Sometime in May 2013, after a tough year of study at Oxford, three of us – an Englishman, a Spaniard and I – decided to go on a week’s vacation in Rome, Italy. It was on that trip it fully dawned on me what it means to be a Nigerian travelling around the world. We all checked-in online and printed our boarding passes at home. At Heathrow airport, while in line to board the plane, a lady attendant stood at the entrance smiling and courteously letting in all passengers once they have shown their passports and boarding passes. The moment I showed my Nigerian passport, a frown and angry look quickly replaced the cheerful and courtiers looks on her face. She told me to step aside. I was asked many demeaning questions and made to produce all kinds of documents, including my return flight ticket before being reluctantly allowed to board.
If I thought that was the end of my terrible experience, I was wrong. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport, after being cleared, my friends spent the next two to three hours waiting for me to be cleared. I was asked all sorts of demeaning questions, made to produce my return flight ticket, the hotel accommodation (which I didn’t have on me and had to beckon on my English friend to produce for them). It was only after I decided to shorten the humiliation by presenting my University of Oxford student ID card that I was finally allowed to go.
This is just one of the many demeaning treatments I have suffered passing through airports across the world. I can vividly recall on one occasion at Heathrow airport, in 2012 being pulled aside, taken to a room, stripped to my under pants and made to do a full body X-ray scan to check for concealed drugs in my system while being lied to that it was to check whether I had tuberculosis.
Of course, my treatment is not unique. That’s the fate of most Nigerian travellers across the world, not helped by negative image of the country as a haven for drug traffickers, criminals and fraudsters.
Nigeria’s inability to fulfil any of its potentials since independence has not only been a source of disappointment to Nigerians and other Africans, but to the rest of the world, which had looked up to Nigeria, on account of its sheer human resources, as the emerging leader of Africa and the black world. Over sixty years after independence, Nigeria is now known more for criminality, corruption, impunity, and is a global case study of how not to manage a country.
The venerable Nelson Mandela also had that expectation of Nigeria. He reportedly told a Nigerian visitor in 2007: “you let yourselves down and Africa and the black race very badly”. Mandela ultimately believed “the black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.
Well, Mandela’s African National Congress has not fared any better either. Luckily, Mandela was still alive to see how his beloved party was mismanaging the developed state it inherited from the apartheid regime and turning it into an African nightmare. But I digress.
To make up for the disappointment that their countries have become, Nigerians have resorted to celebrating personal brilliance and achievements of its people especially in Europe and America. To also circumvent the terrible treatment meted out to Nigerians at airports around the world, many have resorted to acquiring citizenships and passports of saner countries.
But there is no personal brilliance or passport that will make up for the disaster that Nigeria and a large part of Africa has become. So long as Africa remains a backward continent, renowned only for wars, famine, diseases, corruption, bad governance and brutal dictators, so long the stock of the black man will continue to depreciate. Afterall, as Francis Fukuyama brilliantly puts it, “the development of a capable state that is accountable and ruled by law is the crowning achievements of human civilization”.
It was while being treated like a filthy rag at Rome’s Fiumicino airport that it occurred to me that beyond personal achievements & foreign passports, we desperately need to get Africa working for us to gain respect and be treated as equals in all parts of the country. And that perhaps, also influenced my decision to go into public commentary by prioritising and highlighting the various institutional constraints that are at the heart of the Nigerian and African malaise.
Over the years, I have had people accuse me of unrelenting criticism, focusing only on the negatives and failures of the Nigerian government. I have been variously challenged to also highlight the positives too and commend the government for what it is doing right. Other journalists even talk about doing developmental journalism. While I respect such criticisms and grapple with those thoughts from time to time, I think it boils down to motivation for writing. My main concern is the building of capable states across Africa that “can protect the countries and its people, keep the peace, enforce rules and contracts, provide infrastructure and social services, regulate economic activity, credibly enter into inter-temporal obligations, and tax society to pay for it all”. These can’t be done without strong and enduring institutions. And if there is one feature that runs across all African states, it is the proclivity of rulers to undermine, corrupt and ultimately destroy institutions just so they can personalize power, elongate their tenure or abuse the powers of their offices.
While others are content with praising the government for building a school here, a road or an airport there, or even lowering the price of petrol, I have no appetite for such frivolities. How can I praise the Nigerian government when virtually no institution works and where life, like Hobbes state of nature, is literally nasty, brutish and short? How can I engage in the balancing act when the police, the institution mandated to prevent and prosecute criminals is perhaps, the single largest criminal organization in the world – and everyone knows it, and nothing is being done to reform it? How can I praise the government when the entire security forces of the state, instead of protecting the country, have become the main exterminators of its citizens through unwarranted and wanton killings, massacres and low-key genocides while criminals, terrorists and bandits operate unchallenged and have successfully challenged and broken the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of violence? How can I engage in the trifle game of balancing my criticism and praise when Nigeria is pushing most of its population into extreme poverty at a faster pace than any country in the world and is also travelling down all indices of growth, human and societal development at an alarmingly fast rate?
Of course, there is the argument that previous critics have traveled this same road before only to show, after being invited to the table to eat, that they were only motivated by their selfish interests. Sadly, I hold no brief for such individuals and cannot be blamed for their greed and small-mindedness that think accumulation of personal wealth can somehow protect you from the full impacts of the failure of the state.