We began our search for 21,220 lanterns on Wednesday morning when we left Abuja for Lagos. We had received an urgent request from USAID the previous afternoon; the United States government wanted to support Nigeria’s Independent National Election Commission (INEC) by providing indelible ink markers and rechargeable lanterns for Saturday’s presidential election. The National Assembly elections, held on April 9, had been hailed domestically and internationally, but some improvements were still needed before the April 16 polls. INEC Chairman Attahiru Jega had requested assistance with procuring indelible ink markers for marking voters’ fingers as well as rechargeable lanterns or flashlights for the 10,610 Collation Centers across the nation, where counting was expected to go late into the night, and power supply was unreliable at best. USAID had given this task to IFES, the only implementing partner working directly to support INEC.
After receiving the call from USAID, Uloma Osuala, IFES’ Nigerian-American Operations Manager, and I decided to head to Lagos in search of the markers and lanterns, while the local staff set out on the same errand in Abuja. Lagos is Nigeria’s commercial hub, and since most imported commodities arrive there before reaching the rest of the country, we thought we would find better prices and larger quantities of markers and lanterns in Lagos’ markets. After making numerous phone calls and inquiries, Uloma had identified one Lagos-based vendor who claimed to have indelible ink markers in stock and who would meet us on Wednesday with samples. Uloma also had the names and addresses of several shops in Alaba International Market, Lagos’ largest electronics market, where we would go to find the lanterns.
Knowing we had 36 hours—until Thursday evening—to fulfill this request, we embarked on the airplane full of hope but somewhat anxious. These two emotions would in turn rule our next two and a half days. Anytime we got closer to fulfilling our mandate, we were overcome with glee. Every time we ran into a hurdle along the way, such as Lagos’ infamous traffic, our anxiety flared.
Our first brush with Lagos’ gridlock was on our drive from the airport to the market. We had been in the car for over two hours when we noticed we were not even close to our destination. Looking at our watches, we wondered whether we’d reach the shops before closing time.
Two hours later, we were thrilled when we reached the market with enough time to visit a number of shops we heard might be able to supply at least part of the 21,220 lanterns (two per Collation center) that INEC had requested.
Unfortunately, despite walking through the seemingly endless number of stalls and shops offering any electrical device one could think of, we did not find what we were looking for. We were shown a variety of lamps by the eager shopkeepers, but none of them were what we needed—a rechargeable lantern, simple, bright, and at a reasonable price. And so, feeling deflated by our lack of success and the oven-like heat, we headed to our hotel where we would meet the only vendor we had found who claimed to have indelible ink, rather than regular permanent markers.
Back at the hotel, Ikeja, the vendor showed us a sample indelible ink marker, with 14% silver nitrate content. We enthusiastically tried it on our fingers, and when we saw the marker was suitable, we began discussing the specifications, quality and quantity of his supply. We settled on a price and agreed to visit his warehouse in the morning to see the markers for ourselves and do some random testing. We went to bed late, but happy that we were on our way to fulfilling INEC’s request.
Our anxiety returned the next morning, however, when Uloma noticed our marker vendor was ignoring her calls. We headed out for Alaba Market again, with a growing sense of apprehension. We had hoped to deliver the commodities to INEC that night, but we had not yet secured either pens or lanterns. After another four hour drive through Lagos’ clogged streets, we arrived at the market. Luckily, the owner of the first shop we visited had a large supply of the type of lanterns we needed and promised he could source the remaining lanterns from other vendors. We spent about an hour and a half looking at the different lantern models that would be suitable, and discussing quantity, price, delivery and payment terms.
By 3pm we were in the car on our way to the bank to make an advance payment to the vendor so he could start buying up and shipping the lanterns that weren’t in his warehouse. But because of the constant congestion, we weren’t able to even get close to the bank until around 7pm, by which time it was closed. Luckily, the vendor began to mobilize his own stocks even without our advance payment. He agreed to continue working through the night to deliver the lanterns, even if he would not receive payment until the next day.
That evening, it became clear we would be unable to secure the indelible ink markers as we discovered that the only marker our vendor friend had was the one he had given us as a sample. Since we would not be able to deliver any markers, it became even more critical to supply all the lanterns. Our already extreme determination to fulfill USAID’s request became even more heightened and resulted in a lengthy night that began when Uloma came by my room to let me know the first lantern shipment had arrived. As we walked out of the hotel and towards the trucks, the thought that thousands of the lanterns that would be used to complete the counting process all over Nigeria were in our hotel parking lot seemed extremely surreal.
Upon seeing the large supply of lanterns, Uloma suggested we count them and do some random testing that night, since the shipment was going to the airport at 5am on Friday. So, beginning at1am, and by the light of a rechargeable lantern, we peered into the trucks and devised a way of counting hundreds of boxes without actually unloading and counting each one.
At daybreak on Friday, after only a couple of hours of sleep, we visited two warehouses with our vendor. There, we checked and counted more lanterns as they were loaded onto trucks bound for the airport. When we saw Hassan Sesay, our Abuja based Logistics and Operations Advisor, step off the plane from Abuja, we began to feel some relief at the thought of having another pair of hands to help with our lantern logistics.
Hassan, Uloma and I headed to the cargo area of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, where we saw, to our joy, about 7,000 lanterns that had already been delivered. An INEC logistics officer was also on the scene to start moving the lights out to the state collation centers. As we waited, over the next four hours, the lantern deliveries continued to roll in, and by 6pm we had just over 20,000 that would be transported across the country for use in the April 16 Presidential and April 26 Gubernatorial elections.
We were exhausted and filthy on the tarmac that night, but at the same time extremely happy and proud to have responded to at least part of the huge request on such short notice. We would be stuck in Lagos for two more nights, as movement restrictions would prohibit us from leaving on the following day. However, our success made it all worthwhile. And we smiled with relief as we realized Lagos’ streets would be empty of traffic the next day as Nigerian election law restricts movement for all but election workers and observers during polls.