You should have seen me shaking my head in self-pity, as if somebody had just mercilessly slapped me. I had just landed at the “little” Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana, and needed to use the rest room. What I saw startled me. There were about a dozen toilet cubicles. All the doors were standing tall — none was hanging loose. I also saw a row of urinals in sparkling conditions. The rest room was so clean, so odour-free you could comfortably have your lunch in there without endangering your health. Water flowed freely. There was tissue paper in abundance. The lights were bright. Not a single bulb was bad. I used the toilet and walked away impressed — and depressed.
I returned to Lagos the day after and visited the toilets at the “massive” Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA). The first cubicle I opened nearly made me throw up. I covered my nose and retreated. I finally found one that was manageable; the door latch was gone, but since it was the minor business I wanted to do, I soldiered on. To my pleasant surprise, the toilet flushed, and I was grateful. Meanwhile, just in front of the toilets were five cleaners talking on top of their voices about the Belgium-Japan match at the World Cup in Russia. After using the toilet, I walked away depressed. We spend billions maintaining this airport every year.
This experience set me thinking again. I started my opinion-writing career by comparing Nigeria with Europe. I then began consoling myself by saying since the Europeans started their development trajectory centuries ahead of us, comparison was improper. It is like comparing the speed of a five-year-old with that of a teenager. I enjoyed the consolation while it lasted. I decided benchmark us against Asia, with focus on Dubai, Singapore and South Korea. At least, we had similar stories as at 1960 when we began life as an independent country. Comparison with Asia also left me distressed. Their pace of development is such that many Asian countries can now compete with Europe.
I decided to lower the bar further by saying that “after all, we are better than most sub-Saharan African countries”. It got that pathetic. But I have finally decided to stop living in denial. The rest of Africa is fast leaving Nigeria behind. Let me complete my airport stories before I delve into the evidence. It is only in Nigeria that you have two officials checking your passport — first by the DSS and then immigration. I have travelled to quiet a number of countries. Nigeria is just incredible. Only one official checks your passport in Accra, or any other country for that matter. What exactly is the reason for this sickening anomaly in Nigeria? Is this a cherished relic from the military regimes?
I acknowledge that some things changed after Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, as acting president, paid an unscheduled visit to the MMIA. We no longer unzip our bags for searches by officials of DSS, NDLEA and Customs at check-in counters. This primitive practice has stopped. Praise the Lord. However, I still see leaking roofs at the airport, with buckets placed at strategic points to harvest rain water. I will avoid talking about the air conditioning system which works only when it pleases. This is the airport for which passengers pay $60 as service charge to FAAN, the landlords, anytime they buy tickets. This sorry story is similar at other “international” airports. And Nigeria is the Giant of Africa.
I have written only about the Accra airport in comparison to our MMIA so as to contain my frustration. I will intentionally ignore the newly opened Blaise Diagne International Airport, Senegal, the adorable Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, Ethiopia, and the elegant Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport, Côte d’Ivoire. I do not want to inflict myself with hypertension. But the point has to be made that although we like to talk big and act big and claim to have a massive population and humongous petrodollars, we are a disgrace to Africa. We cannot even build modern cubicles for immigration and customs checks!
The efficiency with which airports are run in these other African countries is not even the main reason for this article. While the airports are important as they are central to travel, tourism and trade — in addition to marketing the image of Nigeria — I am more worried about critical things that are happening in other African countries for which Nigeria is shamelessly lagging behind. Ethiopia has launched a metro rail line in Addis Ababa. The project was delivered within six years (despite delays) for less than $500 million. It is the first light rail project in sub-Saharan Africa. It handles 15,000 passengers per hour across 39 stations in the capital city. And Nigeria is the Giant of Africa.
God only knows the billions of dollars we have pumped into railways in the last 20 years with haphazard results, mostly buying toothpick for the price of toothpaste — to quote the immortal Dr Chuba Okadigbo. Only last year, Kenya inaugurated its standard gauge railway project covering about 470 kilometres. It took just three-and-a-half years to build. A presidential term is four years. The terminals look like international airports. Travel time between Nairobi and Mombasa has now been reduced from 15 hours by bus to only four hours and 30 minutes by rail. Imagine being able to travel from Abuja to Lagos by rail within five hours. And Nigeria is the Giant of Africa.
