Joshua J. Omojuwa reckons that travelling through our airports is at variance with doing business with ease
There is no gainsaying that there is a direct correlation between the amount of investment a country can attract and its economic wellbeing. It is not for nothing that one of the indices with which any administration is measured is the amount of Foreign Direct Investment it can reel into its shores. To achieve an impressive flow of FDI, the recipient country must show itself worthy of such investment by creating a conducive (also read as welcoming) environment. This is why the Ease of Doing Business should not just be another feel-good mantra, but something to be taken seriously.
There is no better place for a country to make a good first impression than at its entry ports. In Nigeria, business visitors and tourists are very likely to first encounter Nigeria through our airports. It is therefore of utmost importance that we pay significant attention to them.
In the past decade, there have been major improvements at our local and international airports. Our busiest, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, bear testimony to the massive work done in terms of equipment and infrastructure. As impressive as these improvements have been, there is still quite a bit to be done, especially in Lagos. The experience recounted below is a feel of what it is like to fly out of MMIA.
To check-in, you must first run your luggage through a sophisticated scanner. Immediately after the scanner, there are National Drug Law Enforcement Agency officials and Custom officials who beckon to you to open your luggage so they can manually check the same luggage that has just passed through the sophisticated scanner. This begs the question: “Why is a manual search necessary if the scanner works as it ought and it has not flagged the luggage as being suspicious?” I ask this because this manual search applies to every piece of luggage that emerges from the cavernous innards of that scanner.
The result of this unnecessary duplication of effort is long queues with officials of both agencies asking questions calculated to irritate a passenger enough to part with money after the monetary request that is sure to follow the search. This is not a good look. When you are done checking in and off to board, you stamp your passport with Immigration and the Secret Service officials. Nigeria is the only country I know with this pre-departure protocol and I have travelled enough to know this is an anomaly. It is one country, with the same government why can’t one agency, say Immigration, collect all these data?
The next step is to pass your carry-on luggage and everything else on you through another scanner. This is the last major electronic search before departure. Right after this, you could be questioned by Airport Security officials (AVSEC) if the scanner indicates you have something you ought to have checked-in. Otherwise, you immediately become the guest of yet another set of NDLEA and Custom officials. The whole process beggars belief.
I often wonder the proportion of traffickers have been caught by the officials carrying out these manual searches because to justify the disruption and inconvenience, the number must be high. Whilst it is unlikely, although not impossible for a manual search to unearth something a scanner has missed, other destinations have deployed the use of sophisticated methods including the use of sniffer dogs to pick up scents of suspicious substances. It is the owners of these pieces of luggage that are then unobtrusively pulled aside for questioning.
Why do travellers need to be twice interviewed by Customs and NDLEA officials? – four times in total – I believe this protocol started as a plan to subject suspicious travellers to further rigorous checks, however, as with many things Nigerian, the random has become constant. Customs officers also ask you about the amount of cash you are carrying. This bit is quite interesting. Considering the proclivity of the average officer to deploy ingenuity in asking for a bribe, I believe those carrying above the limit will readily pay their way to the next stage.
Travelling to and through Nigeria should never be an ordeal. It is at variance with doing business with ease. Our people may have become used to these things and chosen to live with them, but our visitors are unlikely to feel welcome or inclined to return if going through our airports is an unwelcome adventure.
To be clear, these have nothing to do with these officials. If there was no travel protocol requiring their presence at these points, they would not be there. Sometimes I wonder why they are at the airports when there is a dangerous lack of officials serving at other porous land and sea borders. To my mind, a more efficient strategy would be to allow Immigration officers do their job and we too should trust that they can and have. Whatever persons they find with drugs or other forms of contraband can then be handed over to the relevant authorities to go through the process provided by the law. Less cumbersome processes, which straddle the fine line between security and tourist and business concerns have been instituted elsewhere to great effect. We should emulate these.
This piece started off by acknowledging the progress we have made at our airports. These advancements came at a huge cost to the taxpayers: some would even say they cost more here than they would have elsewhere. That is a matter for another discussion. What has been suggested here is not expected to cost much to implement but will ensure a warmer welcome at our airports and ensure more security operatives are available elsewhere around the country where they can be put to much better use. Security is not about the overt and overwhelming presence of uniformed officials. The essence of technology is to do things more effectively whilst eliminating room for human error or bias. Hopefully, we can deploy technology more effectively at our airports to ensure that we make visitors and citizens alike feel truly welcome.
Omojuwa is chief strategist, Alpha Reach/ author, Digital Wealth Book