by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago
Culled from NEXT Newspapers
At a friend’s birthday party, we sat around a table discussing the deplorable state of our country’s Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Over and over again, we used the words “disgraceful”, “unacceptable”, “shocking” and “shameful”.
Everyone had a horror story to tell: the excruciating heat that hits you as soon as you get off the plane; stumbling over missing floor tiles in airless corridors; confusion about which of the two unmarked conveyor belts will deliver your luggage; waiting for luggage to arrive on groaning, aged conveyor belts; trying to manoeuvre your trolley with its one creaking wheel… My African-American friend narrated how she arrived in Lagos at 5am, in the middle of an hour-long power failure where, the immigration area, that looks more like a bank lobby, was jam-packed with angry passengers whose passports could not be scanned. Airport staff tried to control the situation by shining torches, as more and more passengers spilled into the pitch black arrival hall.
Each time I travel, I get so totally fed up that I vow to write a very strongly worded letter to our minister of aviation, insisting that the condition of ‘gateway’ into our country, MUST be addressed NOW! I’ve visited well run airports in Abidjan, Marrakesh and Entebbe—countries that don’t have half the resources we boast of in Nigeria, ‘The Giant of Africa’.
Unfortunately, my righteous anger dissolves as soon as I struggle my way out of the terminal and become completely engulfed in the sea of humanity waiting outside. Disgruntled friends, family, employees, hangers on and touts have waited for hours, in rain or shine, without anywhere to sit, to welcome weary passengers.
I fight my way on to the exit ramp, where cars stop illegally to pick up sweaty and rumpled passengers who simply refuse to walk the 15 minutes to the disorganised and overcrowded car park. The policemen bow in my direction with their knowing, “Madam, anything for the Boys?” smile. Finally, I collapse into the back of my car, press a damp N500 note into the hands of the harassed security guards with a feeble, “Make you manage this one”, roll up my window for the air-conditioning to blow away my ‘back-to-Lagos-blues’, and somehow try to resurrect fading memories of my holidays abroad.
Daily, thousands of Nigerians arrive home and go through these same angry emotions, only to find that our burning indignation quickly dissipates as we begin dealing with the daily crisis management and struggle for survival in this great country of ours.
When are we going to get irritated and hot enough to actually rise up and demand a change?
In December, my husband and I decided to take our children home to Asaba, to attend a family reunion. It was the worst ARIK flight ever. We were seated about five rows from the back of the plane, and the air-conditioning was not working. After waiting almost an hour in the sweltering heat, with the nicely turned out crew apologising for our discomfort and assuring us that we would soon be airborne, the plane finally took off. The higher the plane climbed, the more the temperature dropped and everyone simply fell into an exhausted sleep.
After our colourful four-day hometown visit, we flew back from Benin to Lagos on December 29, and to our horror, we were ushered back into a steaming plane with malfunctioning air-conditioning. While sitting in the steaming aircraft for the about 45 minutes before the flight eventually took off, a few passengers and I began to cry out loudly to the crew, who tried their best to keep the situation under control. My asthmatic 15-year-old daughter, who sat quietly gasping for air, had willed herself to fall into a fitful sleep. People were fanning themselves wildly with emergency procedures laminated cards. The crew apologised over and over again.
But this time, I knew it was just a well choreographed charade. As my temperature rose, so did my anger. By the time we landed in Lagos, I annoyed my weary fellow passengers by demanding to see the pilot before disembarking the plane. The cockpit door flung open like the door to a sauna, and a sweating co-pilot emerged, who quietly listened to my irate complaints. Afterwards, he urged me to write the airline, as they too were suffering from the excruciating heat.
I stared at him in disbelief. “So, what would happen if you fainted from the heat in that cockpit of yours?” I shouted. “This is a health and safety hazard!” I kept using the words “disgraceful”, “unacceptable”, “shocking” and “shameful”. By this time, frustrated passengers were making unsavoury noises behind me, saying things like, “Let this mad woman commot for road before we all quench in this frying pan.”
Nigerians have been attempting to overcome the heat by falling asleep. Many of us have worked even harder at creating our own ridiculously expensive infrastructure to create a semblance of normalcy and hide ourselves within air-conditioned bubbles. We ignore the fact that the laminated security procedures cards we are using to fan ourselves are worn, bent, and simply unable to replace national infrastructure that has not been maintained for over 30 years. Meanwhile, our national resources are being blatantly squandered. The few brave souls who have actively taken on the authorities and demanded a change, have not been supported by the majority who simply look away and try to figure out how to reach our objectives within a system that does not work.
When will we be hot enough to insist that basic infrastructure and national symbols, such as our airports, are improved and maintained? When will we be hot enough to vote in responsible leaders who will address our nation’s rising heat?
Sandra Obiago is the Founder/Director of Communicating for Change.