(Damocles is his nom de plume. He is a patriotic US-based Nigerian in whom I am well pleased. He is one of the finest compatriots I know, burning for change with every fiber of his being. After a four-year absence, he recently returned to Nigeria over the Christmas holidays. I asked for his assessment and he emailed me a comprehensive analysis in five anecdotal movements. I sought his permission to make his piece available to a wider audience. He graciously agreed to be a guest of this column this week. Although he has opted to write under the pen name of Damocles, it is evident that he did not visit Nigeria with the sword of his namesake in Greek mythology. Damocles, my friend, visited Nigeria instead with his eyeglasses. He saw… he observed… Enjoy his observations).
Anecdotes of a Visiting Nigerian
1. Murtala Mohammed International Airport is a madhouse and a microcosm for Nigeria:
My flight to Lagos arrived around 2PM and I regret to say that MMIA does not present a good first impression for visitors to Nigeria at all. Aesthetically, it’s not pleasing. Refuse and wildly overgrown grasses can be seen on the airport grounds as the plane lands. This is the first sight that any visitor to Nigeria sees before even getting off the plane. Upon entry into the airport through the connecting tunnel, one is immediately rudely accosted by heat since the air-conditioning system is not working. Furthermore, there were few if any signs pointing one to baggage claim so many of us kept on walking upstairs. It was when we had strayed quite afar that a customs official advised us that we had missed the escalator leading down to the arrival wing. The escalators by the way were not working, I could manage but my thoughts were for the handicapped and frail. I didn't see any accommodation for them. We finally made it through immigration and into baggage claim to discover a scene of wanton disorder. There were no signs advising travelers what baggage conveyor our bags would come out from, but as there are only TWO working conveyors, process of elimination would solve that problem. We discovered that there was a long line for a booth where one is to buy tokens for trolleys. However, the lady at the trolley booth decided not to sell the tokens anymore because there were a significant number of people with tokens but not enough trolleys had been brought into the baggage claim area. We, the heavily perspiring horde of travelers prevailed on her to sell the tokens pending when more trolleys would be delivered. When it came to my turn to purchase the trolleys after about an hour of queuing up, I handed the lady a dollar note. Last time I was in Nigeria trolleys were either a dollar, a pound or N100. The lady informed me that they no longer collect foreign currency for trolleys and that I would have to convert my dollar before I could buy a token. I traveled with 3 checked bags and a hand luggage, so I really needed this trolley. It took a combination of flirting and "seeing" her with $3.00 before I could get the token. Drenched in sweat after about 2.5 hours, I finally got my bags and attempted to head out to meet my parents who had come to pick me up. I was met by a Customs official who was in no uncertain terms trying to get some money from me. Luckily, a family friend who happened to be an immigration official spotted me and had me waved through. On the return leg, I had to "see" everyone from the customs and immigration officials, the check in counter agents and even the toilet attendant at the lounge before I could travel back. These officials don't even hide it; they boldly and openly ask and receive money from you.
2.I will criticize the government less:
This is not because our government functionaries no longer deserve criticism; they do, very much so. However, I have found that even when government is not there to frustrate us, we the people frustrate ourselves and put unnecessary roadblocks in our own way. For instance, when I went to activate a SIM card so I could have a local phone line, I noticed that the form asked for my ethnicity or state of origin as well as my religion. I didn't fill these in at first until the MTN attendant refused to activate my card until pending these items being filled. Now prithee, what do my ethnicity and religion have to do with activating a SIM card? During the visit, I overheard a lady on the phone making enquiries for a domestic servant. She said she didn't want someone from Akwa Ibom because she already has one Akwa Ibomite as a servant in her house and didn't want them to collude. Even in these mundane scenarios, we harp on ethnicity. Is there any wonder why we have problems maintaining national unity? If federal character has to be a factor in hiring domestic servants, we have a long way to go if we want to remove it at the Cabinet level. On traffic, even in areas where roads are very navigable and there are no accidents, we cause unnecessary traffic because it hasn't occurred to us that two cars cannot occupy the same spot, at the same time. It's like we're so psychologically on edge that to yield the right of way makes us feel cheated. This leads me to point 3.
