MMIA: An International Eyesore

15 Apr 2012

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I must confess this article has been in the making for years. I had been planning to write it for ages but never got around to doing it. But since the symptoms remain, it is never too late to comment on the international eyesore called the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, the nation’s premium airport and one of the busiest in Africa. Generally speaking, an international airport is like a PR tool—a country that wants to be taken seriously packages itself in such a way that will create lasting impression on visitors. It’s not like MMIA is not creating a lasting impression; in fact, the stench and the disorganisation should last you a lifetime.

Why should I bother about the state of the airport (and many other airports in Nigeria) for that matter? For a country that seeks to develop its tourism industry and attract tourists into its shores, the least it can do is make the airports—the first point of contact between visitors and the country—a decent environment. For a country that talks so much about attracting foreigners to come and invest in its economy, is it too much to make the airports presentable? For a country that seeks a massive boost in economic activities, especially through trade, does it not make sense for travelling to be a pleasant experience? Why do we always do things that negate the message we push out? When are we going to take ourselves more seriously in this country?
The state of affairs at MMIA is appalling. Where should I start from? Departure or arrival? I’ll pick arrival and move on from there.

Nigeria is the only country I know where as soon as you step off the aircraft, you have funny-looking fellows holding up cardboards to receive their visitors. Some will even be yelling the names of their visitors to your hearing. In sane environments, it is after you have gone through passport control that you come across these individuals. It is not only a security threat, it is nauseating. Meanwhile, as you go past these characters and get to passport control, you have two officials going through your passport. I am yet to make any sense out of this. All over the world, only one official checks your documents. Why we choose to waste human resources and slow down the entire process I would never understand.

It even gets more ridiculous when you discover that there are only two or three desks attending to Nigerians and, most of the time, only one desk attending to foreigners. What you get in return is a long queue that, if care is not taken, could keep you there for almost as long as it took you to fly from Europe! And immigration officials could do with more training on customer care, so that they would know how to talk to travellers with some decorum. Your experience gets even worse as you try to retrieve your luggage from the conveyor belt. Obviously, these belts have been there for over 30 years. They are tired. They make so much noise and move so slowly you cannot but be irritated and frustrated. I know people who have spent hours waiting for their luggage.

As you eventually retrieve your bags and make your way out, you are again confronted with the embarrassment of the Customs desk, where there is no private area for your bags to be opened in case of a random check. You then step out to a crowd of taxi drivers, currency changers and all kinds of “soliciting” human beings literally obstructing your movement as you make for the car park.

Outside, there is an order of “No Parking”. I think the order should change to “No Parking for Non-government Officials” because, right there, cars are parked from one end to the other, but most of them are government vehicles. The lawgivers are the ultimate lawbreakers. The official car park itself is a den of beggars and food vendors, a very unbefitting fixture for an international airport trying to “compete” with the best in the world. As you drive off the airport into town, you drive straight into bad roads, with wilderness mounting a guard of honour. What would it cost to cut the grass? What would it cost to put these roads in manageable shape? When are we going to take ourselves seriously?

Departure is not better than arrival, of course. Nigeria is still the only country where you are subjected to the indignity of opening your bags for all kinds of security agents to rummage through—from Customs to NDLEA to some other chaps. In a modern world, there are screening machines and trained dogs to do the same job. But for whatever reason, perhaps to demonstrate how backward we are, the authorities have remained adamant over the years. I have wondered a million times what it would cost to get the necessary equipment to conduct these searches without subjecting travellers to this backward, annoying procedure of opening their bags in the full glare of everybody for security checks. Why are we so negatively different in this part of the world?
Passing through security screening on the way out is as harrowing as it can be. Again, two officials have to go through the passports. I just cannot understand why. This slows down the entire process. Meanwhile, the “fast track” should be the slowest in the world, all things being equal. It is even comforting that there are more screening points for the non-fast track areas; if not, I cannot imagine how many years it would take travellers to pass through them. The plastic boxes where you place your bags for security screening are, in the main, dirty and broken, and you cannot help wondering if this is the best Nigeria has to offer to the world. What exactly is the problem?

There are some things I would like to ignore—but how can I ignore them? How can I ignore the fact that our immigration and customs cards are so badly designed and badly printed? Is this the best we can do? How can I ignore the heat that chases you out of the country—or the one that welcomes you? The central air conditioning seems to have all broken down.  The standing AC units donated by the banks years ago have packed up. I understand that someone would come and tell me now that there is some renovation going on and that things would soon take shape, but I wonder if no temporary measures could have been put in place to alleviate the suffering of travellers. Luckily, I have never had to use the toilets; my body has a way of putting me in check when I am not in my “comfort zone”. But many who use the toilets often complain of… you know what I’m saying.

