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Wow. Thank you, Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero for putting the Vice President Namadi Sambo in his place. If the Emir had not been the victim, on Monday, May 23, when Sambo went to commission the domestic lounge of the Mallam Kano International Airport, the Vice President would have gotten away with his effrontery. The pre-event meeting with the Emir in his palace, which was scheduled to begin at 10 am was kept on hold, with all other dignitaries waiting, until the Vice President arrived at 1 pm, three clear hours late. The protocol at official Nigerian events is that the programme cannot commence until the “big government man arrives”. The bad news is that the “big man” always arrives terribly late. The story of Sambo’s lateness did not indicate if he offered any apologies, but even if he did, that would be most unusual. Nigerian state officials as a matter of habit, expect people to wait for them, and they don’t take kindly to be being humiliated, mixing up something as harmless as the order of protocol for recognitions (takes like an hour at every event!) could generate a protest. I was once chided for failing to refer to a Governor as His Excellency!

Usually, you get to know that the “big man” is on his way, the moment some dark-goggled fellows, wearing dark suits, walking like they own the event arrive to ask for the organizers and the master of ceremony. They are called the advance team, and the size of that team is a function of the status of the man or woman in question. Where there are more than one state Governor, Ministers and such big men and women, you could have the whole place littered with protocol officers. Event organizers are always happy to see them because their presence is some assurance that the invitation cards have been honoured; however, advance teams are always disruptive.

They insist on changing the seating arrangements, and more than once, I have seen these protocol officers almost exchanging blows as they hustled to get the best seats for their bosses. I didn’t realize, until later, that seating positions on the high table (!) have implications for photo opportunities. Security agents and protocol officers working for Nigerian state officials seem to have been trained to be unnecessarily arrogant and inefficient. But the drama that they put up at public events is no guarantee that their bosses will be punctual. The Emir was lucky. Just three hours? I have been at an event which did not start until six pm, because the “big man” was on his way. Poor school children who had been lined up to receive the man were kept in the scorching sun without food and water. And when the farmer of a fellow arrived, the event kicked off without apologies as if nothing had happened.

When apologies are offered, they are sometimes asinine. I have heard more than one Governor saying that the reason they got late to an event, after keeping people waiting for five hours, was because they had been in Abuja at a meeting with the President who summoned them the night before. Governors like to boast about being summoned by the President as if this is no longer a Federal Republic. The devotion to the concept of African Time- the wrong notion that it is perfectly normal for an African to arrive late because this is the African way of life, is often exported abroad. Once in Tanzania, the Nigerian delegation to an international conference arrived on the last day, rather noisily, and half of the team promptly embarked on a nap in the conference room as discussions progressed!

Event organizers at home try to work around this challenge by advertising two different commencement hours with an hour difference in-between; while the invitation card would read 10 am, media announcements would put the event at 11 am. Actual start time: 11 am or 15 minutes after, the deception is meant to give late comers enough time to arrive. There is nothing more frustrating than an empty hall and nothing more humiliating than having to wait for hours, expecting a programme to start. The Emir of Kano could speak up, because of his status, no ordinary man would have dared talk to the Vice President of Nigeria like that. The Emir not only protested, he pulled rank, and subtly reminded Sambo of his true status: “You have kept me waiting since 10 am and you now come while it is already 1 pm and it is time for prayers. You should know that we are committed to time and we don’t play with it.” Now, mark this: “We the descendants of the late Uthman Dan Fodio and late Sardauna of Sokoto, we were given a sound teaching on how to respect time. When we said this time we will certainly be there as at when due. Therefore, I’m not categorically happy that the Vice president kept us waiting since 10 am and only for him to turn in at 1pm, this is not good.”

Yes, rankadede, it is not good. But Sambo was just being the typical Nigerian big man in public office. So, you may pardon him, Your Majesty. And you know, he not being a descendant of the late Uthman Dan Fodio and late Sardauna of Sokoto may not have been properly schooled in matters like this, but hopefully, he will be willing to learn and mend his ways, and stop coming late to classes! And sir, he tried and showed up. In Nigeria, that is quite an achievement. Under other circumstances, the man could have failed to show up and pleaded that he had to attend to more urgent state matters. What can any traditional ruler do if that were the case? But your point was well made nonetheless.

