This Christmas period or even at any other time, you don’t want to fly into the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja at noon, a time when it seems as if local flights from all over Nigeria make their way to the airport powered only by a one – lane conveyor belt that stretches about 30 feet long. I put myself through this hassle recently and couldn’t help but wonder at the vision of the airport planners named after the Great Zik of Africa, in not anticipating growth and increased passenger traffic from the beginning.
I should have known better not to check in any luggage from Lagos. By the time we arrived, there were already 2 other airlines on ground, whose passengers were waiting for their luggage in the small but overcrowded arrival hall. To describe the scene at the airport as very chaotic that Wednesday afternoon will be like one stating the obvious. There were secondary school students in uniform on their way back for the Christmas holidays, businessmen carrying thick briefcases, politicians in starched Agbada and Babanriga plus other passengers, each one as frustrated and confused as the other, all attempting to squeeze through to catch a glimpse of the malfunctioning conveyor belt in anticipation that it will throw out their checked-in luggage.
The obviously confused and over – worked baggage handlers had a hard time ferrying passengers’ luggage from the belly of the many planes that were now landing in rapid succession, with the few human energy powered rickety baggage carts. In between, one of the handlers will jump out through the open wall space from where they pushed the bags onto the conveyor belt and give the belt a jolt, or a jumpstart, depending on the state of their mind due to the cries, wails, shouts and abuse from the passengers who were left with no other choice but to take out their many frustrations of the flight experience gone sour on the baggage boys. This happened so many times as the conveyor belt which appeared to be suffering from many years of over use and poor maintenance decided that afternoon to stage its own protest by slowing down and even stopping completely.
As we all looked up to the heavens to solve our immediate baggage delivery problems, there were no FAAN officials in sight, either to pacify the passengers or to direct the whole chaotic scene. You would never have imagined that a scene like this will play out in the Abuja airport in 2009. Abuja being Nigeria’s capital city, the strategic importance of its airport can not be overemphasised. For a first time visitor, perhaps a potential foreign investor who may have landed in Lagos and then caught a connecting flight to Abuja, I’m sure this is not the most befitting welcome the President; Musa Yar’Adua would want him or her to have. If it is, then I dare say, it is a most unwelcome one.
Someone needs to tell the President that what happened at the Abuja airport that afternoon does not suggest that Nigeria as a country is any serious about achieving the much talked-about Vision 2020 Agenda. Neither does it indicate seriousness in meeting any of the President’s 7 Point agenda. The government should focus its efforts in making some baby steps, and achieving some quick-wins that will impact directly and immediately on the lives of the average Nigerian going about his daily business. What Babatunde Raji Fashola, the executive governor of Lagos state is doing in Lagos is a case in point. This is not an election year and so all the sloganeering grandstanding should be saved for the next election. This is time for action.
If Airports have managers, then the Abuja Airport manager needs to explain to the travelling passengers and Nigerian taxpayers what effort FAAN is making to ensure that passengers passing through the airport are guaranteed pleasant journeys. Though he or she may have inherited a flawed airport baggage handling design, but still the passengers deserve to know if the FAAN has plans of expanding the conveyor belt because the present system is not working. Bags are pushed onto the conveyor belt, the bags now travel the short distance to the end post and there the journey ends. The belt does not travel round in circle as is the case in other airports. This means that if a passenger fails to pick his or her luggage the first time, then the bag gets thrown off the conveyor belt. It is usually the case that due to the congestion in the hall, not every passenger is able to secure a vantage position close to the conveyor belt to be able to identify his or her luggage during the short journey, as a result, you end up with a situation where several bags thrown off the conveyor belt compete for space with the passengers waiting for their luggage. I think that this should be better organised.
On a different note, an Ambassador of a major European country to Nigeria, a world political and economic superpower was on the same flight with us from Lagos. He was sandwiched in the middle of Row 4 seats by two other passengers. I recognised him immediately and initially wondered what a man of his status was doing in the common man’s economy section. Because I sat two rows behind him, I could see into the first class section and counted several empty seats, I then concluded that his flying economy class obviously was not as a result of non – availability of seats in the first class section. It was deliberate. As we alighted from the aircraft and walked through the tarmac to the arrival hall, I engaged him in banter. I commented on the first class and economy section issue and his response was that the flight had achieved its purpose for him that day, moving him from point A to B, and that it didn’t really matter if he arrived point B on first or economy class. He reminded me of the story of Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London who commutes to work daily with either the Bus or the London underground, thus experiencing first hand what the average Londoner was going through; their views, thoughts, fears and hopes. Such a lesson in humility and simplicity in these trying times of financial uncertainty demonstrates a care for the tax payer and how his or taxes are being spent. The Diplomat clutched only what looked like a diary and didn’t have to go through the hellish experience with us. As I bid him goodbye, I wondered when our very important personalities will learn to shed all the baggage that accompany them each time they take even a short trip to their neighbours, the paraphernalia of office, the retinue of aides, the sirens, the multiple cars, the fuss and all else. From down under, the man on the street is still wondering whose Vision the 2020 Agenda is anyway.