Having just experienced Nigeria for myself for the first time in several years, I am convinced there can be neither change nor true progress without a fundamental attitude shift by Nigerians.
That includes the very government of President Muhammadu Buhari, the byword of which is change.
My first proposition is that Nigeria is sadly less secure in mid-2016 than it was in mid-2015. Yes, there is greater potency in the nation’s onslaught on Boko Haram. As we celebrate our relative success, we must keep in mind that the militant group was the unanimous enemy of everyone to begin with, and that we are not counting the human rights costs of our onslaught at this time.
But Boko Haram is hardly news now, as we have since managed to acquire the menace of vicious killers being mistakenly referred to as herdsmen, and the Niger Delta Avengers. I say mistakenly because I do not understand when herdsmen in rubber slippers started reading AK47 manuals and GPS maps as they step in and out of cow dung.
Even if you took those two groups out of the picture, there remain such crimes as robbery and kidnapping that have in the past year shown scant acknowledgment of Buhari’s arrival. Nigerians continue to be robbed at will, or kidnapped for ransom, leading to embarrassing travel advisories abroad about Nigeria.
All of this is happening at a time that Nigeria, on the back of as much happenstance and of questionable policy choices by the Buhari government, investor flight and a collapsing Naira, totters into a recession.
What the insecurity implies is that even if Nigeria were to come up with improved policies capable of turning our fortunes around, prospective investors will not be hurrying back.
Making our prospects even more daunting is that business-as- usual in Nigeria officialdom has not changed, leading to under-performance and pretend-productivity, and therefore, misplaced hope.
Let me demonstrate this point with two key sectors of Nigerian life and economy: Works and Transportation.
Last Wednesday in his capacity as Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi undertook a test-run of the Abuja-Kaduna rail line, and pronounced it ready for commissioning. Photos from the event showed the Minister riding one of the trains in pristine—and I presume, secure—circumstances.
Will the train stay that way? Will the same train look anything like that just one year from now? I doubt it, and I use our aviation sector, which is also under Mr. Amaechi, as an example.
There has never been true security at our nation’s airports. At Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe International eight days ago, I went through electronic scanning three times ahead of a local flight to Benin City.
Not one of those scanners reacted to individual items on my person that had set off alarms elsewhere: not one. If you travel by air, I invite you to consider baiting the system as I did; the life you save may be yours.
Beyond security concerns, I experienced at that airport in Abuja the most indefensible civil aviation practices imaginable. Yes, owing to “operational reasons” my flight was delayed by several hours. Yes, information about flights was often unavailable.
But these are apparently daily airline experiences passengers that have become routine, principally because there are no alternatives, no competition, and no commitment.
But there is the other side: the shameful—or should that be shameless?—travel and facility management that has become a national characteristic. Why do we call our major airports “international” when they are often the same standard as urban markets, and passengers are treated like criminals?
For the five hours, I was at the Abuja Airport—and we should stop insulting Zik by using his name in connection with that facility—temperatures were in the 80s. But it was even hotter inside the Departure Hall, where passengers are denied air-conditioning, and where the stench of layers of stale or drying sweat mixes with semi-baked human skins to produce an embarrassing atmosphere.
Over in International Arrival on my way into Abuja days earlier, the immigration and baggage claim areas had been the same sad and inhuman conditions the Lagos Airport has become famous for.
That was despite four giant air-conditioners one could see as he waited for clearance. None of them was turned on; perennial excuses on the walls attributed the sweltering conditions to ongoing improvement work. Improvement in perpetuity? How much money does the Nigeria government swindle in passenger fees every year for which passengers obtain only pain and suffering?
On each of my trips to the Abuja airport, there was no electricity failure; in the congested local departure hall, a few fans were on futile duty. What is truly amazing is that air-conditioning is available in side rooms such as the “Protocol” lounge where shameless and unconcerned government officials and their girlfriends spill into luxury couches at public expense.
But that is not the worst of the Abuja Airport travel. When you step into the restrooms, it is at your peril: the worst experience you can have in an airport, including war-ravaged Somalia, and I apologize to every Somali.
Those restrooms are not maintained and are never really cleaned; the strategy seems to be to mask the filth and the odor. There are cleaners hanging around, and periodically, they step in and empty chemicals and water into everything and everywhere. The place is so wet and so repugnant your life begins to flash before your eyes. You remember, for sure, whether you have a will or not. Personally, I will now avoid any foreign friends who admit traveling through Abuja Airport.
This practice, the general neglect of public goods and services, is shameful because it is often controllable and changeable within existing resources. In addition, if government officials lacked hideaways such as the infernal “Protocol” lounges where they indifferently lounge away from their callousness and inefficiencies, they would do something. It is the story of every Nigerian public enterprise where those who are in a position to solve actual problems are insulated from them.
On account of my air travel experience, I returned to Abuja by road: a distance of some 270 miles that should ordinarily take about four hours. It now takes about seven.
The road is so bad in some places, and driving practices so dangerous, it is a miracle there isn’t an accident every minute. You stay sane by closing your eyes and listening to a radio station in your head. On that one day, I counted about eight haulage trailers that had spilled over, the trucks completely broken, and their goods damaged. The annual losses to the economy ought to make the federal cabinet weep weekly if anyone cared.
Perhaps we can rebuild our roads and bridges and hospitals and schools. But who manages them: the same officials who hideaway in privilege in pompous lounges, government jets, and false schedules?
Something is fundamentally wrong. The Buhari government owes the Nigerian people change, and it has no option. But you cannot construct truth on falsehood. If our attitudes do not change, change will elude us. If we do not take our fate in our hands, nobody can save us, or change us.
If change is to be more than an electoral slogan, the obvious point is to begin from the bowels of the government: by sucking indolence and indifference from power.