with a physician because all services, from local healthcare delivery to BRT transportation were closed for the week brought sadness to my heart. The issue was big: Fuel subsidy: To be or not to be. However, as I listened to a sixty-seven-year-old woman narrate the tale of how she had trekked 20km to fill her prescriptions the issue seemed to be less about the subsidy. These were humans who had risked everything from heat stroke to brain stroke to get here. Of course, the implication of not using their medication implied they might relapse to full-blown schizophrenia so waiting out the strike action was not a viable option. They had put their lives on the line in order not to have their lives on the line.
So I pondered: This was merely a week-long strike. What if it was war: were instead of NLC buses revving past me it was armoured tanks slowly thundering through; were instead of the colourful flags of labour union being waved around it was AK47s held by armed rebels that jutted out of the jeeps; were instead of shouts of solidarity it was the crack of bullets that ripped through the still air waves; were instead of silent roads dirtied by bills, burnt tyres and fig leaves it was abandoned streets strewn with lifeless bodies in a pool of congealed blood? First of all, I would not have thought of going to the hospital. Secondly, and more importantly, I am not sure I would still be alive. These were the thoughts that shrieked me back to the present even as my patient, stricken with bipolar disorder, repeated over and over again, ‘Violence is not an option.’ Maybe it was just a symptom of his malady, or maybe that was the undeniable truth.