Two months ago, I visited Nigeria for the first time in several years. My first impression of the Murtala Muhammad International Airport (MMA) in Lagos as the plane taxied towards the terminal building was the same as I had had on my previous visit: it looked squalid and desolate.
It was early in the evening, but there was little sign of life. It was dispiriting that ours was the only aircraft doing business at that hour in our busiest international airport.
The immediate implication of this is that international aviation in our country has collapsed. At that same point in the day, there is far more travel in the airports in Freetown and Monrovia. And no, in international airports, you do not usually see broken down planes in the bushes lying in wait for any unfortunate aircraft that might skip the runway. It was almost like being on a Nigerian highway where carcasses of vehicles are abandoned once an accident investigation has been completed.
It was no surprise, upon stepping inside the airport, to discover it in the same disused, semi-conscious state. The air-conditioning did not work, and pieces of broken equipment were simply pushed aside. Upon arriving in the baggage claim area, it still had the same battered and broken conveyor belt on which Umaru Dikko was supposed to have returned from England. Luggage carts, where they were available, were being pre-rented by some of the airport pretend staff who cluttered the place. As you settled down in the wilting heat to wait for your luggage, they offered to sub-let one to you.
In that bakery, how the young children screamed in as much discomfort as disbelief!
Nigeria Customs had not changed: uniformed officers were still colluding with those luggage-area “officials” to fleece travellers of money, with deals being done in the open. The proposition to me, as though I had sought help with contraband, was: give me some money to give to the Customs officer so that he does not check you!
At modern airports, the passenger experiences relief when he gets through Customs. He steps step through their doors into a large and comfortable arrival hall where he can gather himself and meet some who is waiting for him, or through which he has immediate access to supervised public transportation.
Not through Nigeria Customs, and certainly not at MMA International. When that door opens, it is an overwhelming, overcrowded scene, as if all of Nigeria’s 130 million people are assembled there on top of each other. Almost every person in the crowd is at once offering the traveler something: transportation, foreign exchange services, a map of Nigeria, or help with baggage.
In my view, that location, MMA’s “Arrival Hall,” is the burial ground of Nigerian tourism. It is so hostile and so disconcerting that no self-respecting tourist can possibly be encouraged to return. In fact, no experienced traveller, offered a free trip to Nigeria, will accept it.
What is stranger thing is that when you brave the “Arrival Hall” shock, you discover that the massive crowd that is but the privileged few who know how to get into the place. “All of Nigeria” is to be found waiting beyond the Terminal Building fence, where uniformed policemen operate a little gate through which those known to them can walk. Vehicles do not drive up to pick up arriving passengers. It is within that crowd that the tired passenger can have access to taxis, which are unmarked. There are no commercial or hotel buses, either.
And oh, if you happened to need foreign exchange, you must choose between leaving your luggage out there in the middle of that fierce crowd and lugging it back with you to the far side of the arrival area where you can conduct such business.
MMA International has a lot of land, but there is no organized or enforced parking. The parking lot beneath the building was abandoned within months of its opening in 1979. Today, a lot of parking is on the congested street, giving it an Ojota Motor Park feel rather than the ambience and functionality of a true airport. You are asked for bribes throughout the airport; even the top immigration official who examined my passport handed it back with a broad smile, asking me, “Anything for your boys?”
MMA is, in the end, an anachronism. It was built in the 1970s for the 1960s. While it requires to be substantially rebuilt with an eye on traffic in the next 50 years, it is now much more like Dugbe or Agege Market.
Remember: following Farouk Abdulmuttalab’s attempted bombing of a United States flight on Christmas Day 2009, the American government compelled Nigeria to make security changes at MMA. Being my first visit to the country since then, I was highly interested in those security advances.
My verdict: competent security at MMA is a ruse. Yes, there is serious motion and every appearance of thoroughness, but it is the old formula in which a multiplication of men and effort is meant to be mistaken for achievement. Passengers are repeatedly roughed up and fondled, but it is menace masquerading as mission accomplished, and it is only a matter of time before the hoax is exposed.
The Customs man on duty that night was clearly over-laboured, but he was also a masochist. His principal delight seemed to be to scatter luggage presented to him as much as he could even as he ran insulting comments about passengers’ items. He was searching furiously but not thoroughly; in the real world, it has since been recognized that luggage can only be scrupulously and consistently searched by indiscriminating machines.
If MMA is the new definition of security, we are certainly doing very well, but remember: we have had men and machines and repeated large budgets laboring feverishly on the Lagos-Benin Road on a daily basis for 30 years, during which time it has remained the worst federal road in the southern hemisphere. We have “combated” corruption frenetically since 1999, but corruption has grown more potent and omnipotent ever since. It is the Nigerian way.
We have had the Nigeria Image Project, which was as empty as our Heart of Africa, which was as empty as Ojo Maduekwe’s Citizen Diplomacy, which was as empty as Dora Akunyili’s Rebranding. Each was a huge cash-guzzling scheme aimed at laundering our image but each was dumped as unceremoniously as it had been announced, with nobody accounting for its budget. It is the Nigerian way.
The point here is that we make limited progress largely because we run pretend governments, like children in a make-believe class. MMA and our chaotic aviation situation is a good example of non-governing governance. Government apparatuses are everywhere, often erected as layers of ego-driven bureaucracy and authority. They are incapable of functioning as they do elsewhere because nobody seems interested in results or in service.
Look around: Nigeria has perfected the art of building city that either have open drainage, or lack drainage at all. We build lovely new offices and homes, but we must hide them away behind tall fences and barbed wires. We appoint officials into high office but they do not have to fear being fired because they delivered poor results.
It is a long-running game: governance as 419. It is the milieu in which Goodluck Jonathan takes control three weeks from now.
Next: Non-Governing Governance (2 of 4): Reinventing the PDP
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