SUNDAY, April 10, 2016. Benin Airport. Angry passengers on the tarmac hold our plane hostage and won’t let us fly back home to Lagos. And God, it’s getting darker and darker. I wanna go home.
So I wrote in my diary.
I have never seen anything like this. Neither has Dan Agbese, the famous columnist of Newswatch and now of Guardian on Sunday back page fame who finds this bizarre. “This is a hijack,” Agbese tells me as we watch the unsettling scenario unfolds on that evening at Benin Airport where we all stood, stranded, agape, befuddled, unable to fly back to Lagos on the same chartered Arik plane that brought us to Benin that morning, on our way to Okpella to witness a dual event— the groundbreaking ceremony of a new Dangote Cement factory which coincided with the birthday of the iconic businessman.
We want to go back home to Lagos, but some angry passengers on the tarmac armed with their boarding passes and hand luggage insist they must fly before us. That it’s either they fly or nobody flies.
“It’s a serious crime to obstruct a plane,” Agbese continues. “Only in Nigeria can this happen. It can’t happen anywhere in the world. You would be arrested and charged with hijacking.”
I am starting off with this story of the near-hijack because for me as a newsman, this is news. News is the reporting of the unusual, the reporting of the bizarre. Nigeria itself is a bazaar of the bizarre.
I will come back to this scene of the absurd but let me take you back to Okpella where Governor Oshiomhole is on the podium paying tributes to Aliko Dangote whom he describes as “the great creator of jobs, the man who builds bridges of unity across all the Nigerian divide.” Let me give the floor to Oshiomhole whose off-the-cuff remarks I scribbled in my reporter’s notebook:
“Aliko Dangote was born in Kano but operates in Lagos, Edo, Calabar, Port Harcourt, all over Nigeria. As the governor of Edo State, this is the most important assignment that I have ever had to perform over the past seven and half years. Since assuming office as governor of Edo State, our total capital expenditure on roads and all the roads we have built, all the schools we have constructed, hospitals, health centres, all capital projects, all the activities of Edo State government over the past seven and half years is about the same value as the one we are about to commence today. Just now too many people are looking for excuses. Everybody is debating whether there should be currency devaluation or not. Here we have a Nigerian who is demonstrating practical confidence not only in our country but in the industrial policies of President Buhari. I have heard people say nobody will invest in Nigeria until you devalue the naira. And now, we are witnessing an investment of a billion dollar in one location. I believe that if other businessmen and women move away from speculating on the exchange rate into the real production, Nigerian economy will not only grow from strength to strength, our young men will find jobs. This is the most potent vote of confidence in our administration.
“I used to be a communist, believing that every business must be owned by government. But the world has changed. It is old fashion now for government to seek to set up businesses. Even on his birthday, Aliko Dangote will rather set up a plant. If more Nigerians behave like that, this country will witness more prosperity. Dangote was born six days after I was born. I was born on the fourth and Aliko was born six days later. So, please give me a round of applause as well.”
Face to face with Dangote
Oshiomhole later invited his guests for lunch. We couldn’t wait. We didn’t want to miss our flight, so we hit the road back to Benin. At the Benin Airport, I came face to face with Aliko Dangote who was heading to China to sign a $2 billion loan with a Chinese bank for his two new cement factories. This man is always on the go. In his birthday speech, a grateful Dangote thanked everybody, particularly the man who helped him to become the cement king of Africa today.
“I thank the administration of Obasanjo for creating this policy of cement,” he said. “And the minister who actually implemented the policy is here with us. Dr Kola Jamodu! Can he please stand up for recognition?
“I also thank the Comrade Governor Oshiomhole for creating the enabling environment for us to be here today. I am short of words. I thank everybody for coming because it is not easy to come here from all locations. I thank my brother and my three daughters and two of my in-laws for all the support they have given me, for allowing me to be travelling almost at the speed of sound by spending 80 per cent of my time working.”
I found the last quotation instructive. Here is a man who has made all the money to last many lifetimes but still spending 80 per cent of his time working, travelling always, “almost at the speed of sound.” To succeed in life, we must all borrow from the Dangote book of hard work. I remember a poem by Henry Wadsworth which we recited daily at school: “The height by great men reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”
I came face to face with Aliko Dangote that evening at the Benin Airport and he said: “Mike, I didn’t see you at my birthday.” I was shocked and tongue-tied. I had to explain that I was there busy doing what I know best: reporting. Luckily for me, Dangote’s P.A. Tope Adedara was with me all through and we sat on the same table with Edwin Devakumar, Dangote Group’s Group Executive Director. He defended me. From the encounter, I’ll try from now on to make myself visible at occasions. This is one thing my wife often says to my chagrin: “Your other colleagues go about shaking hands and greeting people. But you will just sit down there. That is not how to be a Nigerian.”
Shortly after, Dangote disappeared in his jet. And we his guests had to wait to board our own chartered Arik Air. And that was when trouble landed. What we heard was that those passengers had their flight cancelled the previous night and were asked to return the following day. They had their boarding passes and it was announced they would be boarding. Then a twist in the tale: the last plane was not for them after all, but for Dangote’s guests. They got mad and went for broke. All mediatory efforts led by Dangote’s daughter and others failed. In the end, it got darker and darker and the airport didn’t have night flight facility. So we had to sleep over in Benin. Till the following morning when we furtively boarded the plane to Lagos, far from the madding crowd of stranded passengers who held us hostage.