THIS CAN'T BE RIGHT

PHOTO: NIGERIA'S MURTALA MUHAMMED INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.
PHOTO: NIGERIA'S MURTALA MUHAMMED INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.
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We had just arrived from Johannesburg, from the new and improved Oliver Tambo International Airport, and found our way from the aircraft to the immigration reception area at Murtala Muhammed Airport. It was like moving from a clean, gilded palace to an ancient hut. The escalator did not work. The air conditioners were off. It was as if we had just missed our way from Heaven to Hades. Just behind the immigration desks, at the far right corner, the slightly elevated floor where the payment point for trolleys used to be before it was moved further down the corridor (Nigeria probably has the only airports in the world where people still have to pay for trolleys, such type that looks like something made by 15th Century blacksmiths!), on that floor, right there, lay about six men, snoring, their shoes laid out in a conspicuous corner.

Our noise making must have roused them. One by one they woke up. Stretched, yawned. And then they went down the passage to the toilet and returned. Meanwhile, we were in that early morning heat waiting for our luggage, the old fashioned carousel cranking to life epileptically and going off again. The bedroom behind the immigration point was soon re-arranged. Before our very eyes, it became a mosque. The men started praying. I watched the spectacle, not amused at all. Done with the prayers, they started changing into official uniforms, to start the day’s work. I tried to go closer. I heard one of the men breaking the wind so loudly, I felt embarrassed. Their shoes smelled. This can’t be right. Should we wait till Christians also set up shop on the other end of the immigration floor and create confusion at the airport? No.

This should not be the kind of spectacle that welcomes anyone to a country. If airport staff must sleep overnight in restricted areas, let them be given a room, and not located at the main entry point where they assault people’s sensibilities, with their sleeping, snoring, and yawning. It just ain’t right. In many decent airports, there are rooms or designated sleeping areas, not the immigration point. There are of course too many things that are not right at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport: the luggage that takes forever to arrive, the antediluvian look of the airport (that place is disgraceful), the terrible toilets, the odoriferous tang; the sloppiness of the staff and how Nigeria welcomes everyone, citizens and visitors alike, with characteristic inefficiency. Outside the airport is of course worse. And to think that there are some clowns going about claiming stupidly that they are in charge of that laughable structure! It can’t be right. But all of this is a metaphor for the failure of infrastructure and of leadership that assails Nigeria.

There were a few Nigerian leaders at the airport that morning but I bet they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. One major problem with our country is that of our leaders having lost their moral compass. And it is a tragic thing for our society. And to show just how tragic that is, consider the following:

We are in a global context right now whereby many countries are trying to cut losses and introduce national cost-saving measures. For example, a wave of austerity measures sweeps through Europe. The various countries from Greece to England are struggling to cut down budget deficits, to minimize leakages and wastages, a necessary price to be paid for the global financial meltdown, a crisis necessitated by capitalist greed and the over-privileging of the so-called efficiency of the market. The limits of the market society have now been exposed, and European nations are being forced to rein in their greed and their consumptiveness, but the required sacrifice is being made by everyone: ordinary citizens are losing benefits, government officials are losing privileges and state institutions are being reconfigured.

Nigeria faces a similar crisis: states are so cash-strapped that the excess crude account and the foreign reserves are almost depleted in order to keep the states going. The Nigerian state is now set to borrow funds to keep the country moving on an undefined path. The people are feeling the brunt, and the government recognizes that the crisis exists, but again in addressing the problem we are confronted afresh with the absolute refusal of the leadership to accept responsibility. The same Federal Government that says there is a financial crisis in the country and which proposed a supplementary budget to redefine expenditure priorities is now asking for a sum of 10 billion Naira to celebrate Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary.

It is definitely not right to spend such a humongous amount to celebrate 50 years of failure! The breakdown of the proposed expenditure is even more gauche. N350 million has been earmarked for the National Unity Torch and Tour: N350 million just to carry a torch around the country? How ludicrous? They want to light up a country with a torch where there is no regular power supply. N20 million has been earmarked for what is called Children’s Parliament- certainly this is money to be stolen by adults! Another N20 million is meant for a party for 1,000 children. Their children! Presidential banquet is to take all of N40 million. Yet we are not hosting the World Cup!

And on top of it all, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, who strangely now occupies an official position that is unknown to the Constitution, collects N50 million just to go on a visit to prisons, hospitals and elderly people’s homes. N40 million for National Food Week! And N1.2 billion to place adverts in local and international media and another N320 million for local publicity. N200 million is to be set aside for a football match to mark the golden jubilee. Logistics is to take N320 million! To design the anniversary logo, N30 million has been earmarked. What kind of logo is that? Ghana, next door, spent a sum of $200 million (about N300 million) to mark its 50th anniversary in 2007. The bulk of that cost was supplied by the private sector and more money was spent on legacy projects and the development of infrastructure.

The Ghanaians started planning their own event two years earlier; we are starting at the last minute. In April, Senegal spent less but even that was controversial and in May, Cameroun spent even less to celebrate its golden jubilee independence anniversary. Nigerian leaders are not looking at meaning and values. For this same event, it has now been revealed that the Yar’Adua government budgeted just about N62 million ($423, 000). But under Jonathan, the leaders are on a spending spree. Members of the National Assembly are asking openly and shamelessly that the capital vote in the budget should be shared out to them. The Reps want about N48 million per quarter; the Senators want more. Is it right as we have been told, that the Senate president goes home annually with about N2 billion? Some committee chairmen earn as much as N312 million! In a country where public infrastructure has failed, where the education system has collapsed, where the health sector is bad, this definitely can’t be right.

If this amount were to be used to build infrastructure and give Nigeria a proper international airport, to make our airports so well laid out, they will not become bedroom for laggards, it would have been money well spent. Information Minister Dora Akunyili has tried to put up a spirited defence with regard to the N10 billion scandal (that is precisely what it is) but she is unconvincing. To reshape our democracy, we must ensure that the governance arena is no longer a market where politicians seek desperate profit, but a market for values and service.

When ordinary Nigerians hear that some Senators and Reps collect such heavy amounts, their faith in the democratic system is further shaken. The profligacy of the ruling elite can’t be right; not even a 50th independence anniversary can justify it. Rather than engage in shameless defensiveness, the Jonathan administration should recall the supplementary budget and scale down the scope and cost of its proposed jamboree. It is just not right that every other country appears more value-driven than Nigeria, always and embarrassingly.

Only yesterday, the Super Eagles disgraced us again losing 2-1 to Greece at the World Cup – that team should be disbanded forthwith. We could do better than this and we thought Goodluck Jonathan knew better.

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