By M. Babajide-Alabi
As the pilot announced our arrival in the Nigerian space, I had this sinking feeling in my tummy. I could not really place what it was for, but I found myself smiling at the gentleman seated next to me. He looked me in the eye and with a distant smile, nodded, turned away and continued with his struggle to get a SIM card into his mobile phone.
I imagined the thoughts of this stranger whom up till that moment I did not exchange a glance with throughout the journey. At this time I just felt like a conversation with anybody to ease the “butterfly” in my tummy. Moreover, his mobile phone, I thought might be a great asset for me to make contact with the “outside world” for ease of transportation from the airport.
The aircraft touched down and there were loud clapping and shouts of “hallelujah” from not a few of the passengers. Momentarily I thought I was in my church mid week service. But I was brought back to reality by my new found friend. He nudged me and said “Nigerians with their religion.” I smiled in agreement, as I thought of the flamboyant religious expression of my fellow citizens. I have been on many flights but none had been as dramatic as this touch down in Lagos. Sensing my bewilderment, my fellow passenger informed me that what happened was child’s play when compared with local flights.
Anyway, I switched my mind off the “hallelujah” chorus to what changes I would experience in the “new” Nigeria. As the plane taxied to a halt, the reality of touch down on the Nigerian soil hit me big time. All of a sudden the advises and suggestions freely offered before embarking on the journey came rushing to memory. Particularly recurring in my mind were the ones given by my non-Nigerian friends.
When I broke the news that my father passed away to these set of friends, they were more concerned with my going “home” than the fact that I had lost a precious one. Many could not hide their fears and openly asked me if it would really be out of place if I did not attend the ceremonies. I had to educate them that in Nigeria, indeed Africa, it is eternal shame if for any reason you do not attend your parents’ funeral ceremonies. What excuse would you offer?
I do not blame them as their cultures are quite different from ours. Moreover, their views and advises were shaped by the news of Nigeria they watch and read in the foreign media. To an average foreigner, the terrorist group, Boko Haram operates like an opposition “pressure”‘group in Nigeria. In any discussion about the country, the issue of Boko Haram cannot be avoided. How many intending investors ever realise that the “works” of these evil group actually take place in the north eastern part of the country?
Back to reality as I stepped off the plane to the warm embrace of the Lagos weather. Gingerly making my way through the dimly lit gangway of the aircraft, I could not but notice the tattered carpet I was walking on. A serious vacuuming and shampooing would do it a great makeover. It was a different scenario, stepping into the building and I almost felt guilty of hasty judgement as I can see improved flooring, railings and less burnt out florescent bulbs as it was in my last trip through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport.
The air in the hall was suffocating as none of the air conditioning systems was in operation. I have never felt the need for a “dose” of fresh air so I ignored the creaking elevator and took the flight of stairs in my haste to get outside the building. But it was still a long way to go. The immigration “passage” was uneventful as stone faced officers dutifully stamped the travelling documents of Nigerians. In one corner, an overzealous supervisor took his job too seriously as he “queries” passengers with foreign passports: “Why did you to come to Nigeria?”
Apart from this the officers in their nicely starched, sweat-soaked khaki uniforms, appeared different from the ones encountered a few years ago, who were practically begging passengers for handouts. Times have indeed changed, as we filed past the officers and into the luggage claim area.
At the luggage hall it was commotion as the conveyor was obviously struggling with the number of bags rolling down it. Many times the belt jammed while the officer who was “employed” to put the bags in queue was on his mobile phone, while the bags were on free fall, some off the belt.
In the corner of my eye, I sighted my luggage and with great relief, I grabbed them and ran towards the exit where smiling Customs Officers welcomed me to Nigeria. They were courteous, without the usual demands of “what have you brought for us?”
From there I was released into the hands of “Hawks” parading as Taxi Drivers, black market operators, mobile phone company agents, trolley “directors” etc who all crowded round me trying to make sales. One impressive thing about these men and women was that they all had official identifications tags displayed openly to confirm their legitimacy. But I was not going to be fleeced of my hard earned money by any smart fella whose claim to legitimacy is his presence in the airport arrival hall and an ID, the source I cannot confirm. In my mind I tagged them “official touts”.
The arrival hall was the busiest I had seen in international airports. This I attributed to the little space and the numerous shops. The number of black market operators walking leisurely all over the hall was more than the passengers arriving.
Welcome to Nigeria, I said to myself.
In my interaction with a few of these marketers I noticed a clear difference between them and the officials of Customs or the Immigrations. The desperation to take advantage of arriving passengers was so glaring. A phone kiosk operator “tried” the idea of me paying a tidy sum to register a new SIM card. The trick failed as I walked away from her.
I marvel when people accuse government officials of corruption while in their own corners they play fast dirty ones on fellow countrymen – all because they are not regulated. I needed a taxi as my contact was held up in the Lagos traffic and would have taken ages for him to get to me. I got quotes ranging from five to ten thousand Naira from three different taxi operators from the airport to Adeniyi Jones Avenue. Thinking I had driven a hard bargain, I took a five thousand Naira drive, only to be alarmed by my hosts’ reaction when I told them the charge.
The lesson I learnt from this experience and which eventually guided my stay in Nigeria was that everybody would try a fast one on you. While the government is fighting corruption in high places, the common men do not see themselves as corrupt, but smart. Will this bring about the change we dream of in the country? I doubt.
Published in the Sunday Vanguard of 11th October 2015. CLICK HERE