Journalist David Recalls What Abiola Said Privately About Cellphones And The Masses In 1987

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If you wonder why I detest the social class I was born into so much, consider the following 2 scenarios:

It’s 1987, and my dad is sitting in on a meeting involving Mike Akhigbe, MKO Abiola, and a few other big names of the time. MKO needs to speak to someone urgently, so he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a mobile phone.

My dad’s eyes widen because apart from the satellite phones that he has occasionally seen military officers use, he has never laid eyes on a mobile phone in the hands of a civilian in real life before. After the call, MKO notices my dad’s silent amazement and chuckles, “This thing is not for the masses.” He and Akhigbe share a laugh as he stuffs it back into his pocket. “Kunle, you bloody civilian.”

Fast forward 11 years to 1998, and mobile phones are still not “for the masses” in Nigeria. My sister is studying at Queen Mary & Westfield College in London, and she visits home for Christmas. All 6 of us crowd around her Nokia 3210, cooing in amazement. Of course, there is no mobile network in Nigeria, and we can’t do anything with it, but that is where we first learn how to play ‘Snake.’

Fast forward 3 years to 2001, and mobile phones are STILL not “for the masses” in Nigeria. My brother and sister come visiting from the University of Ghana, and I find myself playing Space Impact on my sister’s Nokia 3330 and Tetris on my brother’s Ericsson T28. They are coming from Ghana, where at the time, GSM mobile phones were already common and unspectacular enough for students to have them.

And it was STILL “not for the masses” in Nigeria.

In fact, were it not for Obasanjo’s relative economic literacy, which motivated the drive to liberalise Nigeria’s telephony space, mobile phones by now would probably still be available only to a select few in Nigeria. There would be a NITEL 2G network available in maybe 5 cities, and it is a few of us that would have SIMs. Most of you wouldn’t have even heard of Twitter because where do you want to see internet?

That. That is why I despise the class I come from.

Of course, to many of you reading this, what I’ve just recounted isn’t a horror story from the Dark Ages, but a memoir from the good ole days when I was better than my neighbour. Because despite the abolition of slavery over 120 years ago, nothing still captures the imagination of a Nigerian human being like being marginally better off than the slave next to them.

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