By Muyiwa Adetiba
You are filled with trepidation as your plane touches ground. The charming air hostess cheerfully welcomes you to Murtala Mohammed Airport Lagos. But you don’t feel welcomed, neither do you feel cheered. All you feel is apprehension; and fear. You have heard so many things about Nigeria. Many of them are frightening though some are good. You have been told of Boko Haram but they say it is confined to the North. Of deadly robbers, but that is confined to the East. Of kidnappers who specialise in expatriates, but that it is largely in the South. And that Lagos where you will be spending two weeks is full of tricksters and scammers. On the brighter side, you are told the country is diverse and culturally rich. That the people are friendly and welcoming of strangers; and that laughter, loud boisterous laughter, comes easily to them. You are also told in passing that Nigeria has been an oil producing country for about 60 years and that plays on your sub-conscious. And there comes your first disappointment.
The airport you have just entered does not compare with the image you have of an oil producing country. It certainly does not compare with any of the airports you have visited in Europe and the Americas. It also does not compare with any of the oil producing countries in the gulf region. It is plain, nondescript and almost claustrophobic. Most airports as the first point of contact, try to portray modern, glittering images of their countries. This one in comparison seems dull and archival. All signs of modern technology and aids are absent. The conveyor as small as it is, is not working and you wonder why; the escalator as short as it is, is not working and you wonder why; the narrow passage seems stuffy and warm and you wonder why.
Mercifully, the distance is short and you are soon faced with the immigration officials. The questions are brief and routine, and just as you are about to be let in, someone asks if you have some loose change ‘for the ‘boys.’ You have been warned about this so you just ignore the question and move into the baggage hall. You are faced with a fairly empty hall and two motionless conveyor belts. An official announces the name of your flight and points to the nearer one. It looks the worse for wear and you wonder if it will work. Just then, another official asks you if you need a trolley and you nod in affirmation. He asks for ten dollars. Just as you are about to give him some money, a fellow passenger nudges you and tells you to follow him. You are led to a kiosk where a lady tells you its two dollars. You give a 20 dollar note which is the smallest denomination you have. You expect change but you are told you have to wait for other passengers to pay in dollars. They are paying in naira. Then the passenger, your Good Samaritan, retrieves your 20 dollars and pays for you. You go back to the belt and find that the carousel has sprung to life. You find a vantage position to await your luggage. Five minutes, ten, fifteen. Just as you glimpse what looks like your luggage, a passenger manoeuvres herself and her trolley in front of you, blocking your view. You are about to remonstrate her and insist she moves away but you realise you are a stranger, an alien in Lagos. You hold your peace but you are seething at her rudeness. The moment passes; so does your luggage. The rude lady hauls two massive pieces of luggage into her trolley and pushes past you, knocking your trolley aside. She throws a ‘sorry’ at you and moves on. You find that seems to be a way of life in Lagos. Everybody is in a hurry; everybody is impatient. People jump traffic lights as flippantly as they jump queues. It is considered smart to out manoeuvre the person next to you in a race that seemingly goes nowhere.
You find your suitcase and move towards the exit. You meet the custom officials searching suitcases. Yours is not searched. The officer looks at your single luggage and asks if you have anything to declare. You reply in the negative. He then asks if you have small change in dollars to give to them. Sensing that he seems more interested in searching your pocket than your luggage, you quickly give him the twenty in your hand and move away. Right in the hall, three people ask you if you need transportation. You say no and step out. You try to re-orientate yourself and scan the humid air for your host when you are besieged. Two people hold your trolley offering to push it for you; others are asking about your destination and mentioning different kinds of vehicles and rates. You remember your briefings about tricksters and scammers and you hold firmly to your trolley. Thankfully, your host appears and takes control. Relieved, you look around to familiarise yourself with your environment and you notice uniformed men with rifles. Is there a siege? You look at your host but he is unperturbed and you relax. He asks about your trip and you carefully choose your words. He moves towards the uniformed men who tell you where to stand and wait for the driver. Just then, one of the louder men on the flight saunters out with a small crowd and moves towards an SUV parked inside the compound. He appears to have no luggage or perhaps it has been ferried for him. You ask your host if he is an airport official but told he is a politician. You ask if that gives him the right to park within the airport and you get a smile for an answer. The car comes. The rifle-carrying men are solicitous but do not touch the luggage. A tout does. Your friend understands the language. He pays the tout and pays the uniformed men and off you go for your first experience of the Lagos life.
N.B. This article may as well be segmented and serialised and each segment would be revealing. Like ‘A stranger in a Nigerian hospital’ or ‘A stranger on the Lagos road’ or ‘a stranger in a Nigerian university.’ We could go on. The point is that our leaders and policy makers need to look at our institutions, monuments and public buildings with the eye of a first timer and see if they measure up to the expectations and image of Nigeria. It is time to stop finding excuses for mediocrity and underdevelopment. It is time to earnestly address the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Nigeria especially in security and infrastructure.