Three Fs take second place to two Olus

Faith, football, and fuel have for once been overshadowed, as Nigeria goes to the polls. Despite well-founded doubts, the people are ready to believe elections may get the country back on its feet

SAVE fuel - don't go to hell! shouts the bumper sticker on the battered yellow and black minibus taxi. "No accident shall befall" says the white Mercedes stuck next to it on Falumo bridge, "in the name of God."

Three Fs - faith, fuel and football - are the dependable elements of life in Lagos. Two of them never go away - an abundance of faith and a shortage of fuel. But football has temporarily been overtaken by voting to bring about the transition from "khaki to agbada" (traditional dress). Even the controversy over Nwankwo Kanu and Marc Overmars's decisive goal for Arsenal against Sheffield United in the fifth round of the FA Cup - due to be replayed on Tuesday - has been overtaken by politics at home.

It has been 15 years since the last civilian administration. But Lagosians are showing amazing magnanimity - or collective amnesia - as they engage in a voting process which they know to be flawed, for parties led by soldiers who want a wardrobe change.

Yesterday, it was elections for the two houses of parliament. Next Saturday, in the presidential elections, they will choose between two Olus who have more than their first names in common. There is Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general, and Olu Falae, former finance minister under a retired general.

"Oh, well" is really all you can say. Nigerians are pragmatic. All they can do is go to church and pray. There has been a lot of church lately because faith, like fuel, football and politics, is business.

Along with thousands of Lagosians, Gloria Jemingo, a beautician, went to church on Friday night to pray for a good election. The all-night vigil at the Living Fire Ministry, which meets in the warders' quarters of Ikoyi Prison, was not for the faint-hearted.

"Are you feeling tired? Then you are a blasphemer," said John, the ministry president, at around 1am. "Let us pray," he shouted into the microphone, his whole being trembling. To a man, woman and child, the congregation of about 150 people tensed up, their arteries protruding as they rolled their heads and paced up and down, shouting "pray, pray, pray" with violent force.

If God did not hear us, he does not exist. But not to worry: they say here that God is a Nigerian.

We galloped through the Parable Of The Sower (Matthew 13) and Revelations. "Are you in the church of Ephesus, Pergamos, Sardis, Laodicean or Philadelphia?" he asked. "No," came the resounding chorus. Everyone knew what John meant because, apart from church on Sundays, they go regularly to Bible class (Wednesdays) and Deliverance Day (Mondays). John makes a living from the collections - 10, 20 and 50 Naira notes (8p to 40p) held up by the congregants - and you cannot say he does not work for his money.

"He is a great preacher," says Gloria. "Praying will improve the elections, so that good can prevail over the soldiers. God is above all men, including politicians, but if we spread good messages, they will rub off on to those men."

After staying up all night and praying for good elections, Gloria did not vote yesterday. Ikoyi is not her ward, and we all had to observe a curfew. Between 7am and 3pm yesterday, no one was allowed to leave the street they were in. If you were not in your ward, tough.

Oh, well... The combination of devoutness and living under military rule for all but 10 of Nigeria's 39 years of independence, has taught Lagosians the patience of saints. In a way, yesterday was just like a Sanitation Day - the last Saturday of every month, when no one is allowed to leave their area and must devote the time to cleaning the streets.

Gbenga Lawal, a 35-year-old teacher acting as a presiding officer, explained the rules at polling unit 004 of Ward 093, under a large shady tree on Glover Road, Ikoyi. Between 8am and 11.30am, voters brought their registration cards and he checked them against a list. They were instructed to return to vote between 11.30am and 2.30pm. At 3pm he would count their votes.

"Everyone stand in a straight line," shouted Mr Gbenga at 11.15am, when the voters - mostly male - began to filter back. There were complaints about a lot of hanging around, but Mr Gbenga was cool, delivering his instructions in English and Yoruba: "I will give you a ballot paper and you will go behind the screen and put your thumbprint next to the name of one party. Then you will come back to my table and put the paper in the box."

Among the 122 people accredited at unit 004 was 39-year-old Caleb Osiobe. "Five hundred people are expected at each unit, so this is going to be a bad turnout. It is surprising, because there is nothing else to do today." He had voted for Mr Falae's Alliance for Democracy, because Gen Obasanjo was "a military man who does not have the temperament to listen to people and take advice".

In common with most voters, Caleb was under no illusions. "Considering the years and years of military rule, we are doing well to have an election which is as fair as this. Yes, the candidates are friends of the military and a lot of money changed hands to get them where they are. But it is important to go out and vote, to maximise Falae's chances."

Yet he then enumerated a series of reasons why voting might be a waste of time. "The registration process was a shambles in October. Often there were not enough cards for people. In other places, there were too many. In Lagos, all the cards were not distributed and a number were bought by the parties. A friend of mine bought a registration card the other day for 100 Naira."

Oh, well ... Politics, like football, faith and fuel, are business. "This is not the good election. That will come later, when a new generation of politicians has emerged which is untarnished by the past and has a world view. We just have to be patient," said Caleb.

Up the road, at Falumo Roundabout, Omolara Adeshina was not voting because she had spent the night in a fuel queue on a National forecourt, nowhere near her home. She expected to be served during the afternoon at the new - doubled - fuel price of N20, or 12p, a litre. It is still cheaper than the black market rate: N120 a litre.

"I shall make sure I am home for the presidential elections next week," she said. "I am prepared to believe in the elections, because I think it could be quite easy to get this country on its feet.

"Repair the refineries to get the traffic moving. Introduce decent public transport, then people will not have to steal money to buy cars. Get the electricity, water and basic sanitation fixed, then people will be happy with their politicians."

It sounds so simple. But will either of the two Olus deliver? Oh, well... There will always be faith, fuel and football.

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