One of the reasons, really, for the underdevelopment of Nigeria and the failure of policy is precisely this lack of respect for time. It permeates the culture of governance in Nigeria. Files are never treated on time in government departments and agencies because civil servants are busy loitering within the premises for the better part of the day. Have you ever been to any of our government ministries to witness the display of indolence? It is not the “big men” alone that are guilty. Secretaries keep visitors waiting for hours on end, while the boss spends public time and resources chatting with his friends during office hours! Projects are never completed as scheduled; they are deliberately delayed so fresh submissions can be made for variation costs and more funding. Lawmakers spend half of legislative time away from the Chambers, and so as the Sixth National Assembly winds up, so little work has been done, so much has been left undone, and so much money has been spent.

On May 29, a new administration will be inaugurated at Federal and state levels across the country. There are many Nigerians who believe and are unhappy that 12 years of Nigeria’s democracy since 1999 amount to a waste of their time and resources. They want a new dispensation where leaders will be more time-conscious, more productive and transparent and approach the business of governance with the sense of urgency that the moment requires. Second-term Governors tend to use the period as an opportunity to prepare for life after office; constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office, they are not motivated to work hard and so we have seen such Governors sleep-walking through their second term. That must not be the case in the next four years. First-term Governors must be up and doing, one point that has been proven in the 2011 elections is that the Nigerian electorate has learnt to be impatient with non-performing leaders. To say that President Goodluck Jonathan also needs to make haste and manage time and resources carefully is to repeat the obvious. He once promised to “hit the ground” running. He didn’t keep that promise then. He must do so now.

In governance, it is usually the little things that matter most. The people of Singapore have proven this: they planted flowers, swept the streets, threw the pigs out of apartments, forbade people from throwing litter on the streets, arriving late, stealing, shouting and generally misbehaving, and by changing their national orientation, they generated a momentum for growth and development. Nigerian public officials starting from the morning after May 29, must embrace a code of punctuality. Military chiefs used to shut the doors of the secretariats against late comers. We must resolve that any event to which a Governor, Minister or the President arrives late must commence without that so-called VIP. At an event in Lagos, Professor Wole Soyinka, as Chairman of the occasion once declared that the event must start as scheduled and that the Governor who was running late could join the programme whenever he showed up. Like Sambo, the man eventually arrived rather noisily. And when “big men” arrive like that, the programme has to be suspended and the national anthem is repeated. Nonsense. We must put an end to such practice.

Vice President Sambo was in Kano to commission the domestic lounge of the airport. The Emir was not impressed by that either. According to him: “For the last 20 years the Kano International Airport was yearning for government intervention and in this time what the government does is just promises and nothing more, therefore, what is happening at the moment has been the source of worry to the people. What we need at the moment or the airport needs is more than the renovations of the domestic building, we need a total upgrading of this airport that will meet international standard…” Well said, your Majesty. Really, this Emir will do well as a civil society activist. Upgrading the country’s airports is indeed required, as part of a total overhaul of the country’s transportation infrastructure.

The renovation of the departure lounge at Kano is the kind of intervention that the Ministry of Aviation has been occupied with since 2007, and yet virtually every airport in the country is in a state of disrepair. In Lagos, there are no decent toilets, no reliable air conditioning system at the Murtala Muhammed Airport. At the domestic wing of the Abuja International Airport, the carpet at the screening point is so filthy, each time I am required to remove my shoes and step on it, I rain abuses on the Minister of Aviation. Would she use that kind of carpet in her office? Yet at every airport, her photograph is conspicuously displayed. This is Nigeria. Don’t be surprised if she gets reappointed as Minister and later receives a National Honour for renovating airport lounges! Mrs Fidelia Njeze may need to see the Emir of Kano for some home truths.

Written by Reuben Abati.

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