There is a sense in which we can say the state of the airports represents the state of the nation. If we were ever serious about anything, our roads would not be in the shape they are now. The hospitals would be in a far better shape. The schools would offer more heart-warming results. We would not be battling with power failures everyday of our lives. Therefore, we could argue that the decay goes beyond the airport; it is the entire system. Why should the airports be different? Is it not the same set of policymakers? Is it not the same calibre of administrators? It is not the same brood of buccaneers hurting and damaging the country, obstructing our progress and dragging us into the abyss at every level of government? So why should the airports be any different?

Now, that is quite depressing. But I have always argued—and would maybe continue to argue—that Nigeria is not going to change overnight. We are not going to go to bed one night, wake up the following day and discover that all the mosquitoes and cockroaches have disappeared. I believe that change would come gradually, in bits and parts. Change would come to this country when people offer leadership in their own little corners, on their own little desks. There is no problem I have listed now about MMIA—and any other airport in Nigeria—that cannot be solved.

I have not suggested that the entire edifice should be pulled down and another one erected. That would cost billions and take many years. But what about providing something as cheap as water to flow in the toilets? What about buying some ACs to bring down the temperature, even if temporarily? What about reducing the number of officials checking passports? What about putting the conveyor belt in shape? What about filling the potholes and cutting the wilderness to size? These things, in my own view, are not as complicated as sending a man to the moon. And so, if we cannot get the simple things right, is it 24-hour electricity supply that we will get right? I shiver.

And Four Other Things...

Made in Nigeria Indeed
Is the Federal Government really serious about this patronising Made-in-Nigeria thing? There has been a lot of talk about that. In fact, President Goodluck Jonathan, we were told, has directed that all ministries, departments and parastatals must now prefer Nigerian goods, where they exist, to foreign ones. Nigerian companies that have potential and lack capital will henceforth be encouraged by government, it was further announced last week. Good idea. Only that the government never practises what it preaches. A Nigerian company, Maevis, has just been violently chased away from the Lagos and Abuja international airports and the Airport Operations Management System (AOMS) contract handed out in a clandestine manner to a foreign company for no just cause and against all known rules of resolution of contract disputes. Even court injunctions were disobeyed with impunity by the same government. Made in Nigeria, I laugh.

Okonjo-Iweala on ECA
Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has raised the alarm over the fast-disappearing Excess Crude Account (ECA). An account that was as rich as $20 billion at a stage is now down to $3.6 billion. The argument over whether or not to spend the money has been there for a long time. Some lawyers argue that the law says everything must be shared; there should be no savings. I have always argued that there is nothing in the law that says we should not save. The law says federally collected revenue must go into the consolidated federation account and be shared by the three tiers of government. But at no point did it say the managers cannot agree to save part of the money. The law did not also say every kobo must be spent by any means. It only makes good economic sense not to spend every kobo that comes your way! That does not need going to the university to learn. But we are discussing oil money here and reason is the last thing that will prevail. Common sense is not common.

Haram Theories
As we continue to battle the scourge of Boko Haram, I have watched with amusement attempts to muddle up the issues. I don’t understand how this would help solve the problem. Recently, a group of commentators started pushing the agenda that it is Christians, not Boko Harams, that are actually bombing churches. The CBN governor, Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, also came up with his own theory that it is because of the derivation formula that favours oil-producing states. America has also jumped on the bandwagon, with the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mr. Johnnie Carson, suggesting that it is poverty. Well, I don’t know too many things about Boko Haram but at least we know that they have been very consistent in their words and actions. They say they want to Islamise Nigeria. It sounds so simple. For as long as it was not poverty that drove al Qaeda and the Taliban into what they are doing today, I fail to believe it is poverty that is driving Boko Haram. By the way, has anybody taken time to find out the cost of the AK47 rifles these guys are using to kill security agents and ordinary Nigerians? Poor guys? Really?

The Almajiri School
President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated the first Almajiri Model Primary School in Sokoto last week in what I consider to be one of the very few occasions that we have tried to tackle a problem in a creative way. The almajiri sub-culture in some parts of Northern Nigeria has been a menace for several decades but all we just do is complain and grumble without taking any real step to address the challenges. You find children of school age being deployed in the streets as beggars under the general principle that they are undergoing some religious training. But they never had a future. Only very few almajiris have a chance of making it in life. The system is being mainstreamed now, and the pupils can still learn the Qur’an and Arabic in a way that also addresses other needs in their lives. And they will no longer roam the streets. The politicians and the clerics may not be too happy because the minds of these young children now stand a good chance of developing properly. These children need a future and a hope.

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