The amazing thing about such audacious and well-executed infrastructure projects is not just that they ease life and business — they also create jobs during and after construction. The direct and indirect benefits are limitless. And, ironically, we do not even have to spend one kobo of our money if we get the framework right. Many African countries are beginning to understand how it works. Asky Airlines has made Lomé-Tokoin International Airport, Togo, its West Africa hub. More than 90% of the passengers are just passing through the airport for onward connection not just to West African countries but also to places such as India, US and Brazil. And Nigeria is the Giant of Africa.
In 2005, Nigeria launched the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) with a promise of “universal coverage” by 2015. That means all Nigerians, with emphasis on the poor, will be enrolled on the scheme so that they do not have to pay cash for medical treatment. Rwanda came to study our NHIS some years later. Today, Rwanda has achieved nearly 100% coverage and statistics on maternal and infant health are among the best in the world. Nigeria? We are stuck at 3% — and we got that far because of the compulsory enrolment of civil servants. NHIS is now more about billions of naira to be manipulated by government officials and HMOs. And Nigeria is the Giant of Africa.
Maybe I should stop talking infrastructure and focus on governance. The prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, during the week sacked five senior prisons bosses accused of human rights violations and other misconduct. The government said the needs of prisoners had not been adequately met and their human rights had not been respected. In Nigeria, thousands of people are languishing in police cells all over the country, routinely subjected to torture. We either deny or ignore it. Tens of thousands are in prison awaiting trial for years under the most inhuman conditions. They are transforming to living skeletons. No one ever gets punished. And Nigeria is the Giant of Africa.
Lest I forget, President Peter Mutharika of Malawi is currently being investigated by the country’s anti-graft body over allegations that he received kickback from a $3.9 million contract. The entire cost of the contract is not even up to the pocket money (also known as “security vote”) of many Nigerian governors. In Nigeria, we can’t probe a former president much less a sitting one. In Kenya, Busia county governor Sospeter Ojaamong has been charged to court for awarding a contract that was not included in the budget. Can you imagine that? Who cares about what is in the budget in Nigeria? Just take the money and spend like crazy. We are the Giant of Africa.
Still in Kenya, the public prosecutor last week ordered the arrest of two farm managers and government officials over a dam that collapsed and killed more than 47 persons two months ago. The nine government officials would be prosecuted for manslaughter and neglect of duty. Who holds anybody responsible for anything in Nigeria? In 2014, 16 young Nigerians died during a badly organised recruitment by the Nigeria Immigration Service. The minister of interior, Abba Moro, described them as “unruly”. Why not? He knew he would not have to resign, neither would anybody hold him responsible for the deaths. And Nigeria is the Giant of Africa.
In the year 2001, poorly stored bombs went off at the Ikeja Cantonment, spreading panic all over Lagos. Over 1,000 lay dead at the end of the unprecedented mishap. President Olusegun Obasanjo visited the scene a few days later and famously asked an agitated protester to “shut up”, boasting that he was not even supposed to be in Lagos in any case. The world leader that he was, he was scheduled to be outside the country looking for the legendary foreign investors. Ain’t we lucky he came down to earth to visit Lagos over the tragedy? In the end, nobody resigned and nobody was punished over the catastrophe. That is the way we roll.
President Muhammadu Buhari recently said he ordered the inspector-general of police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, to relocate to Benue state following the internecine killings in January. The president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and commander-in-chief of the armed forces later said he did not know that the IG was not in Benue as ordered by him. In other news, Idris was photographed cutting a giant birthday cake and having fun elsewhere while Benue was burning. He would not resign and nobody would sack him. That is our culture. That is the way we do it here. We are the Giant of Africa. We have moved from being a role model in 1960 to becoming a laughing stock. What hit us?