There are many things painfully and frustratingly wrong with Nigeria and its citizens. Many people suffer unjustly but choose to remain silent. Citizens are denied the basic needs of life and other entitlements and yet no one rises to demand restoration of their rights. In the current environment, people just put up with every nonsense that is pushed down their throat. This faintheartedness and failure to scrutinise public officials account for why Nigeria has remained the way it is.
Consider these instances. A police office shoots at a commercial bus driver who refused to part with N20 demanded by the imperious lawbreaker. People drive on decrepit roads and yell out in frustration at themselves and at unidentifiable government officials who embezzled money budgeted to fix bad roads. Across the country, people are compelled to pass night and day in darkness because electricity supply has remained erratic. It is in that crazy environment that hospitals struggle to perform surgeries in the absence of electricity and oxygen, both of which are critical to saving lives.
In a situation in which nothing works, in a situation in which expected government services are non-existent, in an environment in which everyone aspires to cheat and embezzle government funds, Nigeria is seen as a country without an active, responsible, and responsive government. Appalled by what he experienced during a visit to Nigeria, an Australian friend once asked me: How do citizens and foreigners manage to get official business done in your country?
It was former Rivers State Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi who depicted appropriately in 2013 the high level of spinelessness that defines the character of an average Nigerian. He said political leaders have continued to raid the nation’s treasury without restraint because civil society has not taken direct action to stop them. In his criticism of a lily-livered civil society, Amaechi asked: “If you see a thief and you allow him to be stealing, what have you done? You have stoned nobody; that is why we are stealing…”
Amaechi’s views about Nigeria’s civil society are not particularly new. We have always been known as a nation of cowards who bark like dogs but disperse as soon as security agents are sighted. In the face of economic difficulties, everybody shouts angrily but nobody wants to die or go to jail for the good of society. It is this shortcoming in our character that corrupt politicians have exploited. A weak civil society is the hallmark of a failed state.
In the past few years, I have had ugly experiences that would put off anyone in the Diaspora contemplating relocating to Nigeria. Let me recount a few. For many years, domestic air travel in Nigeria was regarded as a business reserved for bullies and crooked people. Three decades on, no significant change has occurred. Disorderly conduct by passengers and preferential treatment of travellers by airline staff remain the approved ways of getting things done. The departure and arrival halls as well as check-in counters at the domestic and international terminals in Lagos still look like temporary centres for the settlement of victims of natural disasters.
I travelled once from the Asaba Airport to Lagos and resolved never to do so again. My decision had nothing to do with the Asaba Airport. It has more to do with the attitude of domestic airline officials. My trip turned out to be a nightmarish experience. Everything that shouldn’t go wrong did. First, the Air Peace departure time was brought forward from 12.30pm (the first flight to Lagos on that Saturday) to 12.05pm. My family and I chuckled because we thought the change would serve us well. How wrong we were. The flight did not take off to Lagos till 3.35pm, more than three hours after the scheduled departure time.
There was no announcement or explanation from the airline staff about the interminable delay. The airline treated the passengers with supreme contempt. In the absence of any information about the exact departure time or the cause of the delay, passengers, particularly families with children, became restive.
All these problems paled in significance to what was to come next. Twenty-five minutes into the flight, with about 15 minutes to land in Lagos, the aircraft suddenly rose and descended sharply almost with the same speed. It was a scary experience, particularly the descent that seemed to empty the contents of everyone’s stomach. It felt as though the captain had lost control of the aircraft. I felt we were all headed for a violent crash. The atmosphere inside the plane was rowdy. Many passengers uttered emergency prayers, calling on their creator to save their lives. There were screams, chants, and shrill sounds of fear. No one should ever experience the near mid-air disaster into which we were headed.
Despite the magnitude of the near disaster, no one in the plane uttered a word to explain what happened, a clear demonstration of irresponsibility on the part of the captain and his crew. The captain said nothing. The crew smiled impishly as though the terrifying experience was nothing.
A previous experience of a different dimension occurred in 2008. At that time, an Arik Air flight was scheduled to fly from Lagos to Enugu in the morning of Tuesday, August 12, 2008. All passengers boarded the aircraft on time. Unfortunately, the flight did not depart on time. The aircraft waited on the tarmac with the engines shut. Flight W3 301 was scheduled to depart the old terminal of the Lagos domestic airport at 7:10am. That scheduled time soon looked like a shredded piece of paper. The time came and passed but the plane stayed soundless on the ground. For nearly an hour, no one said anything to passengers who were seated and restless. Air travellers in Nigeria do not have to put up with this kind of contemptuous treatment.
When Arik Air finally woke up to explain the situation, the explanation came in the form of a profoundly garnished lie. A female crew member announced the delay was caused by “operational reasons.” That was a catchphrase intended to excuse the inefficiency and incompetence of the airline officials. No one understood what the crew member meant by the phrase “operational reasons.” The real cause of the delay came exactly one hour and 45 minutes later. When he finally arrived, the captain explained he overslept because his alarm clock did not go off. It was hilarious but a serious slip-up.
Beyond these infractions, there are other more serious aspects of domestic and international air travel in Nigeria that require urgent attention. One of them is the constant and irritating request for money by airport security staff whose responsibility it is to screen passengers and their hand luggage. At each of the airports in the country, you will find airline security staff who beg for money as they screen passengers and their luggage. This is a dangerous practice that compromises passengers’ safety. As soon as you drop your hand luggage and other personal items into the electronic scanner, you will hear the security staff mutter words like: “Anything for us, sir?” “Any spare naira for us, sir?” Or: “Have a wonderful weekend, sir” (even when it is still midweek).