Monday, July 31, 2017. 23:00GMT
Nigeria International Airports Worse Than Nightmare

As everyone does upon arrival in an international airport, I strode forward when it was my turn and handed over my passport to the immigration officer.

It is a simple ritual that is enacted millions of times a day across the world: the officer scans your passport, if he or she is satisfied, you get back your document, free to enter that country.

The scene was Nigeria's Murtala Muhammad International Airport (MMIA), Lagos. I had luggage, so I was making a beeline towards Baggage Claim.

"Stop!" "Come back!" "Where are you going?" What are you doing?" "Hey, hey!!"

It took a moment to realise I was the object. One angry uninformed person screamed I had not seen an IO. I said I had.

"No, no, no," I was told, "go and see that officer!"

More curious than anything else, I went to him. Why did I need to see two immigration officers? I asked him.

"That is not an immigration officer," he explained, "that was an SSS."

Understanding dawned: the secret police, still imperiously trying to get their hands on certain critics of a long-gone government. Curiously there was no EFCC official trying to get his hands on any of those who stole Nigerians blind.

Welcome to MMIA, once a source of national pride. It is now but a glorified motor park, continuing its deterioration into the worst-maintained, most unfriendly and most dysfunctional node in air travel.

As almost everyone knows, MMIA, after which other local airports are modelled, is overcrowded. It would have been nice if, as an international airport, it was being overcrowded by foreign visitors bringing business or hope.

It is not. The airport is overrun by touts, most of whom have officious-looking uniforms and identity cards. It is the most dubious and underachieving facility, and the real accomplishment of the layers of pseudo-officialdom is a siege atmosphere that frustrates travellers and investors.

Consider this: On my way to Lagos, I had checked in at an airport where I wheeled my two mid-sized pieces of luggage to the desk, guided only by bold signs in the Departure Hall.

There were two people at that desk: the first checked me in and handed me my travel documents, the other affixed the tags on my luggage and sent them on their way on the baggage carousel. Time spent: three minutes.

At MMA, that same process took NINE members of the airline staff-four of them falling over themselves to "help" me with the same two pieces of luggage-and about 20 minutes. I did not need any help but those four, identifiable by their uniforms, insisted. Everyone, including the two customs officials, wanted money.

Check-in was otherwise easy, the desk clerk handling it with the same aplomb as had her colleague at my departure airport. Standing beside her was her baggage handler, but his job was fully manual because the automatic conveyor belt no longer works. They were the only two who did not request or suggest money.

This explains the chaos at peak check-in at MMIA. In an airport with a history of no air-conditioning, the place then exudes that forlorn, menacing and oppressive character. There is also constant power failures at the Lagos MM International airport.

Watch the direct power outage in MMIA at:

This overloading of the check-in process by some airlines provides the first explanation of the overcrowding at our airports. For some reason, they have bought into the Nigerian public service practice of hiring 10 underpaid persons where two or three would do a flawless job.

Add to that the layers of officials employed by an army of shady pseudo-government agencies. Add in various friends and relatives and of shops, restaurants, transportation and currency-related businesses-and almost every non-traveller has a uniform and an ID card even to walk through walls.

This is because Nigeria airports operate on motor park principles. They have more touts and fake officials per square yard than the National Assembly if that were possible.

I often pity visitors who are new to these airports. Everywhere else on earth, after going through Customs, you emerge in an arrival area where someone you know may be waiting for you. Otherwise, you are guided to registered public transportation, including buses and official taxis.

In Nigeria, you step through Customs into a throng, mostly of hustlers, with people grabbing your luggage or your hand. Real airports operate a coloured-taxi system where the traveller waits in a line upon arrival. When he gets to the top, an airport dispatcher alots the next cab and gives him a tag which includes the medallion of that taxi, the time he boarded it, and the identity of the dispatcher himself, thus providing some security for that traveller. The dispatcher maintains a copy of that document.

Not in Nigeria. We toss the traveller into an unregulated, undocumented and dangerous "car hire" free-for-all, over which nobody has either control or responsibility, and which he may walk hundreds of yards to find.

A traveller in such a spot has already marked himself out as expendable, and some people have been known to disappear. But every traveller in the know is quickly met, some in Baggage Claim, and whisked away. It is a self-serve, self-only, good-luck-to-you, system.

But if the Nigerian is still to exist,  we must first grow out of our motor park mindset in the management of our airports and run them as competitive modern institutions to encourage the world to come. What we now have are decrepit facilities that give a bad name to Third World airports. Our inability to provide decent, comfortable, secure and functional airports contradicts our economic ambitions.

A key part of the reason these airports do not work is that those charged with maintenance lack the motivation to work. Their jobs are secure no matter how incompetent they are. In addition, those who have oversight functions never experience the real horrendous conditions of ordinary travellers, as theirs is often the delights of the presidential lounge.

For instance, MMIA, like a true motor park, has no working elevator, not one. But who cares? Who is impressed that every elevator at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg works? Or that no baggage carousels at the Gnassingbé Eyadéma International Airport in Lome makes excuses?

The irony is that while others are thinking years ahead, recreating travel with innovative ideas and boosting their economies by doing so, we are struggling just to be as good as 30 years ago.

The first challenge is to systematically rebuild these airports. There is no other road to the future.

Secondly, I advocate a two-tier international supervision and maintenance system. The first would institute periodic inspection of facilities by managers and engineers; while the second, operating like a secret shopper system, would permit the observation and inspection of the airport and its facilities by consulting companies at any hour of the year. But the most challenging question is: Is Nigeria going to continue to exist?



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