Even the trivial matter of ordering a meal requires some diplomatic skills in the tiny, trilingual town of Ejigbo, in the state of Osun, in Nigeria’s south-west. Guests poring over the menu at Palm Hotel, arguably the town’s biggest recreation spot, will find Ivorian meals of attiéké and kedjenou alongside well-known Nigerian soups like efo riro and egusi. At some point in the day, Ivorian boy band Magic System’s 2000 continental hit ‘1er Gaou’ or any of the more recent songs from that country is certain to play over the bar’s sound system; this, as the manager dishes out instructions to stewards and waitresses in rapid French.
A backwater town 242km north of Lagos, Ejigbo has a population of fewer than 150,000 people, who are predominantly Yoruba. As such, the lingua franca here is naturally Yoruba and, to an extent, English, but also – strangely, for a non-border town in an anglophone country – French. The legal tender is the Nigerian naira, but some shops, market women and even interstate transporters readily accept CFA francs, the currency of francophone countries in West and Central Africa. In the small market beside the palace of the town’s traditional ruler, the Ogiyan of Ejigbo, household utensils, fabrics and other imported wares from Abidjan are displayed for sale.
Across the town, there are more elderly people than young. It’s a civil-service-based economy and those in the state employment are currently owed several months’ pay, despite bailouts from the federal government. There are few or no jobs for recent graduates; residents say these youngsters are keen to emigrate to Cote d’Ivoire soon after graduation from high school. Those who stay back for their tertiary education at the state university campus in town go for internships in the Ivorian capital or move there after graduation.
Naija sounds and smells
About 1,200km – and four countries – away, in Abidjan, the cultural intercourse is strikingly similar. On rue Princesse in Yopougon, a suburb of the city, prostitutes haggle and laugh in Yoruba and pidgin English. Another suburb, Treichville – which has an Oba, a traditional Yoruba monarch – has been home to West African migrants since the Nigerian civil war, when those fleeing their country set up shop in an area now called Quartier Biafra after the short-lived secessionist state.
In yet another area, Adjamé, it is common to find loudspeakers blasting the music of fuji superstars Saheed Osupa and Pasuma Wonder outside bukas selling amala and other meals native to south-west Nigeria. A popular discotheque in the area also belongs to a Nigerian. Vendors and their patrons are mostly Nigerians from Osun state who either emigrated from their homeland or were born and bred in Cote d’Ivoire. For these people, their ‘new’ place of abode has become home away from home. Mobile applications and programming services https://logicants.com/en/
Outside one of these bukas, Samson Oladiran, a 36-year-old mechanic tired from a long day of work oiling car undersides in the district known as Sapeur Pompier, recounts his story in sparse English. Having lived all his life in Abidjan, he visited Lagos two years ago – his first and only trip to the country of his parents. In 1994, his mechanic father died and his mother returned to Osun state. Oladiran and his three siblings had to move in with his uncle in Abidjan. At primary school he reached class five at the Nigerian Baptist School in his neighbourhood, but had to drop out as the family could no longer afford to pay his school fees.
“I just got married to an Ivorian and we are happy,” he says. “Here is my home. Every Yoruba person you see here is from Osun. We are everywhere in this country; everyone in construction and building material business here is Nigerian. We have Yoruba churches and schools here. One woman from Burkina Faso married one of us and now she and her kids speak Yoruba well. They have never been to Nigeria.” He prostrates in true Yoruba fashion and greets every elder approaching the buka. “E ka le [Good evening, my senior],” he says.
Given the distance between them, just how did the siblingship between Ejigbo and Abidjan develop? No one is exactly sure of the genesis of the exodus from Nigeria, but Baba Jerusalem, an elder who retired from the Ivorian army and now lives back in Ejigbo, traces the origins to the early ’40s and ’50s.
Baba Jerusalem’s journey
“My first trip was in 1953 by ship from Lagos and it took us three days to get to Abidjan. Our people would go to Benin Republic, Ghana and Ivory Coast,” says Baba Jerusalem, who speaks 11 languages in varying degrees of fluency including French and Baoulé. “There were no jobs then. Those of our people who went to Ivory Coast returned in shorter time and better condition than others, even though it was further away, so many of us started going there.”
The septuagenarian, who refuses to give his actual age or real name, got his nickname after a 1983 month-long holy pilgrimage to Israel. On that trip, he was one of three blacks among the 44 tourists – the other two being a Ghanaian and an Ivorian. It was one in a series of travels across the world using his Nigerian passport in tandem with his acquired Ivorian passport.
“I was a driver in Abidjan and that financed my 57 years of travel all over Europe,” he boasts. A primary school dropout, Baba Jerusalem made ends meet in the new city by also working as a travel agent arranging Ivorian passports for Nigerians born in Cote d’Ivoire. He then joined the Ivorian army. Now too old for the commute, he sits in his wife’s shop in Ejigbo, helping sell selected sundries such as slippers, grinding stones, soap, jewellery and clothing, including from Abidjan.
In Abidjan, Oladiran the mechanic says there are many other elderly men and women like Baba Jerusalem who moved from Nigeria and now have dual citizenship, having lived and paid taxes in Cote d’Ivoire for decades. His late father was one, his uncle who raised him is another. And many more Nigerians are still trooping in. Some of the migrants stopped in Ghana and Togo, while others went along the coast to Liberia and Gambia. This led to the emergence of pockets of wholly Nigerian communities in various cities and towns across the region.
These days no one goes by ship any more. Also, thanks to the free movement policy within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), nationals of the region can work and reside outside of their home countries for up to three months at a time.
There are five different transporters whose coaches ply the Ejigbo-Abidjan route on a weekly basis. Bashiru Salau, the accounts clerk at Bully Orelope Transport (B.O.T.) has seen many of these vehicles come and go over the years – almost always full. B.O.T. operates a bus service twice a week, conveying Ejigbo indigenes on the 30-hour trip across the borders of Benin, Togo, Ghana, and into Cote d’Ivoire.
On the large wall beside his cubicle hang three large clocks set to the time in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Saudi Arabia. Salau himself goes to Abidjan twice a year to visit family members there.
“Abidjan is like London for us here,” he beams. “People go there for their holidays and to start a new life. Even the many Muslims here use it as transit point before going to Mecca for pilgrimage. And the Ivorians themselves come to learn fashion tips and then go to trade in the east of Nigeria.”
Follow the market
These emigrants from Cote d’Ivoire (and sometimes Senegal too) bring their local fabrics along with them and are employed as cheap labour by wealthy fashionistas and businesswomen. Their employers, who are in Lagos and parts of south-east Nigeria, sometimes also provide food and shelter for them.
The trans-country commute has brought a significant cultural impact to both sides, but the relatively higher standard of living in Abidjan made the flow in that direction more attractive. Beginning in mid-2016, the Nigerian economy suffered its worst recession in over two decades, contracting for five successive quarters before an upturn in late 2017. In that period, the CFA franc waxed stronger as the Nigerian naira became weaker.
Oladiran, the mechanic, watched as his neighbours and others in Adjamé began buying commodities cheaply to sell for high profit margins back in Ejigbo, which, like the rest of Africa’s biggest economy, was immersed in double-digit inflation. “Our people are not lazy,” he says. “We have sense to follow the market but we don’t cheat people because we are all brothers. Whether from Ejigbo or Abidjan, we are brothers. This is our home too.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine
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