September 16, 2012
Dr Alphonse Agbanikaka needed accommodation on Campus. After many years on the queue, he finally got himself a place in the high-density apartments of MauMau University. Apart from the usual neglect over the years, these apartments are really spacious and meet the family’s needs. His wife works in Apapa and the kids are a good Secondary School – a walking distance away from home. He was surprised that for over two months, the parking space for the family’s second car was occupied by a broken down vehicle of a former occupant with no forwarding address and no one seems to know where to find its owner! As he was grappling with that problem, the neighbor just bought a large commercial truck. He finds it difficult to squeeze his Tokunbo Camry into the space left. This “brand new” Tokunbo truck has been parked for three weeks now and he has been having to park his own two vehicles on the street! Dr Agbanikaka is looking for a house afresh! This time, he will accept nothing short of a free standing house with a fence!
Mrs Yatunde Adu has a completely different problem. In the “face me, I face you” block, no one owns a car. Her neighbour’s wife, Mrs Adiele has been unemployed. She has therefore resorted to petty trading and the free space belonging to the six occupants in this block is her shop! On one side is her pepper grinder that uses diesel because there is often electricity shortage. Next you can see Madam Adiele’s pyramid of coal sacks that has completely changed the compound. Everything now wears a tan of coal particles. You bear the noise of generation engine; Pollution from peper grinder noise; smelly, dirty environment – but your neighbor must survive! No one talks about these openly: “What do you want her to do?” Everyone knows how much a market stall or a shop costs in Lagos!
These are just two examples of the usurpation culture we have accepted here in Nigeria. One of the symptoms of a low-trust society like our own is the utter disregard for the rights of others and the constant desecration of unused space. Shot puts made up of human waste wrapped in black polythene bags are just a few of the t=regular items to be found in such spaces. On the stairway to apartment blocks, there will usually be abandoned crates of soda, huge cooking pots, etc. Out of about six tenants, these would usually belong to the most aggressive one or two people in the block. Shared parking lots are often usurped by aggressive co-tenants for keeping their broken down vehicles. Rarely will you find a good neighbor who will take it upon herself to clean jointly-owned space. However, what it comes to claiming such, there are many takers!
The consequence of this attitude is that most of us will prefer to live in self-contained compounds with high fences. The concept of shared facilities is usually too difficult for us to manage. We mostly suffer in silence.
I once lived on the first floor in a block of flats where water supply was a huge challenge. In vain did I try a solution that will earn the cooperation of all three co-tenants. Each preferred a personal solution – using your car to fetch water with jerry cans. As we were all middle-aging, each family had a difficult problem coping. There was a nice houseboy who came one day to tell me he had an urgent call from the village and had to leave. It became obvious later that the water-carrying duties he endured in our house was killing him. That phantom call from home was his last defense. What to do?
After buying sufficient storage to fully take the load of a standard water tanker, I was able to store the monthly consumption of my family which I pumped upstairs as needed. I finally solved my problem! No more depending on the manual lifting of water upstairs!
I discovered that a neighbor considered the top of my tank the ideal space to dry her cassava! Ok we can call that fair. Next, she could forget to remove the cassava until the rain fell upon it! Now I have my water volume in the tank increased by the cassava water! In vain you look for the owner of the cassava!
Eventually, I solved the problem by carrying the cassava into my apartment until the owner came to look for it! That way, we eventually found the owner and after a less-than an acrimonious conversation, we settled for a truce! My neighbor was a nice person! She eventually saw why she should not dry her cassava on my tank and we lived happily thereafter!
The examples I have given here are well known to virtually every adult Nigerian who has lived in shared accommodation. Many people will vow never to share a compound or live in a flat. However, as cities grow large and populations increase, sharing is not an option; it is often the inevitable way to survive in large cities. Nigerians who usurp common spaces at home often find no problems when they travel abroad. They share happily! Why is it possible to share abroad and impossible to do the same at home?
Some of my acquaintances blame this problem on human selfishness! I disagree. The examples of Nigerians who readily share abroad but usurp other people’s spaces at home seem to prove there is some other cause of this cultural paradigm. We must ask ourselves why it is so difficult to respect the rights of others in shared accommodation. This question is not trivial because the solution of it may help us live better lives in affordable shared accommodation when we are not able to pay for free standing buildings.
In my opinion, our problem stems from insufficient delineation of boundaries and enforcement of rights. What are my rights? What are the rights of my neighbor? Who owns the space under the common stair case? Whose duty is it to keep it clean? Who enforces the rights?
Whenever these questions are not unequivocally answered, any perceived breach becomes a quarrel between two people. In higher-trust societies, a breach of a common property will usually become the subject of discussion between a law enforcement officer and the offending party! All that one whose rights have been trampled on needs to do is to report the case to that adjudicating third party. It is the absence of such clear cut processes that allow the most aggressive among us to continue to cheat the rest of us. And our culture of live-and-let-live kills in us the urgency to enforce rights. While this is good for the brotherliness and happy society, it does not create clean, well maintained and efficient environment that can support our comfort and well-being.
Usurpation as a cultural paradigm