3. The Nigerian elite need to pray:
The day the Nigerian masses realize that they by far outnumber the patrician elite in Nigeria, will be a very bloody one. As I alluded at the end of point 2, the Nigerian masses have a stirring undercurrent of volcanic anger within them that will one day erupt if things come to a head. Take for instance a situation where a driver is earning around 35,000 naira monthly. This converts to about $225 a month. So someone who drives you, drives your children and essentially has your life in his hands while handling the steering, labouring from dawn till dusk, earns 35,000 naira a month. All this as you strip him of every modicum of dignity while yelling at him and calling him "stupid", "idiot" and other rains of abuses for excusable errors, from the back of your air conditioned SUV. Yet you expect him to have morale and serve you loyally? I spoke to some of the working poor. Take it from me, they are angry. The man old enough to be my father's age mate who felt the need (despite my protestations) to prostrate before me for the sake of a few N500 notes is angry and one day he won't take it anymore. We really need to tackle poverty. That was what made me most despondent. The wad of N500 notes I gave that man would do nothing to alleviate his poverty even if ten people were similarly generous. It will not avail him much because his poverty has almost become an institution to him. A mountain that cannot be moved. Knowing that there was nothing I could do to be of lasting help was very discouraging. I further deduced upon interacting with people that since there is only so much people can do to help, they are forced to turn a blind eye and pretend that they cannot see the abject poverty that surrounds them. Soon people become jaded and desensitized losing their basic humanity. So, a poor beggar comes to them and they see a nuisance not a life worth saving, they don’t see an existence which could easily be theirs if the lottery of life had yielded a different result.
4.We are (or can be) a good people:
I earlier alluded to the toilet attendant in the MMIA lounge during my return journey. I went to use the restroom and saw this attendant who was probably the same age as me. I looked at this guy and it occurred to me that the only difference between the two of us was that I was fortunate to be born to parents who could afford to send me abroad for my studies years ago. . Our situations could easily be reversed. I listened to his story as he appealed to my generosity while handing me a towel to wipe my hands. I looked into my wallet and found that that all I had left was dollars. You see, by the time I made it through security I was out of naira having "seen" all the immigration and customs officials. Under my breath, I muttered "there but for the grace of God go I" and gave him some money from my wallet. I will never forget the look of appreciation on his face. I hope you don't think I'm being self-congratulatory because I'm not. I'm only pointing out how we're wasting our talent resources in Nigeria. This toilet attendant is a university graduate for crying out loud. All he needs is opportunity and he could contribute far more substantially to the greatness of Nigeria than he does as a toilet attendant. I despondently left the toilet en route to board the plan. I had walked a quarter of the distance to my departure gate when I realized that I left my college ring on the sink as I washed my hands. This ring is a prized possession of mine and is of high sentimental value in addition to it being costly. I gave it up for lost. Surely this attendant would realize the monetary value of this ring. I beat a path to the toilet and there was the attendant with my ring heading in my direction attempting to return the ring. He could have, but he didn't steal it. With this anecdote, I left Nigeria with the realization that despite our endemic problems, we have the potential to be truly a "Good people and a Great Nation". We just need to be led by those who can appeal to the best in us, not the worst. Who see the dignity in every man regardless of ethnicity, sex, religion or social class.
5.Can I ever move back to Nigeria?
People ask me this question and, to answer it simply, "e go hard oh". For one to move to Nigeria from the diaspora, one most ask the question, "how much is your peace of mind worth?" Yes there is money to be made and many opportunities to harness, but what is the opportunity cost of going through the many bureaucratic and logistical roadblocks. Consider this anecdote, my dad took me from our home on the mainland, to visit a friend of mine on the Island on a Sunday afternoon. We realized that the petrol level was quite low and not too many filling stations were selling. The ones that were selling had long queues. We were in line and my dad realized that if we continued, we would get nowhere. My Dad is a retired banker and if I do say so myself, a well-educated and dignified man. He had however worked his way up, since he wasn't always well to do. He still has his youthful Obalende instincts about him and is no ajebutter. So he bade me take the steering, while he took an empty jerry can and walked into the station. About 20 minutes later, he called me to drive up front. I drove to the front, and to my surprise he used a small plastic hose and with his mouth siphoned petrol into the tank from the Jerry can with the skill of a roadside mechanic. We continued our journey and without batting an eye told me "that's how we survive here oh." I was silent as my mind recalled the father of a childhood friend of mine, who slumped and died at the wheel while queuing at a petrol station for hours in the 90s. We arrived my friend's place. My friend is an author. He saw a job opportunity and moved from the US to Nigeria and told me how he has to chase book stores up and down to be paid for the books they order. They give him the "come tomorrow" rigamarole and basically act like they're doing him a favour by paying for the books they ordered. By the time he's done, he is physically and mentally exhausted. Meanwhile book stores in nearby Ghana credit his account automatically, without he having to wrangle them. Now if I, a Nigerian citizen- born and bred in Lagos have misgivings about moving back home, imagine how difficult it is to attract foreign investment from people who have no connection to Nigeria.
One inspiring lasting thought is the unyielding optimism of the average Lagosian despite the fearful odds. We have an indomitable can do attitude which keeps us going no matter what we face. An unbowed optimism which makes a man caption his slum bungalow in a poor neighborhood with the words “Castle of Joy” emblazoned for all and sundry to see. We would do well to channel that can do spirit for collective good rather than divisive ill. We can and must do better.