Photo shows immigration officer at Murtala Muhammed International airport, Lagos
Am planning for my annual homecoming, and of all the stress associated with that exercise, one actually commanded a physical wince – a jolt to go through my heart in discontent, remembering what I am yet again about to go through the airports in Nigeria. For me, going through Nigeria’s airport has over the years been, as one Igbo proverb says “the tingling rashes between the buttocks which awkward antidote is an audacious scratch wherever it happens”.
What won’t I give to have a hassle free exit through the airport of my own country! Why should the only place I travel without having to go through the necessary insolence of acquiring a visa, be the one that leaves me with a sigh each time my travels intersects with its airport? Indeed, for me, it is truly that bad, so bad that it ranks far above the endless lists of logistical and financial burdens which accompany each of my journeys back home. I do think it needlessly works to frustrate the joys of Nigeria’s diaspora members who cherish homecoming to meet family and renew memories and bonds as often as they can.
It is not so much the infrastructural menace some of Nigeria’s airports clearly are when compared to their counterparts in other nations as it is the lack – contrived lack – of basic expectations: civility, organisation and professionalism among uniformed immigration and cargo handling personnel at our nation’s international airports. There is a sense in which it is a big irony that despite the fact that Nigerians travel so much – to and from Nigeria – the nation seem to have refused to harness the opportunity that represents as a means of boosting and diversifying its economy and raising profitable international corporations.
Instructively, most international airlines like Lufthansa still maintain steady flights on the Nigerian route despite the protestations that our airports are not up to required standards. May be, the financial juice that flows to those players justifies their embrace of the route especially as a six hour flight to Nigeria seems to cost more than a twenty hour plus flight to the U.S. or Asian country from Europe.
While it might be useful to once again rehash the issue of airport infrastructure and air transport costs, my concern here is limited to the numerous officials perambulating through the nooks and crannies of the airports of Nigeria – doing everything they can to sell the image and credits of the nation short. That at least was definitively the case in 2014 when I last came into the country. And because, I know there is a new sheriff in town preaching change, I hereby dare to give voice to this question: Nigerians, how long are we supposed or prepared to embrace as a national identity the increasing ignominy these fellows who work out of our international airports tag on all of us?
My last two sojourns back to Nigeria were particularly telling. For the penultimate one, I had again used the Murtala Muhammed International airport, Lagos. As one disembarked and arrived at the check-in point, the first sign that something is wrong is the atmosphere: the sense of contrived hyper-activity. You know, attention of the unwanted explicit kind: the energetic demonstration of willingness to assist by men in dark-blue Khaki and blue shirt uniforms. Activity calculated not so much to fool as it is to stampede every of its recipient into a false obligation to respond through the conferment of monetary ‘gifts’.
Needless to say, legend has it that when you fail or neglect to comprehend why you should pay for unsolicited labour, or refuse to submit to extortion for works that their counterparts in other nation’s airport consider themselves paid for, these uniformed urchins shift gear to discomfiting you with outright pleas for money – in Naira or preferably, foreign currencies.
Surviving the immigration squad, though, was just a prelude to the real immersion coming – an experience that often left me with a deeper appreciation of the aphorism that “the deeper the ocean, the colder it gets”. This is because the corners or tables manned by various state agencies checking for one thing or the other at the airports often seem to operate as no more than toll stalls and shops for the officials ‘privileged’ to have been given the beat. These ones literally swoop on you before you place your bag on the table. “How are you, sir? Did you sleep well, Sir?” “Wetin you go find for us naa?” – will inevitable come out.
Well, for the beautiful woman with a baby behind me, the official was a bit ingenious. “Hey madam, your colour fine oo. How Oga dem? Na this soap here you dey use? Make I take one naa? I don like your colour.” “The soaps are for my baby, please,” the woman retorted, sweating, perhaps from suppressed agitation. At the airport, even the fabled ethnicity does not work. That the controller identifies with your ethnic origin or can speak its language does not stop him or her while rummaging your luggage, [with undisguised disinterest] to keep up the incessant demand for money.
While you are trying to reconcile such disgraceful conduct from seemingly well-fed men and women, some of whom are in well-decorated uniform, you are left no less mortified by the sense of impudence they radiate. Those men leave airport users little room to mistake their solicitations as one dependent on the discretion of the traveller. They are direct and so leave you with compliance or a NO’ which is often not without consequence. People that I know have missed their flights, deliberately frustrated by these officials, because they ‘refused to cooperate’. The sheer number of the illegal toll-gates leaves travellers fatigued before getting onto their plane seat to begin a long journey abroad or in terrible mood before getting into Nigeria.
For those travelling out, it seems like the closer you press towards your plane through those hordes of institutionalized beggars, the higher the amount you are ‘requested’ to pay. No shame, no conscience, no responsibility to the uniform or nation they serve, no fear of consequence. And of course, no sense that any of them knows that they are a window into Nigeria: of our values, character and our grasp of basic ideas of right and wrong. Passing through Nigeria’s international airport, as recent as 2014, leaves one with no doubt that impunity reigned supreme as a legitimated anchor of its statehood – simply because it is Nigeria.
