Uzokwe's Searchlight

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, P.E



n May of 2016, after a four-year hiatus from Nigeria, my wife and I decided to visit again. The last time I visited was for something painful – to bury my beloved mother. I left Nigeria then with many painful memories that dampened the prospects of future visits by me. This time, though, after overcoming my skepticism about visiting, we were determined to make the visit an enjoyable one.

Our departure date was set for December 13, 2016 and preparations began. On the appointed day, we drove to Washington DC Dulles airport. After checking in and boarding, by the time the 7:00PM hour came around, the wide-bodied Lufthansa 747 jumbo jet was already “kissing” the evening skies headed to Frankfurt Germany. Except for a few moments of air turbulence, when my wife would grab and tightly hold onto my hands as if that would ease the turbulence, the flight was smooth. I later teased her that she was acting in consonance with the biblical admonition that a woman must leave her family, join together with her husband and they shall be one and not even aircraft turbulence would put them asunder judging from the way she held onto me. We laughed about it.

After our layover in Germany, we boarded a Lufthansa airbus and the flight to Lagos Nigeria commenced. The flight was also smooth but just when the aircraft was roughly about 90 minutes to landing, two young men, each with a glass of red wine in his hand, appeared in front of our cabin. One was burly and of average height. He had a series of gold jewelry around his neck and a few tattoos adorned his arms. I had earlier seen him sitting in the business class cabin fully clothed but now he was wearing just a black tank top. I thought to myself that someone who could afford the business class should at least have the decency of not wearing tank tops in an airplane. He seemed to have removed his shirt on purpose to “show off” his tattoos and I wondered if he was aware that not everyone is enamored by tattoos.

The second man was very thin, in fact he looked malnourished. His pants were pulled down below his waist, fully exposing the boxer shorts he was wearing. Both men began a conversation, at first in low tones, but as the minutes passed, they became louder and louder. I must have been sitting about 10 rows away from them but I could hear some of what they were saying. Passengers trying to use the rest rooms located next to them were having hard time going past because they were partially blocking the right isle. With every minute that passed, they grew louder. They must have been there for about 35 minutes when one passenger, sitting closer to them, stood up angrily and addressed them: “Go to your seats,”, he said, “you are disturbing the rest of the passengers”. It was as if he spoke for the rest of the passengers in the cabin because many nodded their heads in agreement and started looking to see what the men would do. The burly man simply said they would lower their voices but the slim one erupted. He claimed to have been insulted by the passenger. Dashing toward the passenger, he boasted: “When the plane lands in Lagos, I will deal with you, you don’t know who I am”. I took one look at a guy who was telling someone that he would deal with him and he looked so malnourished and did not seem as if he could withstand a slight shove. I wondered where he was going to get the strength to “deal with “someone. It would have been laughable if not for the seriousness of what was unfolding.

As if his threats were not getting him the intended reaction from the passenger, he brought out his wallet and slammed it hard on the floor, asking the passenger to take it and see who he was. The sound that resulted from this seemingly choreographed antic drew the attention of passengers in other cabins. A few people at this time gravitated towards them and tried to no avail to get the man to calm down. His burley companion was now trying to make peace, asking his friend to calm down but he had become unhinged and could no longer be controlled. I was sure he was now feeling like Dr Frankenstein that created a monster. Just when we thought that things were quieting down, the seemingly deranged man walked closer to the now frightened passenger, cursing and making all manners of threats. Periodically, he would charge towards the passenger and those around would restrain him. The loudness and threat of physical abuse continued for a couple more minutes. I kept wondering why no Lufthansa staff came to intervene.

When one of the hostesses finally came, she could not talk down this guy. He was eventually forced back to his seat, but periodically, he would let out a very loud yell like someone possessed, complaining that the passenger insulted him and would pay when the aircraft landed. I was very disappointed that there was no Marshall in the craft. I had thought that in this day and age of terrorism, having a secret Marshall in an airplane was part of security measure. If this had been a terror threat, the passengers were basically left on their own. I did not like that.

Eventually, the aircraft landed in Lagos. It turned out that the burly man, sensing what was in store for him and his companion on landing, had hurriedly tried to disembark from the air craft but was intercepted by security officials who were waiting for them at the entrance door. The security folks were contacted by Lufthansa staff while we were still in the air and told about the disturbance so they came to the entrance door prepared to accost the men. As I walked past the burly man, I could hear him asking passengers to vouch for him that he was not the unruly one. He was now fully clothed, his bravado gone and he looked as meek as a lamb with tails tucked in between his legs. As we walked down the air craft gangway, one of the passengers behind me retorted, “these guys don’t need to be detained or arrested. They just need to be given twelve strokes of the cane each. Next time, they will not disgrace Nigeria in front of foreign nationals”. I chuckled. These men disrupted the sleep of many passengers and gave Nigeria a bad name just like internet fraudsters gave the nation an indelible negative mark in global circles.

