I hate to be the one to say it but the President, Goodluck Jonathan, and his wife, Dame Patience Jonathan’s, visits to different parts of the country are fast becoming a nuisance.
Let me explain.
At least thrice in the last two or so months the President and his wife have at various times visited Lagos. On each (in) auspicious occasion Lagos has practically shut down. Roads have been closed, traffic diverted - invariably at a standstill, nothing moves. Bedlam, to put it charitably, is what we experience each time they visit us in Lagos. A whole business day (and in the case of the last visit by Dame on June 3, the entire Sunday afternoon) is lost and nothing is achieved by anyone.
Let me start with this clarification. I have nothing personal against the President - in fact my fervent desire is for him to do something outstanding that will change the quality of our lives for the better. As for his wife, Patience, I have no strong feelings either way - truth be told I can’t but have occasional spurts of admiration for her remarkable chutzpah.
Here in Lagos where I reside and work, we have had some semblance of sanity on how things should be in a democratic setting for the last five or so years. Governor Babatunde Fashola, SAN has made it an admirable point of duty to go about his business without the accompaniment of blaring, headache-inducing sirens and the almost de rigueur hangers on following in unending motorcades. He has also encouraged visiting Governors and VIPs from out of state to take their cue from his leadership by example. Bank bullion vans, security personnel et al, now mostly obey the law restricting siren use, at least in Lagos.
Said Fashola in 2008, ‘I have successfully demonstrated that you need patience and not the siren to negotiate through the traffic in Lagos. I seek the cooperation of all and sundry to demonstrate its benefit, including visiting governors and other public officers. Let us all get rid of this nuisance on which we spend millions of our hard-earned money to keep the producers in Europe and America in business while we use it to terrorise the taxpayers who we serve’. These days therefore, in the rare event that one does encounter sirens in Lagos, one shakes one’s head in contempt - clearly an out-of-state ‘VIP’ with an over-inflated sense of self is visiting; indeed a look at their number plate usually confirms it.
I concede that when the President, an elected official, is visiting anywhere NECESSARY preparation for his security and safety must be put in place. I do not however concede that ‘necessary preparations’ include shutting down the entire metropolis for hours on end (not even for one minute). And certainly not for his wife who, let’s not forget, is unelected.
For those in Lagos State who had the misfortune of having one business transaction or the other to conduct or one personal errand or the other or, even more unfortunately, one emergency or the other to attend to on any of those days the President visited it was tales of woe galore. The accounts in the (news and social) media the day following were certainly not exaggerated.
On Thursday April 12, 2012 Dame Patience Jonathan was at Victoria Island, Lagos on a thank you visit to South-South women for voting in her husband; the same disastrous tales ensued. Ditto Sunday, June 3, upon her visit to the Oriental Hotel, Lekki for a private naming/dedication ceremony (of a presidential aide’s new born – why at a hotel, a luxury one at that and in such an over-the-top manner is a story for another day. I mean, who names/dedicates their child in a hotel?!). Worshippers at a Church which holds its services at that hotel were held prisoner for hours on end. As were hotel guests and visitors. At the nearby Lekki Admiralty Plaza Tollgate, vehicles were prevented from moving for hours.
This certainly goes beyond the pale. The line between ensuring security for an individual or elected official and massaging their egos appears to be quite blurred in this country. It is apparent that these ‘VIPs’ have a clear misunderstanding of what their role is – they believe that they are rulers not governors, despots not leaders, tyrants not servants.
After the Dana plane crash, a blog was circulated via social media alleging that the crash was caused by the ‘VIP movement’ of the First Lady in which the airspace was shut down for two hours and the distressed plane was unable to land and therefore avert imminent disaster. The office of the First Lady strenuously denied the allegation, denouncing it as a wicked lie, insisting that the First Lady was nowhere in the vicinity at the time of the crash. It was however silent on whether the nation’s airspace is indeed closed when she does travel.
One hopes that the underlying import of the blog contents was not lost on that office. The fact that irrespective of whether the allegation had some basis or was true or false (which in any event could very quickly be proved or disproved by empirical evidence) was not the point. The fact that people found it believable and plausible was. The uncomfortable truth is that many travelers, including me, have at one time or the other been caught up in flight delays, as well as been kept hovering in the air for ages due to these puzzling, eternally long ‘VIP movements’. They simply do not make sense. Why should any airspace be shut down for an hour or two because one individual wants to travel? Why inconvenience and possibly endanger (there have been times some planes kept hovering have had to return to their point of departure as they were running out of unbudgeted fuel hovering) those who have things to do and a living to earn? Time is money. Even in the United States, home of the most powerful President in the world and the world’s sole remaining superpower, airspace shutdown is minimal. And I doubt it’s done for the US First Lady in any event
Last year the image of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, as they sat in the general lounge at Stansted with other ordinary passengers awaiting their Ryanair budget flight to Spain (where they stayed at a budget hotel) was, for me, most enduring.
A couple of years ago I was on Broadway to watch Fela! Just before the show began First lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, came in most unobtrusively with about three of her friends; she sat directly behind me. Times Square did not shut down for one second neither did Broadway, 8th Avenue or 49th Street. For those interested, I wrote an account of this in Travelawg of THISDAY LAWYER of November 22, 2010: Day Michelle Obama Got Her Groove… on Broadway! (http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/day-michelle-obama-got-her-groove-on-broadway-/73643/).
My daughter recalls how as an undergraduate some years ago in London looking up from her walk from Tesco one day and seeing standing right in front of her, within touching distance, Prince Charles. It was not far from her school, just outside the Royal Albert Hall. She almost did a double take she could not believe her eyes. He was leaving after receiving an honour that afternoon. He got into his waiting vehicle – a simple one – no aides hanging about, and if there were security details they were certainly very discreet, and was driven off. No fuss, no muss. (No silly looking security officers in trench coats in the blazing sun either….)
In other civilised countries public and elected officials are conscious of their duties to the electorate. They regularly take the train or other modes of public transportation and generally do not have any exaggerated sense of importance. Only a few weeks ago I watched as David Cameron had a ball game with a group of kids outside Downing Street, on the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And only recently, the TV footage of the British Prime Minister riding (the lone passenger in a Range Rover) to the Royal Courts of Justice to face questioning at the Leveson Inquiry, stopping at a traffic light, with one outrider only was not lost on many.
Do I have respect for the office of the President of Nigeria? Yes. The answer however to whether that office has respect for its citizens is debatable and cannot confidently be answered in the affirmative. Closing down airspace, shutting down entire state capitals for the day, does not indicate respect for the citizenry or their time. It is sheer arrogance on the part of elected officials or public officers (or their spouses) who constitute an infinitesimal percentage of the population to bring an entire country of over 160 million people (who are the ones keeping the economy going) to her knees each time they want to move about. Acting like mini-gods, under the nebulous cover of ‘VIP movement’ in a democratic setting is unacceptable. Respect begets respect.
President Jonathan, over to you…