My 2008 Visit to Nigeria (Lagos)
Leaving for Nigeria from London, I felt like I was already in Nigeria by the time I got to my terminal at Heathrow Airport. I was hearing the different wonderful dialects and felt at home already. My feeling was accentuated when the call for boarding was made, and everyone rushed to the gate as if the plane won’t fit all the passengers…Naija mentality! After alighting from the plane at Murtala International Airport in Lagos, the heat wave overwhelmed me and served as a sharp contrast to the cold in London (or the US for that matter). I was officially home. I waited for my luggage for over an hour and couldn’t reach my dad because the phone network kept failing. One would expect all this to diminish my excitement but I was just too happy to be returning ‘home’. I guess you learn to embrace certain faults within the system with the hope of progress. Ironically, I was amazed when I didn’t have to bribe any of the customs officials to exit the airport.
What's the situation?
Having been to Lagos in December 2007, returning in December 2008 didn’t bring much expectations regarding progress. Some ills are still overwhelmingly present: traffic, NEPA, corruption, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, etc… However, as I assimilated the state of affairs, I realized a paradigm shift in the way things were being done. It seemed like someone woke up and decided to revamp Lagos. Governor Fashola should be commended, and Tinubu deserves a part on the back just for selecting Fashola. I heard a young kid from Ogun State on TV (during one of those shows where they ask them to give shout-outs) say Fashola was his idol...I can't recall when last I heard a Nigerian say a politician was his idol. Obviously, there is still plenty of room for improvement, but I was just utterly impressed by the amount of positive change that had taken place within a year. Would I dare say “Lagos is now in alignment with its destiny”? I wish I could speak for the whole of Nigeria, but my experiences were limited to Lagos State.
I had a chance to reunite with some old friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in almost a decade…it was a thing of beauty. Attitudes just remain upbeat even in some very disturbing circumstances. I heard some good stories and some bad ones. However, just from my interactions with these people, I couldn’t have discerned who was going through hell and otherwise. I guess that’s why BBC reported a few years ago that Nigeria had the happiest people on earth.
We are bankers!
Maybe it’s the fact that everyone’s a banker that makes them happy…lol! Seriously, it bothers me that so many talented individuals who studied engineering, medicine, biology, and other ‘non-commercial’ majors in university work at banks. Although the pay situation encourages such, it doesn’t bode well when people aren’t practicing their professions. The problem will arise if the banking sector dies down, which is possible; in that case, the nation will have a bunch of intelligent individuals with virtually no experience in their educated fields seeking employment. How can people fulfill their destinies if they can’t even explore their passions?
The first thing that got me hooked in Lagos was the Naija music. The radio stations seemed to play more indigenous music over foreign ones and it was refreshing to have some originality in the local music scene. In fact, I hadn’t listened to hip-hop for a while before my trip to Nigeria; that changed once I heard music from a certain Nigerian artist called “Mr. Incredible (M.I.)”. The guy is Naija’s version of Kanye West in the diversity of his style and the deep message he delivers. In addition to the better Naija music being produced, the quality of the music videos has improved dramatically. I’m now a proud fan of Naija music. I believe it’s time for Nigeria to start exporting some of its music…it’s time to align with our entertainment destiny!
Party like Rock Stars...
I quickly realized how much partying ‘Lagosians’ did as there were multiple wedding / birthday invitations every weekend. In fact, some parties were held during the week because locations were overbooked on weekends. Some of these weddings were so elaborate that I wonder how much sense it makes to spend so much money on a wedding. Does it make sense to spend upwards of N20 million (approx. $125,000 depending on the exchange rate) on a wedding? I leave that to the families involved to decide. I just think it would serve the couple well if they received some of that money to start their family. A portion of that money could help propel a newly wedded couple into their destiny.
I attended a conference here in the US where a panelist said Ethiopian food is the best. Although I haven’t tasted Ethiopian food, I was confident that he was wrong. I must confess that I am biased toward Nigerian food. Even at parties, where the food is mass-produced, the delicacies are impressive. The fast foods also present very well-dressed and delicious meals.
