People have condemned David Cameron’s unguided utterances last week where he referred to Nigeria and Afghanistan as ‘fantastically corrupt’ countries. I condemn him too as I don’t think such careless talk does any favours to both the speaker of it nor the receiver(s) of it. It achieves nothing but fractured diplomatic relations.
However, as a Nigerian, I completely relate to what David Cameron said. I grew up in Nigeria and it is true corruption has become a way of life for many years in the country. Corruption is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”. From my translation of this definition, ‘those in power’ does not only refer to politicians but everyone who provides a service for which you rely on. For example your electricity company, water company, the local community leader and even the receptionists.
I made a brief visit to Nigeria in 2015 after 8 years of living in the UK. Not much has changed in terms of infrastructure and development. The roads are still bad (in fact has got worse in many places), there is still intermittent power supply, there are still fuel shortages and generally life is still very hard for the average man on the street. The noise, the colour, the dust, the garbage on the streets, all still the same.
I landed at Muritala Muhammed International airport to a hot, rancid air with the arrival lounges looking very bland in contrast to other international airports I’ve been. There was water from the air conditioners running across the floors and it all felt a little bit grotty. Though I felt it unfair to compare Nigeria’s main international airport to Heathrow in London or Schipol in Amsterdam, after all it is a developing country trying its best everyday to make things better in very difficult circumstances. I progressed with my journey towards passport control trying not to be judgemental. I should be glad I landed safely and excited to see my family. I heard one of the passengers with whom I exited the plane, walking behind me, chuckle and whisper, ‘welcome to Nigeria’.
The first check point was manned by a loud talking gentleman checking our landing cards. One of the arriving passengers who was not Nigerian was trying to communicate with the man on the desk in a foreign language (sounded Lebanese). The man on the desk simply shouted at him to speak English or he will spend a long time in the queue. I thought to myself again ‘welcome to Nigeria’ where magic happens. If this ‘Lebanese’ man was able to speak English, wouldn’t he have done so in the first place I thought, or maybe I’m wrong. I made it past this desk and into passport control and met a long line of people waiting for their passports to be checked. I quickly took my spot and waited for my turn. It was around 9pm by this time, about 30minutes after I exited the plane. I kept looking at the decor in this part of the airport and all looked very old fashioned and outdated. I thought it could be worse and I should not be judgmental. It was very hot in there though. I looked round for anything (digital) that could give a hint of the outside temperature, couldn’t find any, but never mind, that was the least of my worries.
As we all waited in the queue I suddenly heard a commotion of some sorts and quickly looked to see what was going on. Two women were making their way past everyone on the queue clutching shopping bags from duty free shops in London and everyone was wondering where they were going. You are right they were making their way to the top of the queue, ignoring shouts from people waiting not do so. They shuffled past me as well and the look on their faces was indifference as if ‘what are you going to do, stop me?’. They got to the top of the line, right in front of the desks. The airport staff did not stop these women, rather they appealed to the people waiting in line to not create more problem by creating a scene. The women were attended to after being questioned by one of the staff. I don’t know what they discussed, but they must have been allowed to jump the queue for some reason. I thought to myself again, don’t be judgemental, maybe one of them is ill and can’t queue or they have some serious medical condition.
I finally made it past passport control after about 30 minutes of standing in line. Then we made our way to the baggage section to pick up our bags. I thought I am nearly done now, just pick up my bags and get out into Lagos! Home of the brave! How wrong was I. I spent nearly 2 hours waiting for my bags, in fact I thought at some point they were lost and I started to panic. In the meantime I looked around for a baggage trolley (as you would in any airport) to load my bags on if or when they eventually came out, but couldn’t find any in sight. Eventually, I saw my bags coming down the escalator and was pleased. As I pulled them off the escalator and onto the floor, a young man approached me and said do you need a baggage trolley, I looked up and said excitedly, yes please! He said wait here. He went off and got me a trolley and I wondered where that had suddenly appeared from. I had looked everywhere before then and didn’t find one. Anyway it wasn’t the time to be Sherlock Holmes, I quickly thanked him and he said he would help me to load my bags as well. I told him he didn’t have to, but he did and loaded by 3 heavy bags onto the carrier for me. I thanked him profusely and thought to myself Nigerians are really nice people aren’t they. I noticed though, as I thanked this man, he wasn’t that chuffed, he just had a stern look. And then he broke his silence, he said ‘what have you brought for us from London’. I said, ‘ah…sorry i don’t have anything on me at the moment, just a couple of pound coins’ left over from having coffee at Heathrow. He replied ‘that would do’. To my shock, I quickly ransacked my pockets and brought out a handful of British coins totalling about £3.00 (about N750 or N800 in Nigerian money), probably enough for a meal in Nigeria.He thanked me and moved on very quickly lending a hand to another passenger and having a chat with them too. At this point I was tired and can’t wait to get out of the airport. Moved my baggage trolley out of the front door into the hot Lagos air, almost hotter than when I was inside the airport. ‘Welcome to Nigeria’ said a big banner on one of the metal rails outside.
Corruption in Nigeria is not just in the high places, it is present in everyday life and perpetrated by everyday people. My next article (Part 2) will tell you of the experiences I had of these low-level everyday corruption in Nigeria during my short stay there in 2015. But overall, it is a country I admire for its tenacity and ability to thrive in very difficult circumstances. Nigerians endure everyday struggles that will dwarf any hardship you can refer to in western societies.