Monday, February 7, 2011

Bribery and the Nigerian Psyche: More from Dowden

More from Dowden:

[b]About Lagos[/b]

Can Khartoum and Lagos be on the same planet, let alone the same continent? While Khartoum dozes safely in an eternal haze, Lagos bursts with dangerous energy. Lagos is like a Hong Kong feeling it's fallen behind, a New York without the good manners. But unlike the prodigious creativity of New York or Hong Kong, the maelstrom of frenetic motion seems like some monstrous machine that has broken its drive shaft, gone into hyperdrive and is whirling intself to pieces. Seems? Impenetrable, incomprehensible to outsiders, Lagos survives. It pulsates. It grows. It works.

So does Nigeria. By any law of political or social science it should have collapsed or disintegrated years ago. Indeed it has been described as a failed state that works. Recalling the image he had used in his novel [i]A Man of the People[/i], Chinua Achebe, Nigeria's celebrated novelist, wrote of Nigeria in 1983, 'this house has fallen.' Maybe, but some peoople are living fabulously wealthy lives amid the ruins. And others survive and get by. How? it's a mystery. The secret lies in the layers of millions upon millions of networks, personal ties, family links, ethnic loyalties, school fraternites, Church connections and scores of other unrecorded, informally organized bonds of trust that make things happen. (This ha its advantages and disadvantages, for one it provide a social security which the government ought to put in place, but the demerits is that it feeds nepotism and cronyism. Lets continue with Dowden) . Forget the government, the formal structures. What makes Nigeria works is a matrix of social, political and economic connections that ensure most people get food and shelter. The hidden wiring also creates Presidents, makes fortunes and prevents wars. But it also ensures that the vast majority of Nigerians are kept outside the ruler-owner circle, never given the chance to fulfill their- or Nigeria's - potential.

A successful Nigeria could transform the continent in the twentyfirst century. Its resources grow more valuable as they become globally scarcer. Among the world's biggest oil producers, it is becoming one of America's main suppliers. Gas too has come on stream and production is expected to double and double again in the decade. Its 120 million plus people- or is it 140 million? The numbers are disputed like everything else in Nigeria- are a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa's population and among them are astonishing talents.

In business, law, science, art, literature, music, sport, Nigeria produces phenomenonally talented individuals as if its superheated society throws up brighter, hotter human beings than anywhere else.

[b]Murtala Mohammed Airport (MMA) [/b]

It is ironic that most people's first experience of Nigeria is MMA at Lagos, named after the only ruler of Nigeria whom almost all Nigerias revere. Murtala Mohammed came to power in 1975 in a coup committed to order and efficiency. The airport named after him became a monument to disorder and dishonesty. Visitors vie with each other to recall their most bizarre and alarming experiences there. In 2000 the pilot of a British Airways flight from London taxiing his Boeing 747 for take off suddenly saw logs in front of him strewn across the runway. He jammed on the brakes and, as the plane juddered to a halt, figures scurried beneath it. they unlocked the hold and unloaded the baggage into trucks before escaping through a hole cut in the perimeter fence. The police arrived a comfortable two minutes later.

Europeans and Americans, coming from lands where spontaneos offers of help are rare, are often enchanted by the warm welcome they receive in Africa. At Murtala Mohammed it can burn you. With smiles wider than their faces men offer to sort out customs and immigration for you, carry your bags or find you a taxi. unsuspecting visitors who have accepted have been robbed, kidnapped and even murdered. Officials in uniform, often the biggest hyenas of all, tell you, 'You are in big trouble. Come with me' and lead you to a side room to explain how the 'problem' can be solved. They keep your passport and say, 'Please wait here, until you pay up. Two hundred dollars is a modest opening bid.

If someone influential does not meet you, you find yourself floundering in a pool of piranhas. It is the same when you leave. Once, after three weeks of exhausting Nigeria, I arrive at the airport carrying a couple of masks I picked up at a tourist shop. While I wait to check in a huge Nigerian family seeing off their daughter joins the queue behind me. The daughter is going off to study in Britain and carries the biggest suitcase i have ever seen. It exceeds her weight allowance. Having very little baggage, I offer to take some of hers. It is a calculated risk. Arrest for being an inadvertent drug carrier at Heathrow seems preferable to being a friendless foreigner at MMA. The family is deeply grateful.

Then I come face to face with a huge, square-faced, scowling woman in the uniform of a customs official. 'open,' she snaps without even looking at me. She gazes with lacy heavy-lidded eyes at my belongings. I usually pack my smelliest washing at the top of my bag when expecting customs trouble but she insists I empty it. She spots the masks and her eyes light up.
'Where is your export certificate?' she demands in the voice of one who has asked an unanswerable question. 'Every item leaving Nigeria needs export certificate from the National Museum -like this.' And she whips a green form from under the counter, clearly kept there for dramatic effect. I try to explain that these masks were made recently for tourists and are not old art, but she knows better. 'this is our heritage that you Europeans are stealing. i shall arrest you." she waddles off telling subordinate, 'arrest this man'. The British Airways staff ignore me, even though I am their passengers. But the family with the daughter going to England weigh in to defend me. The mother turns out to be a solicitor and tears into the customs officials. they are polite but they can do nothing. the boss has gone, leaving orders that must be obeyed. A stupendous slanging match ensues. then the man ordered to arrest me winks at me and helps me repack my bag. I take out my wallet but he shakes his head and points to the departure gate and encourages me to slips away quickly.

I wander casually up the airport concourse still puzzling at Nigeria's ways, while the family and the officials exchange angry insults. After a minute or two the family breaks off the battle and joins me, laughing and celebrating my escape. i am just about to go through immigration when a traffic blow crashes down on my shoulder. I reel round to find myself looking into the eyes of the Amazonian customs chief. 'Where you go now? You under arrest. You have stolen Nigerian heritage property and now you try to escape. you in big , big trouble now. Come!' she shouts, grabbing my arms and dragging me off.

The family grab my other arm and I am pulled in half as I am yanked this way and that across the concourse. A crowd forms. The nice official who had helped me pack intervenes again and has a word in the woman's ear. Then he returns gravely to me. 'she needs an apology' he announces and tells me to deliver it in her office. I assume she could not be seen to take a bribe in full view of all the passengers but would be happy to accept dash in the privacy of her office.
I follow her, clambering over the check-in desks and making my way through dimly lit corridors to her important looking office. She squeezes herself behind her desk and fiddles with some papers. Then she launches into a lecture on the evils of European colonialism and neo-colonialism and the looting of Nigeria's cultural heritage. She makes me promise I will never, ever again try to take any object of art out of the country without a certificate - even if it is bought from the airport tourist shop. I grovel and apologize for my wickedness. A smile breaks across her fearsome features and i reach for my wallet. But she puts up her hand and the smile disappears. She looks shocked. I mumble goodbye and totter towards the door completely confused. Can it be that, after all, this woman, head of customs at MMA is letting me go free? Has the customs department, Nigerian officialdom, Nigeria itself, become honest? As I close her office door, the nice official who had managed my rescue springs the trap. 'fifty dollars for negotiation,' he demands.

I pay.

In the next installment, a member of the Brigade of Guards took bribe from Dowden during his visit to Aso rock to interview OBJ!