As a passive protest, I decided to change my route and use the international wing of the Port Harcourt airport the next time I travelled out of the country in the same year, hoping for a better experience. I regretted it. Not only were all the problems associated with the Lagos airport present, Port Harcourt seemed to have taken the standards a notch lower. Even the airport luggage carts had been commandeered by a uniform squad of airport ‘personnel’ whose seeming task was to ensure that every traveller with a luggage was given the impression that access to the carts was only to be given when you pay for it. To signal for the service was to formally hand oneself over to a blatant and shameless solicitation blast. The sight of uniformed adults – men and women – begging travel-weary strangers of whatever race or age for money left me with a shudder.
Worse was the spectre of these paid officers of our airports begging foreigners to help facilitate their emigration out of the country without a care as to who may be listening. I actually witnessed a young baggage carrier in uniform begging a white man he probably just met for the first time in his life ‘to get him out of the country’ thus filling me with a cocktail of anger and pity. A few minutes soon after, another sweaty and evidently travel rumpled white man turned vicious and verbally abusive protesting the ‘excessive’ times he has been extorted at the airport.
Except for the truly pathetic nature of it all, the sight of an European literally stuffing out – inside-out – the inner linings of his trouser and jacket just to show he has been fleeced to the point where he has nothing more to give would have been funny. The response he received – to what was intended to be an open rebuke – still intrigues me though: he was met with smiling faces seemingly immune or unperturbed by their victim’s abuses or distress – faces which mouths still insisting that the visibly outraged man give them money.
Flying out from the same airport showed another dimension to the extortion schemes of those uniformed urchins at Port Harcourt International Airport. The zeal with which they move to ‘confiscate’ whatever they deem ‘edibles’ in passengers’ luggage into their own bags is as rabid as their lust for cash. “Madam, you are from Imo state and you no even carry ukwa sef,” one uttered referring to a local staple in Igboland with his nylon-gloved hands probing the bag of the woman passenger in front of me.
Beside him, another cargo handler who was searching another of the woman’s luggage gave a whoop of delight as he found and began dragging out an edible item he discovered in the travellers bag towards their own bin leaving no one in doubt it was already being appropriated. “Madam, you no fit carry this one oo”, he said breezily in pidgin English as if it explained the attempt to convert. The woman quickly reached out, took the item from him, turned around and waved at someone to come and take the item back home for her. For that she got a reprimand delivered with a false smile. “Haba madam, how you wan give am another person wey we dey here. We sef dey eat that thing oo,” she was told, arms outstretched hoping to shame her into acquiescence.
Those happened in 2014. And I heard there is a new Sheriff in town who has read the riot act to the relevant authorities at the nation’s airports. If the promised change includes Nigeria listening to the pleas of its citizens I have a few simple suggestions. Let’s empower passengers by ensuring that every uniformed worker at any of Nigeria’s airport has his or her name attached to the uniform worn. Airports are like sitting rooms which should exude a certain degree of tidiness even when other rooms of the house are unkempt and regardless of the presence of children in the home. In 2014, when I passed through, the state of our airports left a sour taste in my mouth and is frankly, a national tragedy. Worse, was that I had very little to proceed on – if I wanted to lay a complaint. That should change.
The people who work at the airports should be paid well commensurate with the sensitive tasks they are assigned: tasks that could embarrass the nation – not to say endanger the lives of thousands of people or the expensive facilities and infrastructure. Training, re-training should be part of the mix – but employing a new corps of professionals who understand the strategic placement of airports in modern nation building need to be embraced too. That said, the behaviour of the immigration and cargo officers cannot all be attributed to poverty. I have been to Nicaragua and Gabon to mention a few of the countries whose annual budgets might not even come close to that of Rivers State alone. Yet, their airports are organised, systematised, officials are well disciplined, and you go through their airports with no molestation or extortion of any sort. In fact, at Managua airport, Nicaragua, a young lady turned down my offer of appreciation for her efforts to assist me in the airport that went well beyond the call of duty.
As my mother would say, “the worst vice is not larceny, it is shamelessness. A thief can have dos and don’ts. A shameless person has no limit to evil and crime.” The state of our airports in Nigeria is a case of shame perverted. Part of the problem is that people who ought to make the idea of shame through discipline, loss of job or legal deterrents seem to be complicit in what I think is an organized crime to stampede and extort passengers – regardless of the cost to the investment credits, brand and image of the nation. That needs to change: the values of our nation, the ones our citizens at the airport are raised with and institutionally mandated to showcase need to be deliberately changed. Our schools and other socializing agencies need to awaken to that task of raising citizens who can draw a line in the sand they dare not cross concerning their personal and national dignity. It should include begging.
K. C. Nweke, a Nigerian Priest stationed in Germany has diploma in journalism, Bachelor in philosophy, and Master in theology. He is author of the novel: A Home far Away.