On to some more serious issues!
‘Nigerian Electric Power Authority (NEPA)’, the term many are familiar with to mean “Never Expect Power Always” has now been transformed into ‘Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN)’. While the idea to privatize the Electrical entity is great, the implementation of the idea has been lackluster. Power still fails Lagosians daily as many people have to rely on generators and candles to light up their homes. In fact, when I approach our estate at night, I can’t determine from afar whether or not there is Power because everyone seems to have a generator. Now, imagine how much noise pollution is generated at night when everyone has their generator on. I don’t even want to imagine how much air pollution is taking place with all the fumes from the exhausts of the generators. But then again, the Power issue is actually a national issue. The idea of Independent Power Plants (IPPs) seemed plausible, but for reasons beyond me, it is a dead horse. The whole idea was to create independent plants to power regions as opposed to the National grid. However, since so much has been invested into the dysfunctional national electric grid, the Federal Government obviously has reservations towards the IPPs. Alongside education, I believe Nigeria’s destiny is tied to consistent supply of electricity. So as long as this issue is not fixed, we cannot tap into our true potential in terms of industrialization, small-business development, and growth.
The Tourist's Perspective...
So as I took pictures of basically everything I thought was fascinating (which was pretty much everything), it made me more aware of my surroundings. I noticed that many of my friends had come to terms with certain inadequacies and I constantly heard “you know I never thought about that.” Basically, many of them had reached a point where they now considered abnormalities to be normal.
On the flip side, many good things are happening. In fact, my overall impression of Nigeria is that it will model after Lagos and progress is already inevitable. Forget corruption! The Lagos State government is performing in spite of it. The state roads are in drivable conditions, the highways were beautified for the holidays, street lights were functioning, traffic lights were operating and obedience enforced, waste management efforts are purposeful, coordinated public transportation system has been implemented, and dedicated public transport (“BRT” – Bus Route Transit) lanes were effectively utilized. There were also less noticeable elements such as the “meat carriers” that transport perishable meat products under ideal temperatures, “emergency response locations” that are strategically placed on certain roads, a revamped fire department, the publication of government officials’ contact information to create direct communication with citizens, plans for light-rail, and plans for a “commercial island (Eko Atlantic)” to act as a business hub.
We want development, but where's the money?
One thing many people forget is that each state has a budget and with the enormity of issues that need to be dealt with, there are insufficient funds. However, Lagos is being creative with fundraising by partnering with private entities and selling bonds. While this is a plausible way to raise funds, there is obviously risk involved because the government now has to pay the interest on the bonds. Let’s not also forget that some of these private entities are foreign institutions (mostly Chinese) that have ulterior motives. In my opinion, these foreign entities should partner with local organizations, or at least hire a certain percentage of local staff so that our own people could be employed and learn. In the name of growth, we can't sell our destiny to the Chinese!
With all the good, I still had to deal with the exorbitant amount of money spent on calling cards and the spotty networks that cause many to patronize multiple phone service providers simultaneously. I also witnessed a mindset that said it was ok to litter since there were state employees that cleaned the roads. The dumbest thing I witnessed was the federally mandated rule that stated that all passengers on motorcycles needed to wear helmets. The problem with this rule was that it didn’t take into account the fact that helmets are not conducive for sharing (and passengers can’t carry personal helmets around since they may not even anticipate utilizing motorcycle transportation). Another gaffe in the rule is the fact that it didn’t provide any clear guidelines regarding the helmets; this meant people using construction helmets and hard hats, which probably pose a greater risk in the event of an accident. While the initiative was sound to try to protect motorcycle riders, it is a very ineffective policy.
When it was time to return to the US, I felt very reluctant...but money was running out fast so I made the long trip back. I started hearing the saying “Eko o ni baje; o baje ti” meaning something like “Lagos will not go bad; it never will.” I say “Amen” to that and add that “Nigeria will reach its destiny!”