April 13, 2024

Our Airports: Some things never change, by Ugoji Egbujo 


Ugoji Egbujo

In 2013, I landed MM1 just in time to reach home to watch Nigeria vs Ivory Coast, a semi-final match of the 2013 Cup of Nations. Because I had only 15 mins before kick-off, I prayed for my luggage. If it was among the last to come out, I could miss a bit of the match. It took a while before the carousel jerked to life. Then, the bags started to roll. Sparse and tired. After about six bags, we would wait for ten minutes. Then, another set, like it was being rationed. At some point, I stopped praying and started monitoring the results of the match on the internet. It was nervy, so I couldn’t be furious.

By half-time, I hadn’t seen my bags. The carousel was still running. Hisses filled the hall. Another batch of passengers had arrived to swell the crowd. By the time my bag came through, the match had just finished. Sunday Mba had won the game for Nigeria, against all odds. My anger had vanished. I tried to complain to the NAHCO staff, but they looked away. I had wasted almost two hours there.

Subsequently, whenever I had to land at that MM1 Airport terminal, I knew I could lose 90 mins waiting for my bag. So I would play music with headphones to keep my sanity. The baggage handlers never disappointed. One night, I came in from Abuja near midnight. We were supposed to have come in in the afternoon, but due to ‘operational reasons’, we languished in Abuja for almost 12 hours. Having arrived frayed and tetchy, I didn’t have the strength to endure the baggage torture. I found a chair and started to read a book until everybody left the hall and only my bag was left on the stranded carousel. It was 1.30 am. I had mastered the nuisance.

Last week, I passed by MM1. Unfortunately, I was in a hurry. Yet again, it was football. I had to watch an Arsenal match. The internet was slow, couldn’t watch on my mobile phone. So I decided to observe the loading process to understand the delay that has become a heritage of MM1, in hope that I could hasten it. It was unbearable. They used just one or two motorized trolleys that carried only a few bags. The offloading was sluggish. The bag handlers and their bosses didn’t appear bothered by time. They didn’t look like they had target times to meet. It was excruciatingly leisurely. 

30 minutes after we landed, I hadn’t seen my bag. Nothing had changed. I tried to complain to one of the Airline staff, he expressed the same frustration and directed me to the NCAA consumer desk. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, he said, was responsible for enforcement of standards. Where are they? he asked rhetorically. It was Sunday afternoon. But there was nobody there. “If NCAA consumer protection doesn’t work on Sundays, then why do airlines fly on Sundays?” he asked and left. 

Tupac, the rapper, sang Changes. In that poetic song, he said, “Things never stay the same.” He was referring to good times and things that often change and become terrible. In Nigeria, things only get worse when they care to change. In that same song, Tupac said, “Somethings never change.” Here, he was alluding to abhorrent circumstances under which blacks lived. Stifled by prevalent racism, police brutality, ghetto violence, etc, all diabolically self-perpetuating. 

I remember the first time I flew. In 1980, from Enugu to Kaduna. The airport was clean and comfy. Everything worked. The restaurant served cornflakes for breakfast, which I ate before boarding. Our airports have since changed. Often, they have the haggardness of railway stations. The toilets are run by louts who hang around to inflict indignity on passengers. 

In that timeless song, Changes, Tupac Shakur said without change, death  survival was impossible and death imminent. Because blacks would be trapped in the drugs-prisons-poverty-premature death vicious cycle and incurable racism would promote police officers to heroes for profiling and murdering young black boys. But in addition, he hinted that terrible things never change. So people would always talk about change but wouldn’t remove the ‘devil’ from the people. 

Our airports aren’t just supposed to be tourist attractions, they are the face of the country. Every day, we talk about investors and ease of doing business. We mouth tourism and throw around fanciful slogans. But we can’t fix little sick things in the airports. Our airport officials beg for alms in the open. The MM1 airport building has looked makeshift for three decades. When we renovate the airports, we do it without finesse, like petty traders. No aesthetic appeal. No durabilty.   

The problem is that we have settled for low standards. A man heads to the bathroom at the airport, and a sniffing and sweaty man cuts a piece of tissue and hands it to him with an ominous slant of the head. We have accepted it as normal that we can’t have clean, functional toilets where business can be done with discreet ease, without beggars hanging by the door. Some of the bookshops are so tight you can put your head in them. There is no attempt to make people relax and feel comfortable. 

A visit to any of the small African countries reveals something. We are richer and louder, but we lack a culture of service in our public institutions. We take for granted delicate refinement in manners, courtesy, dignity, and training. That is why we visit poorer countries and return feeling that our country has derailed. We have to elevate our standards and insist on them. But how can we do that if impunity rules and those who make the rules trample on them in public? Perhaps, that’s just the way it is. Politicians have to make more than enough for themselves to care. So governments come, and governments go, but some sick things never change. But if we stay docile, we are going to stay strapped. 

The NCAA has rules. The airports and airlines owe air travelers responsibilities and obligations. The tickets we buy include fees for services at the airport. We must demand good services. We can’t sit aloof and be robbed. We must demand not just refunds but compensation for canceled and long-delayed flights. We must demand decent toilets and lounges. We can start with the airports. We can change this country.