I want to make a point here. I already mentioned that when the men first appeared in front of our cabin, they had glasses of wine in their hands. They must have been drinking all day in the air craft. May be airlines should revise their policy on serving of alcohol. They must not serve one person more than two small glasses of wine during a flight. I did not believe that anyone in their right senses would behave the way these two men did without being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

We were now in the arrival hall of Murtala Muhammed airport. I was impressed by some of the upgrades they had effected in the hall since I last visited. They now have channelizing hand rails on both sides of the walkway that force passengers to move in single files and in an orderly fashion towards the customs area. While waiting for my turn to go to the custom’s check, I saw a sign on one of the piers that said something like: “Stop corruption” and gave a number to call if one witnessed corruption. It seemed like a good idea. As I ruminated the matter, it was my turn to go to the custom’s officer. I took a few steps forward and was face to face with a young man seated behind a counter. He was prompt and courteous but he kept looking up and smiling at me. “Welcome sir” he said and I responded “thank you”. He then said merry Xmas and I responded also. I thought that was the end of the salutation but when the greeting continued, I stopped responding. He stamped my passport and for the last time looked up at me smiling. Without reciprocating his gesture, I picked up my passport and walked away.

I walked over to the baggage claim and was even more impressed. It also seemed like they had upgraded it since the last time I was there. Four years ago, the place was crowded, muggy and smelly and the conveyor belt was faulty. This time, the conveyor belt was working, the hall looked cleaner and less chaotic. Soon, a guy wearing what seemed like an airport name tag walked up to me and asked how many bags we had because he could get us a big trolley. I told him and he left and came back with a large trolley. We crowded around the conveyor, waiting for the bags to start rolling out but it was taking too long for a single luggage to emerge. Eventually ours came out and were loaded on the trolley. Then the man pulled me aside. In very low tone he said he did not want us to be delayed at the customs check because of our luggage. His point was that if we parted with N50,000 so he would grease the skids with the custom’s guys and our luggage will not be searched. I was alarmed. “It is my right to carry the bags I have and I have no contraband so let’s proceed to the customs, they can search me all they want,” I said fuming. “I just don’t want them to delay you” he said. “That’s okay, I can handle it”, I said. Then he demanded the money for the trolley-N1500. As soon as I gave him the money, he started pushing the trolley towards the customs check.

The custom check-out was a long table with staff of various agencies standing behind it. The first lady, very cheerful, said, “Oga welcome”. I acknowledged with abroad smile. “What did you bring for us”?, she followed up. “Nothing o”, I said, stiffening my face. She looked at me as if trying to size me up. In the final analysis, she did not push it but let me go. The man pushing our trolley proceeded outside and we followed.

When I think of the request for N50,000, I cringe. Right under the very sign that said stop corruption, someone was trying to perpetrate bribery. So if someone had brought in something dangerous or contraband and then handed over N50,000 to this trolley guy, the person would be allowed into the country with it without a search?. In fairness to the customs folks, this guy was not part of them, at least he was not wearing their uniform. He just had a name tag that had the airport insignia and so may have just been speaking for himself. All the same, he was inside the arrival hall where non-passengers were not allowed and had access to trolleys. He also professed to have access to the custom’s folks. Nonetheless, If the war against corruption must work, then video cameras must be sensibly deployed with microphones to capture actions and discussions at these critical points of entry.

Outside the arrival hall, that familiar scent of Nigeria, muggy and dusty, wafted through the evening air and I said to myself, albeit under my breadth: “welcome to Nigeria”. I was loving it. It was good to return again. Everywhere was teeming with people. Those waiting for arriving passengers were milling around. A man in white flowing robe approached us. He was clutching a stack of naira notes in one hand. “Do you want to change money, he asked. “What is the rate?”, I asked. He rattled off the rates. I think he said one dollar to N470. My heart sank! The naira was getting close to worthlessness. I kept wondering what this was doing to the economy and soon enough, I found out. A bag of rice was N24,000. A chicken or hen was N6500. Even a small head of banana, was N700. Remembering that the minimum wage was still N18,000, I felt pity for the Nigerian in the low rung of the economic ladder. How would they be coping in this harsh economic environment. Is Buhari aware of this I wondered? Are Nigerian legislators aware of this? I ask because if they are, they sure have not shown that they are doing anything meaningful to arrest this. We flagged down a taxi and headed to our destination. The Christmas festive mood was in the air. Many places were adorned with Christmas ornaments and I loved it.

Murtala Muhammed airport at night

Paying homage to my parents in their final resting place in Nnewi

Sign says Stop Corruption

Similar channelizing hand rails in the arrival hall passengers to proceed in an orderly manner. The above is in the departur

Waiting for our bags from the conveyor belts

Continued in Part 2